Day 12: Reducing Meaninglessness With One Single Question

Day 12 of 30 days to better mental health

Posted Jan 14, 2015

This series supports the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference I’m hosting from February 23 – 27, 2015. Please get your free ticket to the conference now by visiting And plan to attend!


Each day in this series of 30 days to better mental health I want to propose one simple idea and one simple strategy in support of that idea. If you’d like to view other posts in this series, please visit here:

You might like to ask a friend to join you for these 30 days. The two of you can chat about the ideas I’m presenting and support each other in your efforts to try out some new strategies. You might even want to get a whole group involved!

Today we look at the following.

Clients often come to me with “meaning issues.” They want their lives to feel more meaningful. I begin by asking them several questions, one of which is the following: “In what sense is meaning a challenge for you?” How do they respond? Here are four characteristic responses:

Dorothy responded:

“Meaning has always been important to me and yet when I look at it too closely, or try to describe what it is more clearly, it seems to disappear and then I don’t even know what the word/idea of meaning is or means.  And at this stage of life I want to choose to develop meaning in a direction that can grow through the rest of my life. Perhaps death has been the most ‘meaningful’ (or should I say most impactful) experience of my life. 

“My mom’s recent death feels like it activated losses from the deaths of three other family members, who died before I was 20.  I wonder if I’ve gotten stuck in the ‘impressiveness’ of death and everything else seems to pale in comparison? I wonder if I’m stuck on the negative end of the scale… or is death an entrance into engaging life more fully? I feel like the reality of death has been harsh illumination to my worlds of meaning in the past and I need and want my next meaning framework to be able to stand in that light also.”

Laura responded:

“Meaning has been a challenge for me for many years now; particularly as it has related to my repeated abandonment of vocational directions. I believe myself to be a passionate person, and yet, for some reason, I have never let myself give myself over (and thus generate the sustained energy) to the projects that might lead to valuable contributions, or even to simply be able to claim a ‘work’ that is mine.

“I tell myself I just haven't found my passion, or defined it well, and that is why I lack direction (and end up making meaning-substitutions like care-giving my mother). I also enjoy learning, especially ‘embodied’ learning (tactile arts workshops, field courses, body-work, writing), and this proclivity tends to ‘scatter’ my focus, and keeps me from becoming the presenter/facilitator instead of, yet one more time, the student.”

Marcia responded:

“Meaning has always been a challenge and a calling for me.  Raised in New York City in a completely non-religious, non-observant family, I was always yearning for something larger, deeper, more profound.  I began reading Sartre on my own in my teens.  Now, I will be turning 60 this year and I want to go into this decade, this next phase of my life, with renewed meaning.  And although I have been on a personal journey my entire life, I continue to have that deep yearning and oftentimes find myself in a place that feels dry and alone.  

“It feels like an existential issue more so than hormones or lack thereof. Furthermore I have challenges marketing my services, which I also see as a meaning issue—and a financial one. I am longing for language and structure to help me help myself and others make meaning in our lives in these challenging and exciting times.”

Robert responded:

“The penny dropped for me about eight months ago in terms of making meaning. It was likely due to a kind of tipping point of conscious and unconscious work that I have been doing over the years. Once this notion of having the responsibility to make meaning in my life, or to create my life, fully took hold, there was a wonderful sense of full partnership with all of life. It was not just me, nor was it just life; it was me joining with life in making meaning in all aspects of my life. But this has been but a spark and I am now hungry to fully develop this notion.

“The simple challenge is how to do this effectively; how to make it a full time part of my life; and how to do so in a positive, directive way. A second challenge is to become aware of the sources to which I want to make meaning. I teach leadership and creativity in the business school of a college and I am also an artist. The source, the passion upon which I make meaning is something that can be challenging simply in terms of clearly knowing it.”

Meaning is an important subject and a difficult subject. We do not feel emotionally well if life feels meaningless and yet we receive precious little instruction about how to think about meaning, how to make meaning, or how to sustain meaning. Today, try your hand at one simple thing in the service of your meaning needs. Choose one of the following questions to answer. Pick one that feels like it might provide an opening to a useful self-discussion.

+ “In what sense is meaning a challenge for me?”

+ “Is it possible that I’m in the throes of a meaning crisis?”

+ “Are there some upcoming meaning choices confronting me?”

+ “Are there some new meaning investments I’d like to make?”

+ “Are there some new meaning opportunities I’d enjoy seizing?”

+ “Is it time for me to make the shift from seeking meaning to making meaning?”

If meaning isn’t an issue for you, skip today’s exercise, enjoy yourself, and celebrate! But if meaning is indeed an issue for you, address it. Ask yourself one of the above questions or create your own question. Your goal for today is “simply” to find a way into the subject of meaning. Doesn’t your mental health require that you meet your meaning needs?

To summarize:

Today’s goal: Starting a useful self-discussion about meaning.

Today’s key principle: Meaninglessness is a mental health risk. It is your job to learn how to create and maintain meaning.

Today’s key strategy: Posing yourself a question about meaning and answering it.

Good luck today!


Dr. Eric Maisel is the author of 40+ books including Life Purpose Boot Camp, Rethinking Depression, and Coaching the Artist Within. In 2015 he will be launching a Future of Mental Health initiative. You can learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, services, trainings, and workshops at Contact Dr. Maisel at And don’t forget to attend the free Future of Mental Health virtual conference in February:






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