The Pandemic From a Meaning and Purpose Perspective: A Reset
Part Three: Making meaning and purpose.
Posted April 20, 2020
This is the final installment of my three-part article on meaning and purpose during the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. Part One looked at coping, and Part Two shared lessons I learned on communicating with authenticity. In Part Three, I will give you a meaning and purpose perspective on this difficult time.
In future posts, I will share specific well-being-boosting activities that you can use to weather the storm, but right now, the focus is on setting yourself up for a life-affirming reset on the other side.
First, a disclaimer: Like most of you, I have lived through several pandemics already. Some I watched from afar (Beanie Babies Rabies), and others affected my loved ones and me directly (Mullet Fever). But none of them have prepared me for the eerie and daunting situation we face with coronavirus/COVID-19. I’m looking to the vast research literature on meaning and purpose to give me general guidelines on how to do the best I can.
How Viruses Work, a Metaphor, and What Is Happening to “Life as We Know It”
Viruses are weird. They are not exactly alive in that they are mostly bundles of genetic code wrapped in a protein shell with no real metabolism. They cannot make more of themselves unless they find a host cell. When their protein shells can attach to the cell membranes in their host organism, they pump their genetic code into that cell. Then the unsettling, sneaky business begins. The viral genetic code hijacks the cell’s biological functions to duplicate many, many copies of its genes and its protein. Then the host cell bursts, and a flood of new viruses disperse until they, too, find host cells to hijack. Creepy.
Our immune system responds by circulating cells throughout the body whose job it is to detect and recognize the molecular structure of the virus. Those cells then communicate the identifying characteristics of the virus to other cells whose job it is to destroy the viral invaders. The immune system even has cells that communicate with the brain, with consequences for a whole host of brain functions, such as learning, memory, and overall brain health (Marin & Kipnis, 2013).
The biological struggle between viruses and the immune system is complex, but the back and forth between disruption, recognition, and repair makes for a useful metaphor for the psychological struggle we face. COVID-19 came into our lives with tiny, almost imperceptible disruptions. Yet each disruption had the potential to hijack other parts of life as we know it. Some response was required to prevent worse damage from the spread of disruption.
It is well documented that some countries had a much stronger “immune system” response than others. Where the response was slow or inadequate, little disruptions kept hijacking other parts of the economy, schools, health care infrastructure, social groups, transportation, and so on, until “the patient”—us—needed drastic care, and a lot of it.
I believe a major reason why COVID-19 has been so distressing is that it has attacked key parts of “life as we know it,” and it is not clear how much more will be disrupted, what the best response is, or what it will take to repair it.
Three Dimensions of Meaning in Life
The effects of COVID-19 can be put into three categories:
1. COVID-19 has attacked our understanding of how governments protect people, what threat and danger look like, what going to school looks like, how we understand our societies and other people, and the regular rhythm of routine life that helped us find consistency and predictability (Heintzelman & King, 2019).
2. COVID-19 has attacked our plans and aspirations for the future, our dream vacations and travel explorations, key rites of passage we were looking forward to—whether that meant graduation, athletic goals we’d been training toward for months, the big dance, birthdays, moving out on one’s own, starting a new business, or even planning for the next quarter of existing businesses—and stunted the importance of our sense of mission to give us strength and motivation (Steger, 2016).
3. COVID-19 has attacked our sense of worth and place in the world, taken away our jobs, our favorite restaurants, our contact with people who make us feel loved and that we belong; it has taken away those random moments of recognition that arise from idle chit-chat with co-workers, neighbors, check-out clerks, receptionists, postal workers, and a hundred other significant social touches that season our days and give us the assurance that we matter (George & Park, 2016).
The reason why these disruptions are so disorienting, demotivating, and distressing is that they illustrate how COVID-19 has attacked the foundations of what makes life meaningful to us. There are three dimensions of meaning in life that correspond to the categories of COVID-19 disruption I listed above: coherence, purpose, and significance (Martela & Steger, 2016; Steger, 2018).
- Coherence captures our ability to comprehend our lives, make sense of them, find themes across different times, and create mental models that make the world become predictable and consistent. COVID-19 has messed all of that up. We no longer know what the rules are, do not know how to apply themes from our pasts to help us comprehend what is happening. Life is incoherent in the pandemic.
- Purpose describes the aspirations, dreams, and missions we have for the future, our deeply important long-term goals that we will strive for, and that provide the bedrock for our motivation in life. We can have multiple purposes, and sometimes life is about juggling them. The function of purpose is to guide our decisions and coordinate our actions. COVID-19 has blocked us from many of our purposes, whether it is being a good son to elderly parents, working hard to prep for AP tests and university entrance essays, gaining mastery and status in your profession, working toward vital political, social, or environmental causes, or even supplying the basic necessities for your loved ones. Life can feel purposeless in the pandemic.
- Significance gives us that emotional, gut feeling that life is worth living, that we have value as people, that we are connected to and belong among other people, that we matter. COVID-19 has made us feel powerless, unimportant, and detached from those around us. Life can feel insignificant in the pandemic.
The challenge—easier said than done, I know—is to reconstruct your sense of coherence, revisit and reinvest in your sense of purpose, and replenish and reinforce your sense of significance. We can do this if we view meaning in life to be an ongoing process, rather than an achievement to be checked off a list and then never thought of again. We are beings who thrive when we are making meaning, actively engaging in and reflecting on the miracles and stumbles, both great and small, that arise in every life.
Making meaning is important across our lives, even during natural disasters and other times of deep distress (Boullion, Pavlacic, Schulenberg, Buchanan, & Steger, in press; Dursun, Steger, Bentele, & Schulenberg, 2016). To survive the pandemic from a meaning and purpose perspective, we need to make meaning of it. Simply enduring, or trying to stay resilient, might not be enough to prepare us for the repair that our changing world will need. By making meaning, we practice the skills we will use to lay the groundwork for a good life, even as the world changes around us.
To focus on making meaning, I suggest you reflect on the following questions:
- What did I use to believe about how the world worked? How are those beliefs being challenged and undermined by the pandemic? How can I support my most central ideas about the world even as they are being threatened? In what ways must I adapt my ideas in order to make sense of what is happening in a way that still creates a life that is attractive to me?
- What have been my most important goals and aims over the past several years? Which ones seem blocked by the pandemic? How can I find new ways of working toward my goals in life and rejuvenate some degree of motivation for them? Are there ways I can expand my missions in life to be of greater service to other people and other life on Earth?
- What memories, qualities, or people stand out when I think about how my life matters? How does the pandemic make me feel small or powerless, or even feel that there is no reason for continuing to live a good life? How can I support those aspects of myself and my life that feel most significant to me? In what ways can I connect with other people to see that I can make a difference to them?
There is no way for another person to hand us a tidy package of meaning in life. Especially when life is flipped upside-down, we may need to do additional work on the fundamental skills of making meaning. I know it is not always easy—I’ve been working on it my whole life!—but I also believe it is a vital and natural element of living life with meaning and purpose.
Boullion, G. Q., Pavlacic, J., Schulenberg, S. E., Buchanan, E. M., & Steger, M. F. (in press). Meaning, social support, and resilience as predictors of posttraumatic growth: A study of the Louisiana flooding of August 2016. American Journal of Orthopsychiatrgy
Dursun, P., Steger, M. F., Bentele, C., & Schulenberg, S. E. (2016). Meaning and posttraumatic growth among survivors of the September 2013, Colorado floods. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 72, 1247-1263.
George, L. S., & Park, C. L. (2016). Meaning in life as comprehension, purpose, and mattering: Toward integration and new research questions. Review of General Psychology, 20(3), 205-220.
Heintzelman, S. J., & King, L. A. (2019). Routines and meaning in life. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 45(5), 688-699.
Marin, I., & Kipnis, J. (2013). Learning and memory… and the immune system. Learning & memory, 20(10), 601-606.
Martela, F., & Steger, M. F. (2016). The three meanings of meaning in life: Distinguishing coherence, purpose and significance. Journal of Positive Psychology, 11, 531-545.
Nature Education (n.d.). Virus. Retrieved on April 19, 2020 from
Steger, M. F. (2017). Meaning, significance, and purpose. In M. Slade, L. Oades & A. Jarden (Eds.), Wellbeing, recovery and mental health (pp. 75-87. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Steger, M. F. (2018). Meaning in life: A unified model. In S. J. Lopez, L. M. Edwards, S. C. Marques (Eds.), Oxford handbook of positive psychology (3rd Ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.