Rising Suicide Rates Point to a Crisis in Meaning

Where can we find meaning today?

Posted Jun 09, 2018

The image is full of sky and clouds on a sunny day. Meena Yarlagadda –11 Sept 2017. wikimedia commons
Source: The image is full of sky and clouds on a sunny day. Meena Yarlagadda –11 Sept 2017. wikimedia commons

An alarming rise in depression and anxiety and a 30% rise in suicides since 1999 point to a major crisis in our culture (cdc & nimh links below). Too many Americans are anxious, depressed, and discontent because they lack a sense of meaning.  And as Viktor Frankl realized long ago, the sense of meaning can often mean the difference between life and death. Inspired by the desire to finish his book, Frankl survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp while he saw many other men fall sick and die, their immune systems weakened when they lost the will to live (Frankl, 1946/1984; see also Cresswell et al, 2005).

Where do we find meaning today? One way is to discover our life’s calling, a concept often overlooked in today’s culture with its emphasis on fame and financial success. As a college professor, I’ve seen too many students pressured by their parents to major in subjects for which they have no interest or aptitude, because they want their children to be successful, to get “good jobs.”  But without a sense of meaning, external success can be empty, leading to desolation and despair.

Yet too many of us have no idea of what a calling is. I recall one class when my students were confused by a Milton sonnet about vocation.  “A vocation is your calling, your life’s work,” I explained.  “Can you think of an example of someone with a calling today?”

Silence. The students shifted uneasily in their chairs. I rephrased my question: “What do you want to do with your life?”  More silence. Struggling to make a connection, I asked why they had come to college. They said they wanted to buy a new car, to make a good income, to live as well as their parents.

Finally I asked, “Beyond making money, don’t you have a deeper reason for your work?”

Silence again. The students looked at each other anxiously. Finally, one young man answered, “So I can support a wife and family.” I shook my head. “More than money, more than paying the bills, there has to be something more to our efforts to give our lives meaning. People in the Renaissance believed they were given special talents, or strengths, as part of the divine plan. A calling means using our strengths to make a meaningful contribution to the world.”

My students looked at me blankly--bright, endearing young people on the edge of adulthood, yet out of touch with deeper questions of purpose and meaning.

They were confused because our culture doesn’t reinforce us for finding our calling. When we feel an inner restlessness, a longing for something more--in the Renaissance this was seen as a call to vocation. Because our culture lacks such a vocabulary, if you feel this way, you may think that something’s wrong with you, while your Renaissance counterparts saw these feelings as the first step on the journey of vocation (Dreher, 2008).  

Today, research has shown that a sense of calling can bring greater meaning to our lives, that people with a calling are happier, healthier, and more successful (Dreher, Holloway, and Schoenfelder, 2007; Seligman, 2002,  p. 260; Schueller & Seligman, 2010; Steger,  Oishi, & Kashdan, 2009);

If you’ve been feeling restless and discontent, wondering if there is something more to your life, this could be your own call to vocation.  In the Calling Protocol, designed with health psychologist Tom Plante, the first step is to discover your strengths, recognizing what you are good at, what you love to do (Dreher & Plante, 2007; see also Dreher, 2012).

  • You can begin by recalling what you loved to do in childhood—how you spent your time, what you were curious about, what you especially enjoyed.
  • Then you can use current research in positive psychology to discover your signature strengths—your top five character strengths—by taking the VIA Strengths Survey, available free online.
  • Once you’ve taken the survey, reflect on how you have used your top strengths in the past.
  • Now ask yourself, “How can I use my strengths more often in my life and work?”

As psychologist Martin Seligman has said, “if you can find a way to use your signature strengths at work often and you also see your work as contributing to the common good, you have a calling” (Seligman, 2002, p. 173).


Cresswell, J. D., Welch, W. T., Taylor, S. E., Sherman, D.K., Gruenewald, T., & Mann, T. (2005). Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses. Psychological Science, 16, 846-851.

Dreher, D. E. (2008). Your personal renaissance: 12 steps to finding your life’s true calling. New York, NY: Da Capo. Portions of this post were based on pages 6-7, 33-35.

Dreher, D. E. (2012). The gifts of vocation: Finding joy and meaning in our work. In T. G.Plante (Ed.). Religion and positive psychology: Understanding the psychological fruits of faith (pp. 127-142). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Dreher, D.E., Holloway, K., and Schoenfelder, E. (2007). The Vocation Identity Questionnaire: Measuring the sense of calling, RSSSR, 18, 99-120.

Dreher, D. & Plante, T. G. (2007). The calling protocol: Promoting greater health, joy, and purpose in life.” In T. G. Plante & C. E. Thoresen (Eds.), Spirit, science and health: How the spiritual mind fuels wellness (pp. 129-140). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Simon & Schuster, (Originally published 1946).

Schueller, S. M., & Seligman, M. E.P. (2010). Pursuit of pleasure, engagement, and meaning: Relationship to subjective and objective measures of well-being. Journal of Positive Psychology,5, 253-263.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York, NY: Free Press.

Statistics on depression and anxiety from https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/data_stats/depression.htm and

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml ; on suicide from https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/suicide/

Steger, M.F.,  Oishi, S., & Kashdam, T. B. (2009). Meaning in life across the life span: Levels and correlates of meaning in life from emerging adulthood to older adulthood. Journal of Positive Psychology, 4, 43-52.

VIA Strengths Survey: available free on two web sites:

1) A short 10-minute VIA strengths survey is available from the VIA Character Institute at https://www.viacharacter.org

2) A 40-minute VIA strengths survey is available on www.authentichappiness.org.  Go to the “Questionnaires” link,  register, and scroll down and take the adult VIA Strengths Survey.