We live in a complex world which, for the most part, seems to demand that we achieve certain things to ‘be someone’ and have a successful and happy life. These ‘certain things’ are the obvious trappings of society – having a good education, getting that well-paid job or rewarding career, finding that perfect relationship, having the right house and the right car, and so on. While these can bring certain levels of happiness and contentment for some people, those feelings are usually transitory and once the excitement of the achievement dies down, it leaves us with the yearning for the next thing on the list, the next achievement that will bring us happiness.
This, of course, is how our materialistic society works. It is based on continued consumption of good and products, a continued movement towards bigger and better things, with very little time to sit and wonder what it is all about. When we do find the time to do so, we are often left with the nagging feeling that there must be more to life than this. Do we really want to spend our days working really hard, burning ourselves out to earn more money, just to buy more stuff? Is the purpose of our life just to make money, achieve some social status, maybe raise a family and then die? Is this truly and deeply where we want to be in our life?
When these sorts of questions start to arise, we can quickly face a crisis of meaning, which is arguable the epidemic of our times. While we can avoid thinking about these deeper issues for a while by living a busy life and staying at the surface level, these deeper questions with the unsettling feelings they can bring with them will keep bubbling up again and again. For many people this can manifest in a lack of motivation, a lack of joy or excitement in life, and indeed in depression.
What is a crisis of meaning?
So what can we do when we face a crisis of meaning? While there is no easy and straightforward answer to this we can consider two distinct ways of finding meaning in life. The first is to create meaning – to invest our time an energy in something that seems meaningful to us. Being a parent for example, can give some people a meaning in life, or doing some voluntary work, engaging in something that spreads positivity in the world, writing a book etc – all of these can give people meaning. The key is to engage in something that is bigger than you, that propagates out into the world and helps people in one way or another. While creating a meaning can be very satisfying, for many there is a deeper level still to this, and they want to find their true meaning in life – to answer the deeper question of ‘what are we here for?’ In order to find our meaning in life (rather than create it), takes quite a different approach. We need to spend time being with ourselves, listening to our inner voice, spending time in quiet contemplation. For some this will naturally lead in a spiritual direction, as contemplating the deeper recesses of our psyche will invariably move us to transcendental thinking. Engaging with spirituality, whether in an organised way by attending a spiritual or religious group, or just reading and thinking about it, can go a long way to helping us find meaning in life. It is also worth mentioning that spending time in quiet contemplation can also entail facing some of our inner demons, as we come in touch with our deeper emotional side. Understanding and resolving our deeper feelings can be fundamental to living a more contented and meaningful life.
Psychotherapy and meaning
Engaging in psychotherapy can be a very fruitful journey on the path to finding meaning in life. With your therapist you can find ways to face your inner fears, get in touch with your inner self and express the meaningful life that is yours.
Simon Cassar is an experienced integrative existential psychotherapist, supervisor and academic, providing long and short-term psychotherapy to both individuals and couples at our practices in Hove and Lewes.