It is a dark day when our lives lose meaning and purpose. Most people do not realize that their lives are predicated on implicit assumptions. Most people take these axioms of their life for granted. If one lives a relatively trouble free life, these implicit assumptions may never be shaken. It is rare to find someone that can hang labels on their reasons to live; that have insight into the meaning of their existence. We all hope our life will sail along so calmly that one’s assumptions about the nature of water will never be called into question. Unfortunately, calm seas and favorable winds are not the norm, such that we are often unrealistic navigators of our own life.
When people tell me that their life has lost meaning and/or purpose, I typically ask what had been the guiding meaning of their lives. Without exception, people do not have a ready answer. They know when it is gone, but are vague about its essence when present. A common purpose of life is to raise children to be successful adults. Most adults, especially older adults, readily agree that raising children was the central purpose of their lives. Roughly half of my adult patients find their work to be meaningful. It is rare for someone to voice an implicit meaning to their lives without naming one or the other, work and/or children. It is rare for people to name an intimate partner as the primary reason to live, or activities outside of work as giving meaning and purpose to one’s life. Exceptions to this rule often occur in childless couples and people who have talent in the arts, but the key word here is exception.
Is there an overriding meaning to life? Can one climb the mountain and obtain an epiphany of the true transcendent meaning of life? I do not think so. Meaning and purpose are unique to the individual, yet there are similarities between individuals. Meaning is congruent with one’s upbringing and experiences, and so the flavor will be change from person-to-person. For example, the purpose of raising children for many people is to send them to college, for others to marry and have grandchildren, and yet others want someone to shield them from the ravages of aging. While all three world views center about the meaning of children in their lives, the purpose and goals of each is different. If one’s vocation fills them with meaning and purpose, is it because of the assistance they render to others, the money they make, or the competitors they crush? Here again we find one meaning and three divergent forms of purpose.
The first step in discovering one’s new meaning in life, the new purpose of one’s existence, is to analyze the nature of the old meaning. It is natural to assume some aspect of the past was a golden age in one’s life, but thorough examination always reveals troubles that had to be surmounted. Know that there is no one grand overriding meaning, but whatever meanings and purposes are congruent with your particular beliefs and values. By way of example, I became close to an older adult patient while training for my degree(s). He was a very loving husband and father. His family held him in the highest regard. They were understandably shocked by his first Major Depression occurring at over seventy years of age. Even before my awareness of these existential issues, it was evident that he no longer felt useful in life. He was satisfied by his performance as a parent, having met the goals he set for himself as a father. The patient became increasingly aware of the satisfaction he experienced mentoring younger business people. He truly enjoyed mentoring others, and more importantly, it became central to his self-image and purpose in life. After discharge, the patient became involved in consulting to small businesses. Until the time of his death, many years later, the patient was not only free of depression, but contented with his retirement as well. Please leave comments regarding this post in the space provided below.