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The Importance of Meaning - A Reason to Live

February 25, 2017

Life is not fundamentally a question of “what” but “why”.

We may begin our lives learning what life is, but we are drawn inexorably to the question of what it is meant to be. The moment we become aware of ourselves as selves, this question stands out above all others.

Life is neither a quest primarily for power nor for pleasure, but for meaning. Indeed, the most common reason for the single-minded pursuit of power or pleasure is the failure to find a satisfying answer to the question of meaning.

Meaning is not an optional part of existence, in the way that pleasure or power are. If pleasure is taken away, life simply becomes less pleasant. If power is taken away, life merely becomes more challenging. Take away meaning, however, and what is taken away, among other things, is a prerequisite for well-being.

It is my impression, from nearly thirty years of practice, that feelings of meaninglessness are the principal determinant of most psychological and physical disease—especially the “lifestyle-sensitive” disorders such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.

Those whose lives are without meaning find it difficult to live in and enjoy the present. Instead, they are drawn emotionally either to the past, becoming mired in regret, or to the future, where they are consumed with anxiety. The Eastern admonition to be fully present in the moment is an excellent antidote for such problems—except when doing so draws attention to a life that is devoid of a reason for its own existence. I have had patients who simply cannot engage in mindfulness practice and, though they most often cannot articulate the reason, my suspicion has been that such focus concentrates their attention on the very thing that has lead them to take such poor care of themselves—an existential void at the very center of their hearts.

The meaningless life isn’t merely empty emotionally; it is emotionally tormenting. Such individuals have difficulty coping with the realization of what is lacking in their lives. They tend, therefore, to engage in distracting pursuits, fill their lives with trivial detail, or subdue their distress through various forms of self-indulgence or addiction.

As we will explore further in a later post, there is a biological logic behind the reason people turn to pleasure when meaning is absent in their lives. The two share the same reward circuit in the brain. Using pleasure, however, to mimic the feelings of meaning is not the same thing as leading a meaningful life. It is a shortcut with serious psychological, ethical, social and physiological consequences as we will discuss. Pleasure is not a balm for the ache that is existence and the false promise of addiction simply makes the absence of meaning more acute.

Meaning is a prerequisite for well-being, but more fundamentally it is a reason for being. To those for whom life is meaningless, existence is reduced to a single question: why live at all?

Life is about why.

Nietzsche observed: He who has a why can bear almost any how. I would say that he who has a why, can create a how to overcome almost any what. There is creativity in meaning. It is the means to the end that is the challenge of existence.

Although all feel its irresistible allure, for many, meaning is difficult to define and even more difficult to achieve. Next, we examine the paradoxical ways in which meaning has been considered and discuss the importance of arriving at a clear definition.

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