Our need for meaning


A client recently admitted that he had no idea why he wanted the things he did or why he was pursuing his current path in life. One could look for the answer to why from several different perspectives. An evolutionary biologist might talk about how your physical drives have their own agenda and guide your behaviours in ways that you are unaware of. A neuroscientist might point to the way your brain is wired, and a psychologist might explore the coping strategies you developed as a child. As a coach, I may even draw on any number of these scientific theories to help clients understand their current state of being. Unfortunately, this is where science falls short or is incomplete when it comes to our emotional needs. None of these explanations provides the meaning we are often looking for. 

Viktor Frankl’s book: Man’s Search for Meaning had a lasting impact on my approach to life. He writes: “…suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds a meaning…” Many people who experience varying degrees of depression report that they struggle to find meaning in their lives. Increasingly people no longer work just to survive. Those who work to fulfil the many expectations society places upon us struggle to find a sense of meaning in a life spent working as a means to an end.  While many will compensate for this feeling through distractions, a growing number of people are seeking greater meaning for their lives. This search for meaning helped initiate my own personal development journey more than twenty years ago and has brought me to the work I do now. 

As Nietzsche pointed out: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” This statement points to the importance that meaning plays in our lives. It is not only difficult to get motivated without a sense of purpose; it can lead to a perspective that life is pointless. The nihilistic belief that life has no meaning or value is not only self-destructive but causes a lack of empathy and a disregard for anyone or anything we may encounter in our experience. In contrast, a sense of meaning allows us to experience more joy, happiness and fulfilment in life, often causing people to make sacrifices, contribute to their communities and seek growth or self-improvement. 

How can we find meaning? For many years I have been encouraging people to develop their personal life philosophy. It is within these beliefs that we create meaning. If life feels meaningless, it is time to reflect and revise some of the beliefs in your philosophy. In terms of work, I recommend Simon Sinek’s book: Find Your Why. However, there are many different ways to approach the search for meaning, and it does not have to be limited to the work you do in life. It could be a spiritual practice or way of living, but no one can provide meaning for you. It is something you need to determine for yourself. One thing is certain, the meaning you give your life will have immeasurable effects on your happiness and the quality of your existence.