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Clearity’s executive director, Hillary Theakston, asked Karin Blair and Buck Dodson, dedicated Clearity supporters, to explore the ways we can search for joy and meaning in our lives. If you missed it, watch it here.
We’re continuing the conversation with Karin and Buck.
I think a good place to start is to define what is meant by the words “meaning” and “purpose” in the context of life’s pivotal moments. During your interview, you both acknowledged that these terms and concepts are ambiguous and hard to pin down. Could you provide some clarity around what is meant by these terms?
We agree that meaning and purpose are somewhat hard to quantify. In part, this is because what is meaningful and purposeful varies from person to person. So, in some ways, we respect this ambiguity because there is not one right way to find meaning or purpose in the first place. However, there are ways to put the processes of meaning-making and finding purpose into categories that might help as we continue the conversation. Researchers typically think about meaning using the following three themes: 1) believing that your life matters to yourself and others, 2) making sense out of life, and 3) actively pursuing worthwhile goals (purpose).1
We can find ourselves at a crossroads in life that leaves us searching for these meaning-centered themes. We are not sure we matter. Maybe we find ourselves asking, “What’s the point?” Or sometimes we cannot understand why we have been dealt the cards we have (unexpected loss, serious illness, etc.) and we ask the ultimate “Why me?” question. Others may find themselves feeling like they are spinning their wheels in unfulfilling tasks—they have lost sense of their purpose. When someone cannot find meaning in any one of these areas, it can feel really dark—maybe even hopeless. So, that’s why these conversations are so important.
Meaning can be found in any circumstance. That is really what Viktor Frankl’s work was all about. He survived one of the most harrowing human experiences—concentration camps—and endured the loss of most of his family members, including his parents and wife. He made his life’s work about helping people find meaning in any type of suffering. So, there is hope. And I think hope starts with awareness. When we embrace a sense of curiosity with a willingness to start to awaken to the possibility of meaning, we give ourselves the opportunity to reframe our perspective and find peace and lightness in our lives.
Buck, you mentioned that you “geek out” about topics like meaning and purpose. My assumption is that part of the reason this is the case is because you’ve seen the power that the process of finding meaning has had on your and your clients’ lives. Can you speak more about the potential rewards one might receive through braving the uncharted territories that often spark the process of meaning-making?
Choosing to seek meaning and explore one’s purpose is not for the faint of heart, partly because change can be painful. We get comfortable in our habits and typical patterns in life. But then (either gradually or suddenly after a serious life event), life feels a bit (or a lot) less meaningful. In our talk, we discussed midlife as a time for this, but many who know Clearity have come to this place due to the prompting of a cancer diagnosis. After such monumental news, you cannot seem to stay the same course any longer. The old ways of thinking about the world and of oneself no longer fit, and we begin to search for a new perspective. While we are in this searching time, it can feel dark, confusing, and lonely. But during that time, when we allow ourselves to slow down and look for meaning, we have the chance to see that there is more to life than what our circumstances are highlighting. These things often are there all along, like the sound of your loved one’s laughter, or the majesty of the trees in nature. But until we stop to appreciate them, we do not see how these things help us see our place in the world. When we are willing to seek and to try on new perspectives in the face of our challenges, we will be rewarded. This looks different for every person, but ultimately, it is a truer, richer way of being in the world. It is a grounded place that has room for both the honest difficulties of life and the inherent joys of being alive.
Viktor Frankl, author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” believed that when people seek meaning in their life and come up empty-handed, they experience additional suffering. When working with clients in your therapy practice, have you come to agree with Frankl that finding meaning is a core motivation for all of us, and without it, there are consequences?
When someone comes to me during a transition in life, or after a significant life change or loss, they often are in a state of discontent. Their former worldviews no longer hold up to their new circumstances. And yes, if someone cannot make sense out of why they are suffering, the discontent grows stronger and can become quite burdensome. People who cannot seem to make sense of their suffering may find relief elsewhere—like through numbing activities (drinking, shopping, scrolling social media, etc.). When life does not make sense, they may even disconnect with it all together. All hope is not lost, though. For those individuals who have found themselves in serious trouble, help is available (see resources below). Depression and addictive behaviors can be treated, and people can find balance again after periods of intense distress.
I do believe that finding meaning is a core motivation. Without it, we are not able to put suffering in its place. It becomes the only thing someone sees. And, like I said, that is a really difficult place to be. I believe all humans seek to find ways to put their suffering in its place. Until they can do that, they are likely to feel immense frustration. The powerful part of this seeking, though, is the capacity for human resilience. And therein lies the privilege of being a therapist. I witness people braving the darkness of suffering and get to see how they live more fully into their hearts and connection to find what makes life meaningful, and even joyful, after suffering. It is an incredible honor to bear witness to these transformations.
You both discussed the role creativity might have in helping us find meaning in life. I agree with you both that the word “creativity” can be somewhat intimidating. The thought might mean that we have to be some sort of artist to be creative. What does one do if they do not think they have an artistic bone in their body?
We would caution anyone to stay away from connecting creativity to traditional artwork. Certainly, some of us do have the gift of creation in the form of art, music, dance, etc. But those of us whose creative powers may max out by following the recipe instructions on the Toll House cookie label can take heart. Believe us when we say every person is creative and can use creativity to find meaning in life. No one is exempt. For example, take a moment to consider your life. How have you created it so far? What choices have you made to get you to the place you are? What memories have you created? What relationships have you fostered? How have you contributed to a conversation, solved a problem, or decorated your home? As humans, we are wired to create. What we produce through that creation is not always tangible or colorful, but rather is uniquely so because of our touch on it. In other words, creativity is paying attention to how the world is different just because you are in it.
You touched on the role of “play” in life. Many of us might have thought we gave up on play in middle school. How do we reclaim our playfulness?
I think the word “play” brings to mind silliness or a waste of time. When we are continually pushed in our culture to be achievers and to be productive busy bees, play no longer serves a purpose for us. Additionally, many of us spend time dealing with a lot of serious business. Our jobs, family role responsibilities, and maybe for some, an illness, are all serious business. Finding time is one thing, but making the mental shift from responsibilities to whimsy is no small feat. Play asks us to separate from the seriousness, to embrace the moment, and find the lighter parts of life. And of course, there is not a “right way” to play. But I think there is a mindset that is helpful—and that is flexibility and openness. Play will look like different things to different people. For one, it might mean putting on their favorite music and dancing or singing along. For another, it might mean playing their favorite card game or working on a puzzle. Others might play in the kitchen, trying new recipes. Ultimately, play is anything that helps us to let go of expectations and find the purpose in an activity simply because of the joy it brings us.
We’ve clarified meaning and purpose, discussed the importance of the process of meaning-making, and suggested that creativity and play are important vehicles to finding meaning in life. If someone is new to searching for meaning or purpose in their lives, or is feeling stuck, what advice would you give?
To address the internal nudge you might have about finding more meaning in life, get curious, and get connected. Stay open to learning. Take a “childlike” look at life and be open to being awed. Even during the darkest moments, life can surprise us in little and big ways. Consider choosing one of the resources below to start the journey of thinking about and incorporating meaning-making activities in your life. Next, find ways to connect with others who are on a similar path. Open up dialogue with a friend, family member, or peer about what has been on your mind about finding purpose and joy. Even though meaning and purpose are somewhat ambiguous and immense in scope, do not get intimidated. Finding meaning is attainable and worthwhile.
- Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr
- Living an Examined Life: Wisdom for the Second Half of the Journey by James Hollis
- The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife by James Hollis
- From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life by Arthur C. Brooks
- Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
- The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks
- Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
- The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron
- Episode on Wiser Than Me with Julia Louis-Dreyfus—Interview with Jane Fonda about the third act (April 11, 2023)
- Poetry by David Whyte
- Good Life Project—Founder, Jonathan Fields
Mental Health Resources
- Psychology Today
- Search for a counselor by location, insurance panel, issues, type of therapy, etc.
- Open Path Psychotherapy Collective
- Offers in-office and online psychotherapy sessions between $40 and $70
If you are in immediate distress or are thinking of hurting yourself, call, text, or chat 988. The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline provides 24-hour, confidential support to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
1Hicks, J. A., & King, L. A. (2021, November 2). Three ways to see meaning in your life. Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/three_ways_to_see_meaning_in_your_life#:~:text=Researchers’%20definitions%20of%20meaning%20in,are%20actively%20pursuing%20fulfilling%20goals.