Finding meaning and purpose in our lives
Why are we here? What is this all about?
I don’t know about you, but I’m still waiting for the day I wake up in the morning with a clear understanding of my purpose and place in the world; the reason for my existence, the knowledge that I matter in the scheme of things and have an important mission to complete.
The search for meaning is what sets humans apart from other species.
It’s a unique characteristic that has spanned the ages of our existence and shaped the fabric of societies and cultures.
We revere the people who seemingly know why they were put on this planet, who dedicate their lives to a noble cause, leaving a legacy for future generations.
In reality, these people are few and most of us stumble through life waiting for a bolt of inspiration to enlighten us.
But here’s the thing, having a sense of meaning and purpose is essential to our wellbeing, our motivation, satisfaction and resilience, even our longevity… but you really don’t have to be Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi to live a meaningful life and reap the benefits.
Is meaning and purpose the same thing?
Although these terms are often used interchangeably (including in this article), researchers say there is a difference.
Meaning is linked to our understanding of reality and the significance of life.
Meaning is subjective and different for each of us.
Those who are spiritual or religious have a strong sense of meaning as they believe the world has been created for a reason.
Purpose is more about our goals and sense of direction. It’s having intention, planning and acting on something that motivates us.
Our sense of purpose often changes throughout life as we learn more about ourselves and the world, and develop new interests.
While meaning and purpose are not the same thing, having a purpose can give us a sense of meaning in life, and finding life meaningful can give us purpose!
My parents moved to Margaret River 12 months ago. It was a big move for a couple in their 70s who had lived in Perth for more than 40 years.
It can be difficult to find a sense of purpose after retirement so they decided moving closer to us, spending more time with grandkids, and having a new community to explore would give them new meaning. It wasn’t an easy transition, but it has paid off.
They have settled in and enjoy making the most of our awesome region and family time.
For Christmas I bought my mum the book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist, Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi concentration camps by finding a strong sense of meaning.
After the war he spent his life exploring meaning as a way of coping with adversity and finding happiness, developing the psychotherapy model called Logotherapy.
Frankl’s Will to Meaning theory says that an absence of meaning in life can result in aggression, addiction and mental illness. It’s worth a Google if you’re interested in this subject.
Positive Psychologist, Martin Seligman, says “to have a sense of meaning, we need to feel that what we do is valuable and worthwhile. This involves belonging to and/or serving something that we believe is greater than ourselves.”
Seligman explains we can find meaning in life by using our personal strengths in the altruistic service of a higher cause.
In Japanese culture, the place where your strengths, your passion, service to others and your profession meets is called Ikigai, and it’s linked to psychological wellbeing and longevity.
If you find your job doesn’t fulfill this need, there are heaps of volunteer roles where you can use your skills to help others and make new friends too (as an added bonus).
We have so many amazing volunteers in our community!
Our schools, sports clubs, emergency services, environmental groups, arts and culture, people in need… and the volunteers, all reap the benefits.
I have four volunteer roles myself, which may be overkill, but hey I like to lead by example.
So, I wrap up with 4 simple ways to increase your sense of Meaning and Purpose: (1) Identify your strengths and apply them to life whenever you can; (2) Spend time doing things you are good at and enjoy, (3) Become involved in a cause that really matters to you; and (4) Spend time with people you really care about.
Jacqui Barnsley is a volunteer member of Mindful Margaret River, The Margaret River Community Centre, Suicide Prevention Margaret River and Riverslea Community Group.
She works as a Specialist Support Coordinator for people with disability who receive the NDIS.
Mindful Margaret River is an alliance of mental wellbeing professionals, government agencies and community members aimed at promoting health and wellbeing in the AMR Shire.
Mindful Margaret River is funded by Lotterywest and supported by the Shire of Augusta Margaret River. Find out more on our website mindfulmargarteriver.org.au and follow us on Facebook.
First published in the Augusta Margaret River Mail 8 June 2022