Lack of meaning and purpose

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A sense of meaning and purpose is fundamental to our mental health, as well as our physical health and general wellbeing.Reker, G.T., Peacock, E.J. and Wong, P. T. (1987). ‘Meaning and purpose in life and well-being: a life-span perspective’. Journal of Gerontology, 42(1), pp.44–49. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3794195 [accessed 31 Oct. 2017].King, L.A., Hicks, J.A., Krull, J.L. and Del Gaiso, A.K. (2006). ‘Positive affect and the experience of meaning in life’. [online] Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(1), pp.179–196. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16448317/ [accessed 31 Oct. 2017].

Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” (…) Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. Viktor Frankl

 

 

 

We can find meaning and purpose in many things, such as:

  • Our relationships with others and belonging to a community
  • Our spiritual pursuits
  • Our creative activities
  • Our work
  • Giving back to our local or global community

Factors that can contribute to a lack of meaning and purpose

Any of us may occasionally feel a lack of meaning or purpose, as well as a feeling of isolation. These feelings can accompany other feelings of low mood, and vanish when our mood changes.

But if our lack of meaning and purpose last for an extended period, the following may be contributing factors:

Without a job, some other regular activity or creative pursuit through which we can create meaning, we are more likely to feel a sense of purposelessness.Leahy, R.L. (2013). ‘Feeling ashamed of being unemployed’. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/anxiety-files/201310/feeling-ashamed-being-unemployed [accessed 6 Nov. 2017]. 

Furthermore, working can help us to feel part of a community of colleagues or peers, and enable us to interact with others on a regular basis.

Whether through work, hobbies, or volunteering, it is essential for us to feel that our daily activity is purposeful and meaningful. We need to feel that we are connecting to others in meaningful ways, but also that our daily activities are leaving a positive imprint on the world around us. Ideally, we need to feel that we are fulfilling our Dharma, our path, and that our daily activity is consistent with our natural gifts and skills.

A lack of meaningful daily activity can leave us feeling a profound lack of purpose and meaning.

Our ideas of meaning and purpose are closely associated with our connections to others. Loneliness, social exclusion and isolation, lack of a supportive community, and negative relationships with friends and family have all been linked to broader feelings of purposelessness in life.Stillman, T.F., Baumeister, R.F., Lambert, N.M., Crescioni, A.W., DeWall, C.N. and Fincham, F.D. (2010). ‘Alone and without purpose: life loses meaning following social exclusion’. [online] Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), pp. 686–694. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2717555/ [accessed 31 Oct. 2017].

These difficult social circumstances can feed into our belief that our lives don’t have meaning, and can contribute to depression, anxiety and other mental health symptoms.

How difficult social circumstances can impact your mental health. 

Spirituality is a common way of engaging with bigger questions of meaning and purpose.

Religious and spiritual communities can offer us a feeling of connection to something larger than ourselves, as well as to others. Without them, we may feel like we lack support, a sense of belonging and connection, or a universal purpose.

A sense of ‘spiritual meaning’ has been shown to be a ‘protective factor’ against depressive symptoms; those in identical circumstances but without a sense of ‘spiritual meaning’ are at greater risk of these symptoms.Diaz, N., Horton, E., Malloy, T. (2014). ‘Attachment style, spirituality, and depressive symptoms among individuals in substance abuse treatment’. [online] Journal of Social Service Research, 40(3), pp. 313–324. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01488376.2014.896851 [accessed 18 March. 2019]. Mascaro, N. and Rosen, D.H. (2006). ‘The role of existential meaning as a buffer against stress’. [online] Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 46(2). Available at: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2006-03083-005[accessed 18 March. 2019].

A persistent lack of power over our circumstances can become a general feeling that our lives have little meaning.

Feelings of disempowerment can result from:

  • Physical disability
  • Traumatic events
  • Socio-economic factors
  • A persistent failure to succeed
  • An inability to make our own decisions and manage our lives

They can also be a result of diminished mental capacity. This can take the form of:

  • Reduced cognitive function
  • Learning difficulties
  • Memory issues
  • Mental health issues

When we suffer from a continuous sense of powerlessness, we may end up in a state of ‘learned helplessness’: we feel that we have lost all control over the situation, and give up trying to improve things or take responsibility for our lives. This state is thought to be a main underlying cause of depression.Boyd, N. (2017). ‘How Seligman’s Learned Helplessness Theory applies to human depression and stress’. [online] Study.com. Available at: http://study.com/academy/lesson/how-seligmans-learned-helplessness-theory-applies-to-human-depression-and-stress.html [accessed 1 Nov. 2017].

Research has shown that having an insecure attachment style, due to family dynamics in childhood, can lead to depressive symptoms, particularly a lack of meaning and purpose.Rees, C. (2007). ‘Childhood attachment’. British Journal of General Practice, 57(544), pp.920–922. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2169321/ [accessed 6 Nov. 2017].Scharfe, E. (2007). ‘Cause or consequence?: Exploring causal links between attachment and depression’. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(9),
pp.1048–1064.

Psychological trauma, whether endured in childhood or adulthood, can contribute to feelings of lack of purpose and meaning, and a sense of hopelessness.

How psychological trauma can impact your mental health. 

The loss of a loved one can contribute to a sudden and intense impression that life is meaningless or purposeless.Prigerson, H.G., Vanderwerker, L.C., Maciejewski, P.K. (2008). ‘A case for inclusion of prolonged grief disorder in DSM-V’. In: M. Stroebe, R. Hansson, H. Schut, W. Stroebe, eds, Handbook of Bereavement Research and Practice: Advances in Theory and Intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, pp.154–186.

How a lack of meaning and purpose can affect our mental health

Meaning and purpose often go hand-in-hand with feelings of empowerment, mastery, and control.

One major study, on people aged between 55 and 85, showed that those who reported the highest levels of personal ‘mastery’ – feelings of control over life-events – had an almost 60% smaller chance of death than those who felt relatively helpless.Penninx, B., van Tilburg, T., Kriegsman, D., Deeg, D., Boeke, A., van Eijk, J. (1997) ‘Effects of social support and personal coping resources on mortality in older age: the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam’. [online] American Journal of Epidemiology, 146(6), pp.510–519. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9290512 [accessed 17 Aug. 2017].

A perceived lack of meaning or purpose are common contributors to and symptoms of mental health difficulties, including:

Depression is commonly associated with feeling purposeless, apathetic and isolated.

A perceived lack of meaning can also contribute to and accompany low motivation, intense feelings of sadness, social isolation, and a lack of interest in activities you previously enjoyed. These are all well-known symptoms of depression.

Numerous studies have found strong links between feelings of purposelessness and depressive and/or suicidal impulses.Harlow, L.L., Newcomb, M.D., Bentler, P.M. (1986). ‘Depression, self-derogation, substance use, and suicide ideation: lack of purpose in life as a mediational factor’. [online] Journal of Clinical Psychology, 42(1), pp.5–21. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3950015/ [accessed 31 Oct. 2017]. Wang, M.-C., Lightsey, O.R., Pietruszka, T., Uruk, A.C. and Wells, A.G. (2007). ‘Purpose in life and reasons for living as mediators of the relationship between stress, coping, and suicidal behavior’. [online] Journal of Positive Psychology, 2(3), pp.195–204. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760701228920 [accessed 31 Oct. 2017]. Kleftaras, G. and Katsogianni, I., 2012. Spirituality, meaning in life, and depressive symptomatology in individuals with alcohol dependence. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health14(4), pp.268-288. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19349637.2012.730469 [accessed 18 March. 2019]. Katsogianni, I.V. and Kleftaras, G., 2015. Spirituality, Meaning in Life, and Depressive Symptomatology in Drug Addiction. International Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Society5(2). Available at: https://web.b.ebscohost.com/abstract?direct=true&profile=ehost&scope=site&authtype=crawler&jrnl=21548641&asa=Y&AN=102485005&h=jO72jSqG%2fHs0BieApOXhXiA5q28Jl3nFM%2bGqpbziWT%2fSptAMDt5kdcVnqUbM0Z6WbCTlg%2bB2MPxxxxcVIszCoA%3d%3d&crl=c&resultNs=AdminWebAuth&resultLocal=ErrCrlNotAuth&crlhashurl=login.aspx%3fdirect%3dtrue%26profile%3dehost%26scope%3dsite%26authtype%3dcrawler%26jrnl%3d21548641%26asa%3dY%26AN%3d102485005 [accessed 17 March. 2019]

Read more about depression.

Research has shown that a lack of meaning or purpose can contribute to alcohol abuse and drug addiction. (It can also be a result of these issues.)

Addiction has been significantly associated with:Diaz, N., Horton, E., Malloy, T. (2014). ‘Attachment style, spirituality, and depressive symptoms among individuals in substance abuse treatment’. [online] Journal of Social Service Research, 40(3), pp. 313–324. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01488376.2014.896851 [accessed 18 March. 2019]. Kleftaras, G. and Katsogianni, I., 2012. Spirituality, meaning in life, and depressive symptomatology in individuals with alcohol dependence. Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health14(4), pp.268-288. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19349637.2012.730469 [accessed 18 March. 2019]. Katsogianni, I.V. and Kleftaras, G., 2015. Spirituality, Meaning in Life, and Depressive Symptomatology in Drug Addiction. International Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Society5(2). Available at: https://web.b.ebscohost.com/abstract?direct=true&profile=ehost&scope=site&authtype=crawler&jrnl=21548641&asa=Y&AN=102485005&h=jO72jSqG%2fHs0BieApOXhXiA5q28Jl3nFM%2bGqpbziWT%2fSptAMDt5kdcVnqUbM0Z6WbCTlg%2bB2MPxxxxcVIszCoA%3d%3d&crl=c&resultNs=AdminWebAuth&resultLocal=ErrCrlNotAuth&crlhashurl=login.aspx%3fdirect%3dtrue%26profile%3dehost%26scope%3dsite%26authtype%3dcrawler%26jrnl%3d21548641%26asa%3dY%26AN%3d102485005 [accessed 17 March. 2019]

  • Spirituality and meaning in life
  • Sense of purpose
  • Relationship with God or a higher power
  • Spiritual or religious stability

We can help these patients to recover from addiction by encouraging activities that feel meaningful to them. These activities might include:

  • Encouraging their creative talents (painting, writing, making)
  • Giving them opportunities to help others
  • Helping them connect to their higher self through prayer and meditation

Read more about addiction.

Panic and anxiety disorder can sometimes be associated with a lack of meaning and purpose. Existential angst — which is anxiety about our life’s purpose and meaning, can cause chronic anxiety and sometimes even panic disorder. It is usually not the only reason for symptoms of anxiety, but can play a major role in provoking episodes of anxiety and panic.