The Science of Meaning
Have you ever felt like you go through the motions every day but it all seems meaningless? Did you know that you can use science to help you find a sense of life purpose? Wait, but science can’t answer life’s big questions – that’s the job of cultural traditions and religion, right? Well, a wave of recent research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and other disciplines by Dr. Paul Wong, Mick Cooper, Michael Steger, and others has explored how we find meaning and purpose in life! So people who feel a lack of meaning and purpose can use science to fill that emptiness deep in the pit of their stomach. We can use science to answer the question “what is the meaning of life for you?”
Some may scoff at the importance of gaining a rich sense of meaning and purpose. Well, hold off your scoffing. Studies show that people who feel that their life has meaning experience a substantially higher sense of wellbeing and even physical health. For example, Michael F. Steger, a psychologist and Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life at Colorado State University, found that many people gain a great deal of psychological benefit from understanding what their lives are about and how they fit within the world around them. His research demonstrates that people who have a sense of life meaning and purpose feel in general more happy as well as more satisfied on a daily level, and also feel less depressed, anxious, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. A deeper sense of life meaning and purpose also predicts better physical health. An increased sense of life meaning and purpose correlates with reduced risk of heart attack, the leading cause of death in the United States, and stroke, another of the top five leading causes of death. With such benefits for mental and physical well-being, it’s no wonder that a strong sense of life meaning and purpose predicts longevity. Moreover, scientific tools have been created by Wong and others to measure one’s sense of life meaning and purpose.
According to faith-based perspectives, the meaning and purpose of life is to be found only in God, as exemplified in The Purpose Driven Life (2002), a popular book written by Rick Warren, a Christian mega church leader. But some thinkers disagree with the notion that religion is the only way to find meaning and purpose in life. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his Existentialism and Human Emotions, advances the notions of “existentialism,” the philosophical perspective that all meaning and purpose originates from the individual. Another prominent thinker is Greg Epstein. In his Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, he advocates striving for dignity as a means of finding “meaning to life beyond God.” James Croft draws attention to the importance of secular communities in gaining a sense of life meaning.
So what does research on this issue show? Apparently, the important thing is simply to gain a sense of life purpose and meaning: the source of the purpose itself is not so important. Religion can be one among many channels to help someone gain a sense of life meaning. The pioneer in this field, Victor Frankl, was a Viennese psychiatrist who lived through the Holocaust concentration camps. In his research and work, both in the camps and afterward in private practice, he found that the crucial thing for individuals surviving and thriving in life is to develop a personal sense of purpose and meaning, what he terms the “will-to-meaning.” Frankl’s approach to psychotherapy came to be called logotherapy, and forms part of a broader therapeutic practice known as existential psychotherapy. This philosophically-informed therapy stems from the notion that internal tensions and conflicts stem from one’s confrontation with the challenges of the nature of life itself, and relate back to the notions brought up by Sartre and other existentialist philosophers.
These findings fit well with my own research on secular societies. I study how people in the Soviet Union, where my family came from, found purpose, happiness, and fun in life. The Soviet Union is typically perceived as a militaristic and grey society, with a government that oriented all of its efforts to taking over the world. Well, that’s simply not true, as the Soviet authorities put a lot of resources into providing its citizens with opportunities to find meaning and purpose in life, as well as fun and pleasure – although they also certainly wanted to spread communism throughout the world, and put a lot of efforts into this goal as well. Present-day societies with a more secular orientation than the United States have similar stories to tell, as illustrated by research on contemporary Denmark and Sweden.
So where does this leave us? Religion is only one among many ways of developing a personal sense of life meaning and greater sense of personal agency. Based on the research on meaning and purpose, I developed and videotaped a workshop for anyone who wants to learn more on this topic. I also created a free online course, which combines an engaging narrative style, academic research, and stories from people’s everyday lives with exercises to help you discover your own sense of life purpose and meaning from a science-based, humanist-informed perspective. These are part of our broader offerings at Intentional Insights, which aims to help us as reason-oriented people use scientific evidence to live better lives and achieve our goals. I hope you can find our offerings helpful for your life, and use the science to find your purpose!
Bio: Gleb Tsipursky, PhD, is a tenure-track professor at Ohio State and a member of the Decision Sciences Collaborative. He is also the Co-Founder, President, and Chief Insights Officer at Intentional Insights (intentionalinsights.org), a nonprofit offering science-based strategies for reason-oriented people to empower us to improve our thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns, and thus reach our goals. Get in touch with him at firstname.lastname@example.org