Meaning of Life

Addicted to Meaning

Sean M. Swaby
Sean M. Swaby
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

It seems that we are all addicts. Shopping, TV, the computer, technology, the internet, food, coffee and even chocolate have become objects of our addiction. It is hard to find something that we can enjoy without the risk of becoming addicted. One might even wonder if we are all destined to become addicts?

Once embraced as a valuable tool, technology has become an electronic alligator. Many thousands are addicted to cyber sex, chat rooms and compulsive surfing. One study pointed to the problem of internet addiction. Twenty-one men and women who spent an average of 27 free-time hours per week in front of the computer were studied. Many of the users reported feeling “happy, excited or powerful when using computers.” Researchers noted that these feelings were very similar to the way alcoholics or drug addicts feel when engaging in their destructive behaviors.

A study conducted by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University polled 1,987 teenagers and 504 parents. It found that teen substance abuse has three predictors: high stress, too much spending money, and frequent boredom. Bored teenagers, it found, are 50% more likely to smoke, drink and use illegal drugs.

Addiction is a powerful mechanism that can destroy personal dreams, physical health and ultimately our families. However, the studies above highlight that at the core of addiction is a search for significant experiences, an escape from boredom and a longing for the rush that comes from consuming the substance of choice. Addiction, it seems, is a pseudo-search for meaning. It is a replacement for having little or no compelling purpose for your life. One either finds personal meaning, or they will find themselves swept into a compulsive search for meaning-in-a-bottle. Indeed, are we all not addicted to meaning?

Having a compelling purpose fills you with meaning, energy, persistence and zeal for life. Conversely, when we lack a life-purpose, we feel nothing but emotional echoes on the empty chasm of our soul. Life becomes clouded with depression, anxiety, lack of focus and distractibility. The subjects in the previously cited UI study reported that when they attempted to cut back on their compulsive computer usage, they felt anxious. When faced with loss of certainty, any of us would become anxious and feel that our world is slipping out from underneath our feet.

We all feel compassion for the addict who has become consumed by his or her personal demon. To some degree, however, we all feel like the addict from time to time. Addicts describe feeling drawn to the excitement of the high. We are all drawn to the ‘high’ that we receive from a fulfilling life purpose.

Boredom, restlessness and anxious feelings can drive any of us to an addiction of busy-ness. Steven Winn, who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle says, “We are all terrified of boredom.”

“Boredom,” he writes, “arrives with a spectrum of feelings shading from guilt and distress to bafflement and pleasure. It poses fundamental questions about our own identities and the connections we make, or don’t, with the world around us.”

One of the paradoxes of purpose is that our boredom, our compulsive longings, often holds the keys for a reservoir of personal meaning. Nearly five years ago my brother-in-law was killed in a tragic car accident. His sudden death sent me into what felt like six months of spiritual darkness. I was clinically depressed, spiritually empty and hopeless. Months before my brother’s death, my wife and I had given birth to our first son, Mathieu. The months leading up to Marv’s death were filled with questions about how my life, my dreams and my world would change after the birth of our baby. I now believe that I went through my ‘dark night’ experience because I needed to ‘re-craft’ my personal meaning.

Those six months were excruciating. What spurred my recovery was discovering my love for writing. Previously I was too busy to write, but I suddenly found myself with time on my hands. In my depressed fog, I can recall myself being drawn to activities that left me feeling more full of life and energy rather than drained and hopeless. Writing was one of those tasks that seemed to flow for me. As I searched for other clues to unlock my dark experience, I recognized that I am ‘wired’ to help people through counselling and teaching. These two discoveries have helped to propel my life into a new direction.

What is it for you? What is your compelling purpose? As I wrote earlier, ‘One either finds personal meaning, or they will find themselves swept into a compulsive search for meaning-in-a-bottle.’ What is your personal addiction? Shopping, the internet, or food? Or is it something more destructive? All of us are like addicts; we must choose our personal pill. We are all addicted to having a personal, compelling purpose. If we lack a positive purpose, we will find ourselves drawn into a pseudo-purpose that will erode our life-spirit. Each of us must choose: a compelling purpose, or a compulsive practice. What is it for you? What is your compelling purpose? In the words of Morpheus (from ‘The Matrix’), “Will you choose the blue pill, or the red pill?”

Sean M. Swaby is a licensed counsellor, a writer, and he teaches Psychology online through His passion is to support individuals and couples to deal with losses, personal setbacks, emotional issues and relationship development. He and his family live in Edmonton, Alberta. He has been married for 8 years to Rachelle, a teacher. They have two munchkins, Mathieu (5) and Julianna (2).