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  • Michael Philp

Finding meaning in our lives to improve mental wellbeing

A common theme that has come up in my sessions over the past few months has been with clients who have been grappling with the sense of feeling lost and not having a sense of purpose in their life. These discussions often come from situations such as long-term unemployment, chronic pain, long-term depression or anxiety, or unfulfilling jobs and a sense of going through the motions. The typical discussion involves the client mentioning that they feel they have no meaningful direction in their life, that they are not achieving anything, and ultimately they feel depressed. When this discussion has come up in our sessions, I have referred to them to the fantastic book "Man's Search For Meaning" by Dr Vicktor Frankl. The book describes Dr Frankl's experiences in a concentration camp during World War II, which led him to develop his theory of finding meaning and purpose in one's life, even in the most difficult of situations (such as a concentration camp). Dr Frankl's theory suggests that 1) life has meaning under all circumstances and 2) no matter the circumstances, we have the freedom to find meaning in what we do or experience. What that means is that, despite all the obstacles we might experience in our life, there is an opportunity to find meaning for ourselves, which can help in maintaining a healthy mental well-being.

Most people develop a sense of meaning or purpose through the job that they do. It's why in social situations, one of the first questions that are asked when meeting someone new is "what do you do for a living?". However, for people who have been unemployed for a long time, retired, injured and unable to work, or do not find that their job is unsatisfying; work might not be what gives us meaning and purpose in our lives. Dr Frankl coined the term "Sunday neurosis", in which he states people become depressed once the busy week is over and they realise the lack of activities that give them meaning in their life.

So how do we develop a sense of meaning? We can develop meaning from doing something - for example

- taking up a hobby

- starting a project

- changing jobs to one that is more internally satisfying rather than necessarily higher paying

- or doing something for someone else, such as volunteering.

The second way in which we can develop meaning is through participation. For example,

- joining a group

- experiencing something new, such as travel

- learning something new

- connecting and making friends in a deep and meaningful way - ask them questions, find out new things about old friends, something that perhaps you didn't know before.

Finally, Dr Frankl spoke of the attitude that we can take towards unavoidable suffering. In this situation, such as experiencing chronic pain, then meaning can be taken from the attitude that you take in the face of ongoing pain. It is not that you must be happy all the time, but that perhaps despite experiencing ongoing pain, you can bring a positive attitude to the tasks that you do, then that can be a source of meaning in your life.

Finding meaning and purpose in your life can help improve your mental well-being, which ultimately can help with feelings of depression or anxiety. It is important to remember, that meaning and purpose can be found anywhere - it doesn't have to be the ultimate dream job, or expensive holidays - it can simply be sitting and noticing in detail, your backyard garden.

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