Addressing Existentialism

In asking about the meaning of life, a person is usually asking about a kind of cosmic meaning, although they might be asking about the meaning of their personal lives in terms of the cosmos as well, as many people believe that the meaning of one’s personal life is tied up with whether there is meaning to all this. One might, however, dismiss the idea of cosmic meaning, and still frame the question about the meaning of life as primarily one of purpose. Here, the debate is about what makes human life meaningful, rather than the question of whether or not there is cosmic meaning in all this (though, once again, some argue that these two cannot easily be separated). In other cases, though, these two approaches to asking the question of what makes life meaningful produce quite different results — at least, on their face.

Despite ongoing controversy over how to analyze the notion of meaning in life (or to formulate the meaning in life formulation of ), the field remains well-positioned to advance in other critical questions raised above, that is, about what makes a life meaningful, and about whether or not any lives are truly meaningful. The important takeaway from this discussion about meaning experiences is that definitions of meaning vary greatly; some individuals will find significant, life-changing meanings in situations where others will just shrug and carry on with their lives.

Finding meaning in one’s life is a better way to look at this problem, that is, while there is no singular meaning of life, each individual is capable of living his or her life in such a way as will give him or her as much fulfillment as possible. Reducing anxiety and living a fulfilled, meaningful life are two sides of the same coin, since having purpose in life gives individuals the notion that their lives will still be meaningful, even when they are dead (Ryan and Deci, 2004; McKnight and Kashdan, 2009). Feeling like your life is lacking in meaning should prompt you to ask if you are lacking in consistency, purpose, or significance.

This idea is commonplace in positive psychology, especially, where researchers have theorized and conducted experiments about how to enhance meaning, about what sources give meaning, and about how we might be able to manipulate our experience of meaning, all without delving too deeply into questions about where meaning comes from, more broadly, and whether or not it is intrinsic to life. In contemporary psychology, meaning per se is not usually in doubt anymore; almost every psychologist agrees that meaning exists as a concept for humans, that it can be found in the world around us, and that we can also create or discover our own, distinct sense of meaning.

In seeking meaning for life, existentialists seek out the places in which human beings find meaning in their lives, where using only reason as the source of meaning is inadequate; which gives rise to emotions of anxiety and fear felt when considering one’s own agency, as well as a corresponding recognition of mortality. The authors argue that meaning in life necessarily involves (1) that individuals feel their lives are meaningful, (2) making meaning out of their lives, and (3) determining the larger goal for one’s life (Martela and Steger, 2016).

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