Wellbeing Series Part 1: Purpose and Meaning

He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.
– Nietzsche

Drawing from the insights of positive psychology, I have written a series of six positive mental health articles that present practical principles you can apply in your life to build your resilience in the face of adversity. This first article looks at the importance of creating purpose and meaning in your daily life.

Creating meaning in tough situations
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychotherapist Victor Frankl based his approach to helping people on his personal experiences of being a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. Going through the horrendous experience with his fellow prisoners, he noticed that those who survived the longest tended to have a sense of purpose that helped them get through.

For some the purpose was to stay alive in the hope of returning home or being reunited with family or for others the purpose was to simply survive the experience in order to tell their story and to return to their former life. This sense of purpose gave these people an impetus to do what they could to survive the experience and translated into simple daily living goals such as getting a meal, keeping warm, do enough work not to irk the guards, etc. Those who had no such purpose and no such daily goals would quickly lose hope and succumb to despair and death.

In addition, Frankl noticed that those who survived could derive moments of daily meaning despite their very challenging circumstances whether these were connections with fellow prisoners, helping one another, learning something in spite of their situation, or even connecting with some more-sympathetic guards. Frankl described in his book how he would constantly think of his wife and his hope to see her again and this would give him consolation and the impetus to survive.

Discovering your life purpose
Research from positive psychology suggests that people who are the happiest tend to be goal focused or have a purpose in mind for their lives that is aligned with their deepest values and what is most important to them.

Taking time to understand what matters most to you and making sure that at least some of your day is focused on this is a great boost to your well-being and deep satisfaction. The reverse is also true – when you live many days out of touch with what really matters to you, your unhappiness will escalate and your sense of well-being will diminish. To help people get in touch with their deeper values, I often suggest the following exercise in my seminars: Take a moment to imagine a future celebratory life event where people are gathered to mark your contribution to the world (eg your retirement or a family event).

Now imagine that four key people in your life (such as your spouse, your child, a close friend or key work colleague) are giving speeches as to what they have most valued in you or what they are most proud of about you.
– What would you like them to say?
– What would you give you the deepest sense of satisfaction and achievement to hear in their speeches?
Taking time to imagine this in detail should reveal your deepest values and how you want to be in the world.

Setting daily goals
The second step is to translate your values and purpose into daily goals that are aligned with one another. You might discover that your deepest values are around learning, being a loving parent or making a difference in work or your community, but what does this mean on a daily basis. How can you ensure that your purpose and values are integrated into your everyday life?

Setting daily goals and creating daily habits aligned to your values are key. These can include setting time aside to talk with your spouse or children, taking time to read daily, focusing on important work projects, etc.

Finding meaning in small things
While a sense of purpose and having goals are important to our well-being, probably a sense of meaning is more important. Frequently, our goals are thwarted in daily life, what we want to achieve does not happen, or tragedy might strike us and we can experience loss and adversity. Just like Victor Frankl in the concentration camp, in those instances we are challenged to find meaning.

Finding small things that give meaning in spite of our circumstances make the difference.

– What small things do we still enjoy during the day?
– What still touches and moves us?
– What are we still grateful for in spite of challenging circumstances?

Once again it is simple everyday moments that meaning is usually found whether this is listening to music, walking in nature or talking with a friend.

Tips for going forward
Take a few minutes each morning to think about what is most important to you this day. Making some notes in a journal or diary is the best way to do this.
– What do you most want to happen today?
– What goals do you want to set?
– What would mean the most to you ?

Just before you sleep, at the end of the day, take a moment to reflect about what happened (make notes in a journal if that helps).
– What did you enjoy the most today?
– What touched/ inspired you the most?
– What was the most meaningful to you?

John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, February 2018

This is the one of a six-part series of articles by John Sharry, originally published in The Irish Times newspaper in February – April 2018.
Links to all the articles in this series are:

Part 1: Purpose and Meaning
Part 2: Self-compassion and Self-acceptance
Part 3: Relationships and Belonging
Part 4: Strengths and Flow
Part 5: Health, Rest and Fitness
Part 6: Cultivating a Positive Mind

Browse other articles by John Sharry.
Read about John’s upcoming courses and his books.