PURPOSE AND MEANING OF HUMAN LIFE 13
People are constantly questioning the purpose and meaning of theirlife. Many studies have been conducted on this topic, resulting in anarray of positions on the importance and function of life. Inspecific, scientific disciplines in psychology have been significantin expounding on the issue. There are many definitions on the purposeand meaning of human life. However, most researchers agree thatlife’s meaning is experienced when individuals are capable ofaccepting who they are, understand their world, and recognize howthey fit in the world with other humans. The most significantpsychological position employed in explaining the purpose and meaningof life is existential psychology. Another position is individualpsychology, which describes the meaning of human life as a duty.Other important psychological approaches that explain the purpose andmeaning of human life are meaning as a need, as a religiouscommitment, as an adherence to cultural values and a definition ofthe aims people are set to achieve.
It is normal for people to question the purpose and meaning of theirlife (King, 2004). However, the different studies on this topic makeit difficult to have a single response to the purpose and meaning ofpeople’s life. The significance and function of human life isexplained via a number of scientific disciplines in psychology(Auhagen, 2000). The psychological analysis is based on significantpositions on the purpose and meaning of human life in psychology,culture, religion and theory.
According to King (2004) “all cultures have meaning systems andsocial conventions that guide the personal meaning and purposes ofindividuals” (p. 72). The author further explains that it isthrough such systems that individuals are able to develop a sense ofpurpose and meaning in life. This sense of meaning derives from “thedevelopment of a structure to everyday life that consists of variousways of engaging the self with the world” (King, 2004, p. 72). Inregard to religion, Galek, Flannelly, Ellison, Silton and Jankowski(2015) explain that religion assists people accomplish theirnostalgia for purpose and meaning of life. Vess, Routledge, Landauand Arndt (2009) Auhagen (2000) make a significant contribution inthis literature review, by expounding on the theoretical significanceof life based on the terror management theory and action theoriesrespectively.
Definitions on the
Based on Steger, Sullivan, Kashdan and Lorentz (2008) research, themeaning of life refers to knowing where an individual “fits in theworld.” The authors note that meaning is experienced when peopleare able to accept who they are, understand their world, andrecognize how they fit in the globe with others. Although there is aclose relationship amid meaning and purpose of life, the concepts aredifferentiated by what they are associated with. Damon, Menon andBronk (2003) explain that one relevant difference “is that meaningis often associated with intrinsic factors that represent personalsignificance, worth or value, whereas purpose is associated with anoverarching mission in life that is both meaningful to the self andthat has external components such as desire to help others” (p.119). This implies that meaning is more innate, while purpose issomething that can be fashioned.
The book “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Frankl Viktor suggeststhat human beings have an inherent desire to experience life asrelevant and evocative (Steger, Kashdan & Oishi, 2008). Frankl’sargument is that the desire acts as a foundation for a resilientlife, and inability to attain meaning and purpose in life results indistress. His argument is supported by empirical research on thesignificance of purpose and meaning in human life in promotingwellbeing. One such study was conducted by Steger, Kashdan and Oishi(2008), which involved a comparison of the effect of actions linkedwith meaning, like volunteering, with actions linked with pleasure,like purchasing jewellery. The researchers concluded that frequentinvolvement in activities that are considered meaningful resulted inmore life satisfaction as compared to pleasurable activities. Hence,Steger et al. (2008) concluded that a life that has meaning resultsin improved wellbeing. The findings are supported by Peterson, Parkand Seligman (2008), who argue that meaning in life is achieved whenpeople live a life of serving others.
In addition, Heintzelman and King (2014) argue that “the humanexperience of meaning in life is widely viewed as a cornerstone ofwell-being and a central human motivation” (p. 561). In order foran individual to consider their life as meaningful, they mustaccomplish good things (Heintzelman & King, 2014). Hence, ameaningful life refers to one with a “sense of purpose andpossesses significance” (Heintzelman & King, 2014, p. 561).Likewise, Steger et al. (2008) explains that meaning acts as a web ofconnections, which assist human beings to understand our experienceand come up with plans that make it possible to achieve ourenvisioned future. This implies that meaning makes life important andsensible.
Psychological Study on the
The most relevant psychological position used to explain theimportance of life is existential psychology (Auhagen, 2000). Craig(2012) describes existential psychology as an approach that wasinitially discovered in Europe, via the convergence of two renowned“streams of human endeavor: First, the scientific and healingtradition of psychoanalysis, and second, the scholarly andcontemplative tradition of continental philosophy, especiallyhermeneutics, phenomenology, and existential thought” (p. 2). It isan approach used to investigate and understand human beings.“Existential psychologists eschew any view of human beings aspassive entities that can be acted upon or manipulated like mereobjects, the meaning and destiny of which are determinedextrinsically” (Craig, 2012, p. 2). This means that human beingsare free agents who live freely in the world. Craig (2012) expoundson existential psychology by defining it as an endeavor to comprehendhow the things that happen in life result in a feeling of coherenceand purpose in life.
Existential psychology was invented by Victor Frankl, who was aphysician as well as psychologists. He developed the psychologicalposition during his detention in German concentration camps where hewas “confronted with the question of meaning of life in the mostbrutal way” (Auhagen, 2000, p. 35). Frankl observed that peoplelose everything, once they lose a sense of meaning. For instance, theindividuals in the concentration camps, who felt that their life wasmeaningless, died. However, Frankl managed to stay alive due to thesignificance he placed on his life. He envisioned himself lecturingto a specialist audience. As such, he created purpose for his life,which enhanced his will to live (Auhagen, 2000).
According to Frankl’s findings, human beings must have a meaningin life. This is because, the lack of meaning results in illness andin extreme cases of meaningless, death occurs. He refers to feelingmeaningless as existential frustration, which results in an illnessreferred to as noogenic neuroses (Auhagen, 2000). Neuroses equates toan existential vacuum, which can be cured through logotherapy. Thetherapy developed by Frankl, entails envisioning meaning in everysituation in life. Similar to the description of existentialpsychology by Craig (2012), logotherapy refers to human beings asfree agents. Hence, Frankl suggests that the meaning of human lifecannot be limited to specific issues. Every situation peopleencounter has a meaning and people should endeavor to find theirmeaning even when they are suffering, as was his case while in theconcentration camps (Auhagen, 2000).
Another psychological position, which is important in explaining themeaning and purpose of life, is individual psychology proposed byAlfred Adler. Adler assumes that all human beings have three majorduties in life. “The first is that we can continue our personallife on earth and safeguard the future of humankind. The second dutyis living as a social being, and the third lies in the relationshipto the opposite sex” (Auhagen, 2000, p. 35). Just like Franklsuggest that the meaning of life cannot be restricted to a singlesituation, Adler argues that the meaning and purpose of life developsfollowing every endeavor to find solutions in life. He implies thatmeaning has to be associated with actions that encourage feeling andnot egoism (Auhagen, 2000).
Auhagen (2000) also introduces meaning as a need using AbrahamMaslow and Roy Baumeister’s psychological position on thesignificance of human life. Maslow argues that human beings gratifytheir needs depending on priorities, which in turn results in thesatisfaction of higher needs. For instance, the need to eat anddrink, results in the satisfaction of other higher needs, like humandevelopment (Auhagen, 2000). Hence, Maslow argues that it is throughthe gratification of human needs that people are able to find apurpose and meaning of life. Baumeister expounds on the meaning oflife as a need by explaining that humans have four types of needs.These are “a need for purpose: we want to be able to connectcurrent events with the future. Second, we have the need for value:we want our own actions to have a positive value. Third, we have theneed for efficacy: we want to influence our environment. Fourth, wehave the need for self worth: we want our self to have a positivevalue” (Auhagen, 2000, p. 36). Thus, Baumeister equates meaning inlife as the inspiration to achieve the four needs.
The psychology of religion is equally important in this literaturereview. Most theorists suppose that the main function of religion “isto help individuals fulfill their yearning for meaning and purpose inlife” (Galek et al., 2015, p. 2). Empirical research supports thepositive relationship amid religion and the conviction that life haspurpose and meaning. Francis (2000) and Robbins & Francis (2000)conducted a study on the impact of frequency of church attendance ininfluencing one’s purpose in life. The researchers concluded thatpeople, who attended church frequently, positively believed that theyhave a purpose in life. Similarly, Jewell (2010) conducted a study onMethodist Church members. The researcher concluded that church goerswho had a firm belief of God’s attachment in their life had agreater conviction that their life had meaning and purpose, ascompared to church goers who lacked a firm belief of God’sattachment.
Galek at al. (2015) explain that the “relationship betweenreligion and meaning in life is attributable to the fact thatreligious commitment fosters a coherent set of goals that providemeaning and purpose” (p. 3). Galek et al. (2015) explains that thisis because religion makes people to envision a life of futuresalvation, in the process, providing a sense of purpose to live.Religion responds to the important question on what people should dowith their lives and why we should continue to live despiteencountering many predicaments. It addresses issues such as sickness,death, suffering among other types of tragedies. Hence, religionmakes life meaningful by instructing people to accept reality. Thisfinding is supported by Alan Watts in his book, “The Spirit ofZen,” where he argues that “the spiritual sense of wellbeingexisted in the freedom and capacity to be as spontaneous andunfettered as life itself – to be as the wind” (Gordon, 2012, p.84). Watts, while teaching about Buddhism implied that people mustaccept life’s reality to find purpose and meaning in life, which inturn promotes wellbeing.
The fact that people belong to different religious beliefs does notappear to hinder the promotion of meaning in life. Studies conductedon the impact of different religions on the importance of life resultin the same findings. In a different study on American collegestudents from different religious denominations, Steger and Frazier(2005) concluded that there were no disparities in the purpose andmeaning of life amidst students from the different denominations. In a different study conducted by Galek et al. (2015) on the impactof religious commitment on human life, the authors concluded thatreligion creates a sense of purpose and meaning in life, which inturn “counter the negative consequences of threat assessments thatthe world is a dangerous place to live” (p. 9). The study does notpoint out any difference in this finding associated with one’schoice of religion.
The purpose and meaning of human life is also explained from acultural view of psychology. According to King (2004), individualsmust have a “sense of purpose for life to feel worth living andthat a sense of purpose develops through opportunities to interactwith others to take part in leisure work, and other types ofactivities and to understand oneself and one’s world” (p. 85).The author further explains that when people live in good communitiesand are provided with valuable rehabilitation services, they are ableto enjoy life. Cultures comprise of unique meaning systems, which areimportant in guiding the importance as well as function of humanlife. People are able to create meaning of life based on theircultural expectations or teachings. The teachings create a structureas to how people lead their daily lives, in addition to howindividuals engage with themselves and with others (King, 2004).
Culture ensures that people have a sense of support. There aretrans-cultural aspects of support, which lead to the gratification ofspecific human needs. They include how people behave and think aboutother people, which result in “feeling accepted, feeling capable offunctioning and feeling understood” (King, 2004, p. 75). This meansthat when people belong to a certain culture, they experience a levelof support that derives from being accepted and understood. As aresult, people are able to find a purpose and importance of life thatderives from belonging to one’s culture. It is very important thatpeople belong to certain cultures. An individual’s culture enhancestheir significance of living, because they are able to understand theworld. This understanding derives from information as well as advicefrom others within their culture, which encourages them to live incertain ways, and in the process find life to be significant.
Psychological study based on theories also helps to explain thepurpose as well as meaning of human life. Vess et al. (2009) use theterror management theory to explain why people attach meaning tolife. The theory “posits that human behavior is motivated in partby a need to mitigate the potential for anxiety stemming from therecognition that death is inevitable” (Vess et al., 2009, p. 728).This means that, because people are unaware of when they will die,they find meaning in life by engaging in actions that are realistic.Such actions include cultural values, which make it possible tounderstand why people should live in certain ways and not others.Additionally, culture makes it possible for individuals to definestandards regarding what they value (Vess et al., 2009). The theoryaligns to King’s (2004) argument, on the significance of culture inproviding support for people, which ensures that they find meaning intheir life. The authors portray culture as an important factor inensuring that people are able to survive in the world. Thus, it canbe concluded that the function and significance of human life is topromote cultural values and support.
Auhagen (2000) explains that action theories are important inexplaining the importance of human life. This is because “an actioncan be seen as a chain or system of behaviors which are integrated bya common goal and steered according to a plan” (Auhagen, 2000, p.36). Auhagen implies that people are guided by aims and plans, whichmake human beings functional. Hence, the importance of life is toensure that the aims and plans are met. People organize their livesbased on abstract aims, which are “conceived as cognitiverepresentations of personal motives” (Auhagen, 2000, p. 36). Theaims influence behavior, how we perceive things as well as feelings.In specific, aims that are linked to self transcendence, likeindividual growth, result in a discovery of life’s meaning andpurpose. As a result, human life is defined by the goals or aims thatpeople are set to achieve, and because these goals must be achieved,human life becomes important and functional.
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