The Meaning of Life: Not an Answer, but a way of Living

We define addiction in line with the great psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, who said that addiction is a response to living a life that has little personal meaning. If Frankl is right—and a growing body of research is saying he is — then those suffering from addictions are faced with having to discover or create a life that has purpose and meaning for them.

According to Frankl, people develop addictions because they feel different from others: lonely, bored, confused, depressed, lacking direction, lacking purpose, lacking goals, etc. This isn’t a matter of growing up poor or lacking education. Many people with addictions are wealthy and highly educated. Rather, addiction affects a cross-section of society, with the defining issue that life just doesn’t seem that comfortable. Essentially, their lives do not offer much bang for the buck.

The solution to addiction, then, is to live a life that is personally meaningful; a life that fills you up. The real question each person must ask is: What do I need to do to live a personally meaningful life? What are my goals? What is my mission? What is my purpose in life?

This impulse to make sense of one’s life is a fundamental motivation for human beings, according to psychologist Dr. Paul Wong, whose research forms the basis of our addiction treatment program. This is one of the reasons why we put a special focus on what Wong calls “the human quest for meaning” and why we also use AA’s saying: “To thine own self be true.”

This blog will provide you with some insight into what all this talk of meaning in life is about.

The Problem of No Meaning

  • Many fine thinkers have helped us understand the struggles faced by people with addiction:
  • They do not live a personally meaningful life (Viktor Frankl)
  • They lack a sense of belonging (psychologist Bruce Alexander)
  • They can’t answer the questions, “Who am I?” and “How do I fit in the world?” (psychologist Jefferson Singer) They are not true to themselves and what they want out of life (psychologist Stanton Peele)
  • Living frightens them when they are sober (playwright Eugene O’Neill)
  • They think they are different than others (musician Eric Clapton)

Many in recovery have willingly accepted what others told them is meaningful in life, without really believing or feeling it. A typical example is of a person in recovery who joins a Church. Perhaps he sees people there are smiling and welcoming. They provide him with direction. After a few months, though, he doesn’t seem to really be getting a better life. Perhaps he feels there is something wrong with him that he is not “getting it”. Others encourage him to stick it out, but he’s just not feeling better. This was one of Frankl’s cautions. Meaning cannot be imposed on the individual. Meaning must be personal. It’s no use getting a high-paying job, buying a house with a white picket fence, or driving a fancy, new car if it doesn’t help you feel alive. Your parents may want such a life for you, but the key is that it must be what you want.

The Problem of Too Many Answers

In a very real sense, the problem of finding what is meaningful in life may exist because we are faced with too many answers.

Today, we have so many different ways of making sense of life. The local bookstores provide any number of answers. Some of the more common titles focus on mindfulness meditation or happiness. David Seaman put together a book entitled The Real Meaning of Life. He tells us how he came to create the book: “On October 10, 2004, I was sitting with my laptop at a café in New York City trying to avoid writing a paper for my first-year humanities class. In a moment of despair, I typed ‘What is the meaning of life?’ into an online forum. Fifty thousand hits and two thousand answers later . . .” he had the material for his book. What Seaman discovered is that everyone seems to have their own answer.

The problem of all these meanings of life is which do you select? Many of them trip over each other, so they cannot all be right—though they can certainly all be wrong. One book tells you to rid yourself of the illusion of the self. According to this thinking, what you believe about yourself is simply an illusion. This illusion has been forced on you by my parents, teachers, society, but it’s all artificial. If you can get rid of, what the book calls, your “ego-self,” then you can connect with the reality of the universe. Yet, another book tells you that you have to pursue what makes you happy. Rather than get rid of yourself, you have to pay more attention to it. Yeow! Unfortunately, all these teachers seem quite convinced that they are right and the others missed the boat.

A Lesson from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams describes a computer called “Deep Thought”. The computer took 7.5 million years to provide the answer to the universe, and it was “42”. Another computer has to be built to figure out what the question was that Deep Thought answered!

Many people are looking for answers; you are likely one of them. Yet, maybe figuring out the meaning of your life has little to do with an answer to a question. Maybe it’s got to do with a way of living. According to the famous writer Albert Camus, “You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” What he meant by this is that the meaning of life is the actual living of it. Thinking about life is a weak substitute for experiencing life.

A Way of Living

I am suggesting that the answer to the question, “what is the meaning of life?”, is not an answer to a question but a way of living. Many people have provided clues as to what you can DO to live a personally meaningful life. I’ve talked about these before in previous articles. Here’s a reminder of some of them:

  • Do things for a purpose and not merely to keep busy
  • Do things based on what you truly want out of life, not on your fears
  • Try new things simply for the experience
  • Remember: “To thine own self be true.”
  • Care for others
  • Live from the inside out
  • Love and be loved
  • Attach your life to something bigger than you
  • Recognize that all people are imperfect, including you
  • Ask for help when you need it
  • Learn that negative emotions can be very useful, if you choose to use them for your benefit
  • Remember Rule 62: “Don’t take yourself so seriously.”
  • Get rid of any thoughts that include “If only….”
  • Take responsibility only for yourself (except if you have kids, of course)
  • “Live life on life’s terms.” (Viktor Frankl’s version: “What does Life demand of you?”)
  • Don’t “should” on yourself.
  • If you don’t know what to do, do the next right thing

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