On Meaning and Life Values
By Bob Murray, PhD
How do we make our lives meaningful? This is a question I often ask myself--particularly around my birthday or other life milestones. And it's a question that often comes up with clients.
As a psychologist, I have observed that the depression of many of my clients seems to stem from their inability to feel that they have a purpose, that there is a meaning to their lives. They look for worth in possessions, in status, in wealth and, while they may get a temporary boost from these things, in the end many find that status and wealth are vacuous. What you earn and what you own do not give meaning to your life. Your life can be empty if you live in a palace or in a hovel, if you run IBM or if you are unemployed, if you are famous or unknown.
So many of us try to find purpose in achieving goals around our career, family, politics or social life. These goals have their place. But they are transitory, and achieving them can leave our lives as empty of meaning as before. Politics undergoes swings, our children go on to live lives of their own, social mores shift, and eventually we retire (sometimes at an absurdly young age). What can we count on amidst all the ephemera?
One answer is a life purpose, which, as we say in Creating Optimism, must supercede career or family goals, involve activities with other people and contribute to the social good. Such a life purpose enables a suffer from depression or anxiety to escape from what we call the "depressed self" just as effectively as deep meditation or religious belief.
Our need for such a life purpose seems to be uniquely human. As humans we strive to seek meaning for our lives, to try and justify our existence.
Yet I can't help thinking that chimps, humanity's nearest relatives, don't muse on these things, and probably neither do dolphins, who are actually our superior in brainpower.
I once asked an eminent biologist friend what he thought was the meaning of life, and he replied, "to be part of the magnificent cycle of existence. There is no waste in nature, every aspect of life is recycled and used to create more life. All life lives off the existence and death of other life, all life supports and enables other life by its mere existence."
This may seem like a reductionist view of human existence, one that I wouldn't even visit (except perhaps upon an encroaching birthday). But perhaps my friend has a point.
Sometime long ago we ceased to see ourselves as part of the fabric life and, instead, sought meaning apart from it. It was no longer enough to live, we had to live for something, and we had to justify our existence in some way apart from that existence. A flower's worth is in being a flower: in surviving and passing on its pollen and providing nutrient to bees, to hummingbirds and to grazing animals.
Early man was part of this fabric, a link in the chain of life. To our a hunter-gatherer ancestors, who lived according to a rhythm and purpose we can perhaps only faintly perceive amidst the noise and static of our times, life itself is the meaning.
When humans became settled farmers, we began to see ourselves as separate from the rest of life, we began to see Nature as our enemy, the land something we had to wrest a living from, not to coexist with. I believe this separation was the origin of much of our modern depression pandemic. A lot of research has shown that the more separate we become from Nature, the more depressed we get. This separation has even become enshrined in our beliefs--we see ourselves as needing to control Nature rather than be part of it. Many of us think of humanity as separate and "above" other life forms and uniquely possessing an eternal soul. We see human life as more valuable than other forms of life.
I firmly believe that the answer to most of our psychological ills lies in a profound reconnection to Gaia, to Nature, to the concept of God in everything. Consider some of the findings of recent studies (all of which can be found on this site):
- We are more depressed the higher up we live (we are naturally ground-dwelling creatures, like gorillas).
- Just bringing a potted plant into your office, or putting a picture of a natural place on your wall, can elevate your mood.
- Stroking a cat or patting a dog relieves stress and reduces your blood pressure.
- Natural exercise like walking is a fine antidepressant.
- Having a supportive circle of people around you and getting your fundamental relationship needs met it the most powerful antidepressant of all (we are, after all, a social species).
- A twenty-minute walk in a natural environment (or even a park) is better for ADD/ADHD in kids than any medication.
All of this leads to one inescapable conclusion: we are here on this earth to be a part of Nature not to save it or to wrestle with it. We are not a "higher" species, we are simply a species. The purpose of life--your life, my life, your cat's life, a tree's life, and an amoeba's life--is Life.
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About the Author
Dr Bob Murray is a widely published psychologist and expert on emotional health and optimal relationships. Together with his wife and long-term collaborator Alicia Fortinberry, he is founder of the highly successful Uplift Program, and author of Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and Creating Optimism (McGraw-Hill, 2004).
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