Meaning and Purpose in Life: Commonplace or Hard to Come By?

Originally published at the Huffington Post.

In all cultures and at all times, humans have sought to make sense of their existence. Man's search for meaning is a quest as ancient as the dawn of human consciousness.

For at least 100,000 years, humans have buried the dead with rituals and with artifacts, apparently believing that life involves something more than just running from the lion, hunting, gathering, and mating.
It is well established that a sense of purpose is necessary for psychological health, and in turn, for human adaptation and survival. If life did not seem worth it, our ancestors may have given up on running from the lion. If depressed, they may have been less enthusiastic about mating.
Human evolution depends on our motivation and our will to survive, our feeling that life always remains worth the effort.
In the September edition of the American Psychologist ("Life is Pretty Meaningful"), Samantha J. Heintzelman and Laura A. King took note of a uniquely obvious and easily overlooked paradox in how we characterize meaning in life: "It is portrayed simultaneously as a necessity and as something that is next to impossible to attain."
The consistent finding from studies measuring the experience of meaningfulness is that most people say that their lives have meaning and purpose. It is not an experience in short supply.
Anything necessary for survival has to be abundant in nature. A trout needs more than just a bucket of water.
While it is an ordinary part of the human experience, we tend to view meaning as a rare commodity. We approach it as "a construct and experience shrouded in mystery" and readily accept that it must be "chronically lacking in people's lives."
The existentialists have told us that life is absurd and that individuals must create meaning for themselves. The alternative, as commonly depicted, is to journey to a mountaintop to ask a hermit-guru: "What is the meaning of life?"
If that is what it takes, the answer must involve knowledge scarce and precious, and something more than just happiness and satisfaction.
The research shows that "social exclusion reliably leads to lower ratings on meaningful existence" and that social connections enhance the experience. If being accepted by a tribe is all it takes to heighten the emotion, a sense of meaningfulness must not be hard to come by.
A positive mood is also an influence. Individuals who are untroubled will rate their sense of meaning higher. Whatever else a purposeful life may involve, people who are satisfied and content are not likely to feel they are missing anything.
In one experiment, subjects were shown pictures of trees and asked to judge the color contrast. When the trees were shown in the order of the changing seasons, subjects later scored higher on the Meaning in Life Questionnaire.
As Heintzelman and King pointed out, "we live in a world that generally is characterized by natural regularity" and our experience is enhanced by "the presence of reliable patterns or coherence in the environment."
In a world of seasons, sunrises and sunsets, we construct an orderly existence with everyday routines and daily rituals. In that context, it is reasonable to expect people to feel that their existence is in harmony with the natural order.
Because it is essential to our health, we are continuously motivated to seek the experience of purpose and meaning. It is like food, an everyday desire. Like sex, it is not a longing that can be satisfied in a "once and for all" way.
When our ordinary needs are satisfied, we tend to seek more. It is in our nature to search out ultimate pleasures and exquisite flavors. Some people find the next level of meaning in religious enlightenment or ecstasy. Others reach for self-awareness, personal fulfillment or self-actualization. Some people turn inward, others reach out.
The quest for a higher purpose and a greater meaning (the "Holy Grail") is sometimes difficult and it has no end point. Still, it is not a hopeless journey. According to the research, most people easily find meaning, all along the way.Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.