The Meaning of Life

Jewish psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl attributed his own and others’ survival in the camps to the power of having a sense of purpose that kept their eyes on meaningful goals ahead. Life can present us with many mini versions of “concentration camps” where we are in a difficult situation, can’t get out of it, and have no or very little control over what happens. There are many examples: a chronic disabling illness, pain syndrome, a bad relationship, problems with children, unpleasant work situations, financial stresses, job loss, legal problems, weight problems, addiction to drugs or alcohol, depression… The list goes on and on. When things in life are going well and we are happy and content, the question of the purpose and the meaning of life really doesn’t matter. However, in these other often unavoidable and unwanted situations, this question comes to the forefront.

Both during youth and old age, the question of life’s purpose and meaning becomes particularly relevant, but for different reasons. With an infinite future ahead and limitless possibilities and choices, the youth wonders what the purpose of her life is and what she should do – get married and raise a family, seek further education and a professional career, get a good-paying job, go on a missions trip, or a billion other options. The older person who is retired, perhaps widowed, watching friends and family die all around him, also wonders what the purpose and meaning of life is – but for a different reason than the youth does. Choices become more limited. Those things that used to give life purpose and meaning seem to be slipping away.

So what is the real purpose and meaning of life? Is it to make a lot of money and be successful? Is it to marry and raise a family? Is it to obtain lots of material possessions – nice car, house, boat, motorcycle, etc? Is it to make lots of friends, be popular and socialize? Come home, eat dinner, watch TV, and go to bed? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. But is that all? Is there no greater meaning or purpose to this amazing gift of life? For some, maybe these sources of meaning and purpose are enough—even if most of the time, they don’t quite fulfill. Why? Because there is something very deep within us that says there is more to life than any of these, that there is something very great and meaningful that we are here for. But what is that purpose?

Sigmund Freud said it bluntly, and he was probably right: “… only religion can answer the question of the purpose of life. One can hardly be wrong in concluding that the idea of life having a purpose [at all] stands and falls with the religious system” (Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930). Yes, Freud answers our question: Religion.

Corinthians 8:28 promises us, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” So, indeed, God has a purpose and we have been created as part of that purpose and for a purpose. And Jesus tells us what that purpose is – to love and serve God, and to love and serve others – and it’s repeated three times in the Scriptures (Matt 22:36, Mark 12:29, Luke 10:25). It’s really so very, very simple. When we are fulfilling that purpose, then that place deep down inside of us fills up and we experience peace and happiness. When we’re not, and we begin focusing on our own self and our own needs exclusively, then other emotions start flooding in.

There is little question that religious involvement (i.e., loving and serving God) is related to greater purpose and meaning. In our systematic review of the research literature (Handbook of Religion and Health, 2nd ed), we located 45 quantitative studies published in peer-reviewed academic journals. Of those, 42 (93 percent) found that those who were more religious experienced significantly greater purpose and meaning in life, and of the studies with the best research designs, 100 percent reported this finding – every single one.

What about loving and serving others? If done in response to Jesus’ directive and as part of loving and serving God, the same applies. Volunteering or otherwise being generous with one’s time and resources to help those in need is one of the most powerful sources of meaning and purpose, and is also tremendously fulfilling (again, if done as an expression of our love for God and as a service to Him, not for appreciation or thanks from the one being served). The scripture is indeed true – all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Not some things, but all things.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said it this way: “[T]o know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. That is to have succeeded.” He also wrote the following (and this is my favorite): “If you love and serve men, you cannot by any hiding or strategem escape the remuneration. Secret retributions are always restoring the level, when disturbed, of the Divine justice. It is impossible to tilt the beam. All the tyrants and proprietors and monpolists of the world in vain set their shoulders to heave the bar. Settles forevermore the ponderous equater to its line, and man and mote and star and sun must range within it, or be pulverized by the recoil.”

To love and serve God, and love and serve others – this is what produces real purpose and meaning. It is a universal truth that we cannot escape from.

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Harold G. Koenig, MD, MHSc., completed his undergraduate education at Stanford University, his medical school training at the University of California at San Francisco, and his geriatric medicine, psychiatry, and biostatistics training at Duke University Medical Center. He is board certified in general psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and geriatric medicine, and is on the faculty at Duke as Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Associate Professor of Medicine, and is on the faculty at King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as a Distinguished Adjunct Professor. He is also a registered nurse. Dr. Koenig is Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, and is considered by biomedical scientists as one of the world's top experts on religion and health.

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