How do we find purpose, meaning and fulfillment?

Who do you want to be?

The desire to find fulfillment is more important now than ever.

Among some, boredom is the constant state of their life. For others, there is a rise in mental illness, depression and anxiety. Some just feel lost and are not sure what they should do or who they should be. And some do feel happy, but may be asking if there is anything more to life than what they experience now. Can anything be done about it?

We live in a time of competing theories of what makes life worth living. There is wealth and riches, as if this alone produces happiness. There is the proliferation of social media, as if simply having contacts, however superficial will cause happiness. We seem much more concerned with an artificial image, with what we publicly share with others, the totally happy, always having fun, and perfect person, rather than an honest portrayal that we often do not feel on the inside what we project on the outside. We really struggle with being authentic with others. Facebook, Instagram, Snap Chat, Tik Tok, YouTube and other social media apps are all about projecting who we want to be or wish we were, and not really who we are. There is the tension between being expected to always be available for work on the one hand, with the waste of time that can be searching various platforms for cat videos. There is the reality that we are connected with others all around the world, while at the same time we are lonelier and find ourselves suffering from mental illness. We have more information at our fingertips, but less formation. What that means is that we can know about a lot of things, but we do not really know what all these things mean.

And the structures we used to rely on are fading more from our lives. We are less religious, have less trust in the media or government, are in the midst of rapid societal change, only believe government is effective when their preferred political party is in power, are suspicious with anyone who disagrees with us (even considering them evil), and find ourselves facing unprecedented crises. Increasingly we find ourselves in a tribe or on a team that requires us to be “all in” with no room for dissent. Perhaps never before has there been the feeling that there is nothing certain, and everything is up for grabs. And this has led to a certain malaise about our future, where we are going and what we will become.

The result of all of this is that many are unhappy and lonely, are experiencing more mental illness, face tremendous increases in addiction, and for some, are more likely to resign ourselves to the notion that nothing can change.

This course seeks to help the exploration of meaning, with a goal of opening pathways to happiness and fulfillment. While this is a religious website (I am a Catholic priest, after all) it begins with the human quest for fulfillment. Admittedly this is a presumption, namely that everyone seeks fulfillment and happiness, but I think it is one that is safe to make. After all, who does not want a better life?

And while we begin in a general human quest for meaning, we will explore religious meaning as well. While religious affiliation is declining, at the same time, the majority of people in the world do express some faith in God. And even those who are not sure about their belief in God or religious practice do usually, in my experience, want to explore the spiritual side of our existence, even if it is only to debunk it. Therefore, it is important to consider the “religious question” and the “God question.”

Why are we here? What drives human beings to get up in the morning?

In the two short video clips from “Everybody Loves Raymond” we see Ally, Ray’s daughter, asking a very deep question. Why are we here? How would you answer Ally’s question? Why are we here?

Why are we here? Why did God put us here on this earth?
The answer is not so easy.

Who are we? David Brooks and the Road to Character

David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times and for a long while worked for the Aspen Institute in an organization called WEAVE, which seeks out ordinary people seeking to make connections where they live. In a particularly difficult time in his life, he began a process where he sought out people whose lives seemed to be more relational than he had in his life. In other words, he felt his interior emotional life was not as full as it could be, and as a result he was lonely, unhappy, and maybe even a little depressed. In seeking to better himself, his work led to a book called The Road to Character, where he examined the lives of people who made great contributions to the world, but at the same time had to face the dark side of themselves with radical honesty. An overall conclusion came with help from a Jewish rabbi, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who in 1965 wrote an essay in which he contrasted the version of the human in the first chapter of the book of Genesis with the version of Adam in the second chapter of the book of Genesis. The first Adam is one where success and accomplishments are primary as the human is meant to subdue the earth. The second Adam seeks to surrender himself to the will of God by developing those qualities he develops to become more the person God has made him to be.

The successful person is the one who can synthesize these two aspects of personality. David Brooks, a New York Times Columnist and Yale professor uses this idea to contrast the two sets of values human beings display. Instead of Adam 1 and Adam 2, Brooks uses the idea of Resume values and Eulogy values. Rabbi James Rosenberg quotes a book by David Brooks called The Road to Character. “Soloveitchik noted that there are two accounts of creation in Genesis and that these represent the two opposing sides of our nature, which he called Adam I and Adam II.”

In the introduction to his book The Road to Character, David Brooks describes the two types of values in this way. “The resume values are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy values are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.” While he concedes that we might say that eulogy values are more important, we spend much more of our life considering our resume values. The video clip below provides a nice summary.

Second attempt at an answer – Viktor Frankl

If we were to make an observation about human beings without reference to any religion, how would we explain the main driving force of humans? For Sigmund Freud, the answer concerned pleasure. For Freud, human beings were subject to two primary drives: the life drive and the death drive. The life drive could be summed up as a will to pleasure, whereas the death drive refers to those self-destructive behaviors that can be harmful.

This will to pleasure plays out in this conflict between the id, the quest for pure pleasure or hedonism. The id is unconscious. The superego is the moral component of humans. The problem is that the superego is a completely unattainable morality. Our lives then are the inherent tension between the id and the superego. The tension between the two becomes manifest in the ego, or self. Problems arise when the ego is overly influenced by either the id or the superego. Too much influence from the id, and we become selfish, self-centered human beings with no empathy for others. Too much influence of the superego, and we can find ourselves scrupulous even to the point of becoming paralyzed by our belief that we can never measure up, or to be so self-critical that we cannot see the goodness in ourselves or in others.

Thinkers like Alfred Adler and Fredrich Nietzsche found the notion of will to pleasure to be insufficient. Nietzsche spent most of his life developing this notion of a will to power. While first limiting this to human beings, and distinguishing between power as in brute force and power as a way of channeling this brute force into a more creative purpose. He ultimately expanded this to include not only human beings, but all of nature, particularly in response to Darwin. Alfred Adler developed what is known as the Second Viennese School where the will to power became an important concept. Adler saw the will to power as fundamental, and psychological success as overcoming the superiority-inferiority complex to move toward social equality.

Viktor Frankl rejected both the will to pleasure and the will to power as fundamental, instead proposing a will to meaning is the primary force for human beings. In his book Man’s Search for meaning, Frankl writes, “the striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centered, as well as in contrast to the will to power on which Adlerian psychology, using the term “striving for superiority,” is focused.” (p. 121)

This will to meaning is manifest by the belief that when we refuse to accept ourselves as we are, but rather strive to see what we can become, we indeed find that we are better.

This drive to meaning can be manifested in three basic ways. We can love someone beautiful, we can create something beautiful, or we can develop an appropriate attitude in the face of unavoidable suffering, which is the realization that even when bad things happen that we can not control, what we can control is our reaction to these events. These ideas are presented in his work Man’s Search for Meaning. A video summary is presented below, though it is strongly recommended that the book be purchased, as it is considered one of the greatest books ever written.

The book chronicles Viktor Frankl’s experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during WWII. During his time in camp, he is tortured, beaten, worked to the brink of death, not given enough food or proper clothes/shoes during freezing temperatures. He was subjected to vermin, frost bitten toes, and edema. He paints a truly a horrific existence of his day to day camp life. Daily, people dropped dead all around him (from disease and starvation) and are executed for no reason at all. His mother, father, brother, and wife were all killed in the camps. With all this in mind, how could he find life worth preserving?

For Frankl, this quest for meaning is not abstract. “One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.” (p. 131). Much like Rene Descartes, who is famously quoted as saying “I think, therefore I am”, for Frankl it is that I, me, myself am the one both asking and answering the question. “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” (p. 131) And so while many may find their concept of meaning bears resemblance to others, it is still only a personal quest. “Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” (p.131)

Though we mentioned above the three ways one can find meaning in life, it is important to highlight the exact writing about each done by Frankl. “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing or encountering someone; (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” (p. 133)

The first way of finding meaning concerns achievement or accomplishment. For Viktor Frankl the writing of Man’s Search for Meaning could be considered a tremendous work or accomplishment. A person who creates a successful business, someone who engages in service their entire lives, even if that is not their career, is achieving or accomplishing something that provides meaning. This is perhaps the easiest to understand.

The second way is about loving, not just humans, though it must be said it is primarily about humans. “The second way of finding a meaning in life is by experiencing something — such as goodness, truth and beauty — by experiencing nature and culture or, last but not least, by experiencing a human being.” (p. 133-134) This way of discovering meaning concerns those overwhelming experiences that we many not even be able to express in words. Today we might use a word such as finding a “soul mate” with its implication that really loving another person is this transcendent quest that pushes someone beyond them selves to see a person as a unique and beautiful “other.” Frankl says that in this love for another we are able to see the very essence of another human being, which cannot be seen without loving another person.

The third way of finding meaning is through suffering. “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph.” (p. 135) This requires the often difficult and painful task of surrendering to the truth that when we cannot change things outside of us we must change ourselves. The demonstration of this principle is in the telling of a man mourning the loss of his wife, to whom he had been married a very long time. He was very depressed until he realized that by taking on the suffering of this painful loss he was sparing his wife from having to suffer in this way. “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” (p. 135)

Other summaries of meaning

Below are links to other summaries of meaning that might help introduce the question.

How to find your life’s purpose in five minutes

Adam Leipzig

Adam Leipzig has overseen more than 25 movies as a producer, executive and distributor. and has produced more than 300 stage plays and live events, and he was one of the founders of the Los Angeles Theatre Center.

There’s more to life than being happy

Emily Esfhani-Smith

Our culture is obsessed with happiness, but what if there’s a more fulfilling path? Happiness comes and goes, says writer Emily Esfahani Smith, but having meaning in life — serving something beyond yourself and developing the best within you — gives you something to hold onto. Learn more about the difference between being happy and having meaning as Smith offers four pillars of a meaningful life. This talk was presented at an official TED conference, and was featured by our editors on the home page.

What makes a good life?

Robert Waldinger

What keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life? If you think it’s fame and money, you’re not alone – but, according to psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, you’re mistaken. As the director of 75-year-old study on adult development, Waldinger has unprecedented access to data on true happiness and satisfaction. In this talk, he shares three important lessons learned from the study as well as some practical, old-as-the-hills wisdom on how to build a fulfilling, long life.

One more observation – The challenge for Men

While life is difficult for everyone, I would argue there is a particular challenge for men which comes from what some might call toxic masculinity. In the video below, formal NFL player Joe Ehrmann delivers a great talk about what it means to be a man.

Be a Man

Joe Ehrmann has been an educator, author, activist, pastor and coach for more than 25 years. He was a college All-American athlete who played professional football for 13 years. Among numerous awards, Joe has been named “The Most Important Coach in America” for his work to transform the culture of sports.

Jane Doe


Photo by Valentin Antonucci from Pexels

Where are you going?

There is a saying that you cannot know how to get there if you do not know how to get there. This section provides a helpful way to see about how to determine your options for the journey you are taking.

Some people have a very definite idea where they are going. Others not so much. When I was in the seminary, I learned that some people had known they were being called to be a priest right away. Others were more like me, trying to figure things out when I go to the seminary, and not leaving because I had not arrived at an answer yet. When you ask some little kids what they want to be when they grow up, they pepper you with a million ideas. Other kids seem to be able to identify something that seems to provide the certain outcome. Still others have a certain idea of what they are going to do or where they are going to go, only to have some outside circumstance change their mind.

Please do not tell kids to “find their passion.” It creates too much pressure. It has become popular today to tell people to “find their passion.” I am not a fan of this phrase, because truth be told, sometimes it is not we who find our passion, but rather something that becomes our passion finds us. Sometimes we engage at something that will be our passion, but only because we have stayed at it for a long time. Telling someone to find their passion can not only give them a task they are not ready to complete, but provide added pressure that they cannot find whatever this passion is supposed to be.

There are so many ways to seek out a passion. But there are also ways it seeks us out. Perhaps a beginning is to focus on getting to know one’s self. What are you interested in? What are you good at? What challenges in life do you wish to meet? What values do you have that shape your decisions? What are the “non-negotiables” in your life, those values that regardless or what happens you will “stick to your guns” and live out your values, even if the cost of doing so is high.

But just how do I find out what my interests are? Well, there are a few ways. One way is to determine what you are interested in doing or spending your time doing. There is the interest profiler from the US Department of Labor. There is the Holland Career Code Test. These are interesting ways to group what you like to do in larger categories. Just a word of caution. These can be helpful and provide you with information. But don’t take them too seriously. They are simply not that important.

Stay tuned . . .

Coming up are people who found some type of meaning even in spite of facing tremendous challenges and difficulties in life. Over the coming weeks we will explore some interesting stories.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.