A Sense of Meaning in Life

Jeffrey Ethan Jessum, Ph.D


The crisis of meaning and meaning-oriented therapy

We live in a time of great extremes. Modern society has given birth to so many wonders: scientific and technological advancements, medical breakthroughs, creature comforts and luxuries, modes of transportation and communication that connect us to the world in incredible ways. Yet, in spite of such amazing accomplishments, we feel more disconnected and unfulfilled than ever before. 

Studies indicate that our generation is at significantly higher risk of developing depression than any previous generation.  In fact, Christopher Murray, the head of epidemiology at the World Health Organization suggests that depression will, by 2020, become the world’s second most debilitating disease, superseded only by heart disease. 

Even more telling are findings suggesting that this trend is stronger in more economically-developed cultures.  We have grown so quickly as a society that we have become uprooted from the things that provide us with depth and meaning. 

How do we as individuals and as a society cope with the rapid changes that have occurred in the world? How do we maintain a sense of peace and connectedness amidst the hustle and bustle of modern society? How do we fill the emptiness and re-establish our connection with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose?    

The answers to such questions are as unique and diverse as the people who ask them.  Because people are so vastly different, the things that provide them a sense of meaning and purpose will be different as well.  An integral approach sees meaning and purpose as being strongly related to how we translate our life experiences and how well we transcend our more limited perspectives. 

Meaning from translation

In order to find meaning in life, we need to be able to translate and make sense of our  experiences and life circumstances in ways that are meaningful. This translation can take many forms: spiritual, humanistic, existential, altruistic, scientific, artistic, poetic, mystical, rational, interpersonal, and intrapersonal to name just a few.  What is meaningful to people varys depending on their traits, dispositions, worldviews and levels of development. 

As a psychologist, I work with clients to clarify what it is that gives them meaning and help them create strategies for making sense of their life experience in ways that are meaningful and relevant to whom they are as individuals.

Meaning from transcendence

Cultivation of deeper meaning also occurs when we find ways of transcending our current sense of self and current worldviews, so that we may embrace a wider vision of ourselves and the world we are a part of. 

What gives us meaning changes as we grow, and each time we grow, our capacity for meaning deepens. So the compliment to translation is transcendence, or the moving from a narrow view to a more encompassing view.  Small children transcend the sense that they are just their physical bodies and come to realize that they are also their minds.  In doing so, they are open to all the meaning that can come from the world of the mind.  Things like the joy of imagination and the satisfaction of intellectual understanding provide meaning in ways that were not possible before the child had transcended his view of himself as just a body.

Within our minds and hearts, we frequently come to believe that one small aspect of who we are (say, a part of our personality, our fears, our desires for material wealth or power) is all of who we are.  When we do this, we are limited by that constricted sense of identity, just as young children are limited by the belief that they are only their physical bodies.  As a result the things we can find meaning in are also restricted.

By working on transcendence we learn to expand our sense of self, and the more we do this, the more potential we find for meaning. 

When we transcend parts of ourselves, those parts are not lost.  They are not transcended and cast out or disassociated from our sense of self.  They are transcended and included, integrated into an even bigger, more expansive sense of self. 

I work collaboratively with clients to develop tools to help them transcend limited notions of who they are.  For some this takes the form of integrating the mind and body.  For others it involves integrating feelings and thoughts, or different aspects of their personality. 

For others it involves realizing that their sense of identity is dependent on the communities and culture they are a part of. For some it involves integrating their mind and body with a bigger spiritual sense of who they are.  And for many it involves a combination of many of these different types of integration.   

Working on translation and transcendence helps create perspectives that can bring us more fulfillment and happiness.  Meaning-oriented therapy helps to cultivate translation and transcendence within the individual while also helping to cultivate qualities that will contribute to greater well-being in all the four domains (see: Domains of Well Being.)


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