On Meaning in Life: Part 1, The Story of Your Life

As you may likely know, a revolution has occurred in psychology over the last thirty years. Called "positive psychology" many psychologists have turned their attention from mental illness to study happiness, flourishing, and fulfillment in life. Classes in positive psychology are routinely the most popular classes on university campuses, and podcasts sharing the findings of positive psychology have huge followings. 

Early research in positive psychology focused on virtues and character strengths, research that showed us things like the importance of gratitude. More recently, positive psychology has turned its attention to variables associated with transcendence, things like wonder, awe, and meaning.

I want to devote a few posts to meaning in life because, as I recount in Hunting Magic Eels, meaning has become harder for us in an increasingly post-Christian world. Understanding how meaning in life is constructed, what its ingredients are, can help us see more clearly why faith might matter for our mental health.

Meaning in life is a cord woven from three strands. The first strand is coherence and comprehension. 

Meaning comes from life "making sense" to us. We understand how all the parts and pieces of our life, our past, our present, and our future, are put together to make a whole. My life feels "connected" and I have the sense that I "get it." 

We struggle with meaning when we lose this sense of coherence and comprehension. We don't understand what is happening to us. Things feel disconnected, disorganized, random, and chaotic. I can't make sense of my life or the world.

We've all experienced this, how dramatic or traumatic changes in our life circumstances can create a crisis of meaning. We struggle to find a "new normal," a new mental equilibrium in the face of new circumstances. And if we can't mentally get on top of the situation we're prone to anxiety, depression, and other psychological symptoms. 

This is one of the reasons therapy is helpful to us. Or simply talking out loud to a dear friend or family member. And when alone, even journaling works. For many of us, therapy is a "sense-making" journey. Weaving our past and present into a coherent whole, something that we "get" and understand.

Story is an excellent way to describe all this. We achieve coherence and comprehension when we can story our lives, when we can narrate our experience. In fact, narrative therapies explicitly frame the therapeutic task in just this way, as a journey into a new and better story. 

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