By Gleb Tsipursky
Wait, what? Science can’t answer life’s big questions – that’s the job of religious dogma, right? Well, a wave of recent research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and other disciplines has explored how we find meaning and purpose in life, with or without belief in a deity. So we as secular people can use science to fill that emptiness deep in the pit of our stomach that comes from a lack of a personal sense of meaning and purpose. We can use science to answer the question “what is the meaning of life for you?”
Some may scoff at the importance of gaining a rich sense of meaning and purpose. Well, hold off your scoffing. Studies show that people who feel that their life has meaning experience a substantially higher sense of wellbeing and even physical health. For example, Michael F. Steger, a psychologist and Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Meaning and Quality of Life at Colorado State University, found that many people gain a great deal of psychological benefit from understanding what their lives are about and how they fit within the world around them. His research demonstrates that people who have a sense of life meaning and purpose feel in general more happy as well as more satisfied on a daily level, and also feel less depressed, anxious, and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. A deeper sense of life meaning and purpose also predicts better physical health. An increased sense of life meaning and purpose correlates with reduced risk of heart attack, the leading cause of death in the United States, and stroke, another of the top five leading causes of death. With such benefits for mental and physical well-being, it’s no wonder that a strong sense of life meaning and purpose predicts longevity.
According to faith-based perspectives, the meaning and purpose of life is to be found only in God, as exemplified in The Purpose Driven Life (2002), a popular book written by Rick Warren, a Christian mega church leader. But some thinkers disagree with the notion that religion is the only way to find meaning and purpose in life. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his Existentialism and Human Emotions, advances the notions of “existentialism,” the philosophical perspective that all meaning and purpose originates from the individual. Another prominent thinker is Greg Epstein. In his Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, he advocates striving for dignity as a means of finding “meaning to life beyond God.” James Croft draws attention to the importance of secular communities in gaining a sense of life meaning.
So what does research on this issue show? Apparently, the important thing is simply to gain a sense of life purpose and meaning: the source of the purpose itself is not so important. Religion can be one among many channels to help someone gain a sense of life meaning. The pioneer in this field, Victor Frankl, was a Viennese psychiatrist who lived through the Holocaust concentration camps. In his research and work, both in the camps and afterward in private practice, he found that the crucial thing for individuals surviving and thriving in life is to develop a personal sense of purpose and meaning, what he terms the “will-to-meaning.” Frankl’s approach to psychotherapy came to be called logotherapy, and forms part of a broader therapeutic practice known as existential psychotherapy. This philosophically-informed therapy stems from the notion that internal tensions and conflicts stem from one’s confrontation with the challenges of the nature of life itself, and relate back to the notions brought up by Sartre and other existentialist philosophers.
These findings fit well with my own research on secular societies. I study how people in the Soviet Union, where my family came from, found purpose, happiness, and fun in life. The Soviet Union is typically perceived as a militaristic and grey society, with a government that oriented all of its efforts to taking over the world. Well, that’s simply not true, as the Soviet authorities put a lot of resources into providing its citizens with opportunities to find meaning and purpose in life, as well as fun and pleasure – although they also certainly wanted to spread communism throughout the world, and put a lot of efforts into this goal as well. Present-day societies with a more secular orientation than the United States have similar stories to tell, as illustrated by research on contemporary Denmark and Sweden.
So where does this leave us? Religion is only one among many ways of developing a personal sense of life meaning and greater sense of personal agency. Based on the research on meaning and purpose, I developed and videotaped a workshop for anyone who wants to learn more on this topic. I also created a free online course, which combines an engaging narrative style, academic research, and stories from people’s everyday lives with exercises to help you discover your own sense of life purpose and meaning from a science-based, humanist-informed perspective. These are part of our broader offerings at Intentional Insights, which aims to help us as reason-oriented people use scientific evidence to live better lives and achieve our goals. The Richard Dawkins Foundation also has plenty of resources to help you find meaning and purpose from a secular perspective, including videos of Russell and Keryn Glasser and Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing the meaning of life for those without belief.
So use science to find your purpose, and let me know about your experience by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Gleb Tsipursky, PhD, is the Co-Founder and President of Intentional Insights, a nonprofit that helps people refine and reach their goals by providing research-based content about improving thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns. He is also a professor at Ohio State.