Practice Cultivating Meaning and Purpose


Dr. Stephen Hawking has lived with meaning & purpose despite severe quadraplegia

The terms meaning and purpose often appear together. For our discussion here, I would frame their relationship this way: acting with purpose entails taking an action that is of sufficient importance that it gives your life meaning.

Living with purpose and an active search for meaning is beneficial in many ways. It builds mastery and is among the many practices I describe that  dramatically improve subjective well-being, obviating the need for antidepressants in all but those suffering with genuine major depressive disorder.

Finding Meaning in Illness

Throughout history, people have searched for meaning and purpose after acquiring a disease because, for many, the possibility of simply being a victim of bad luck is simply unacceptable. Quite often, patients have attributed supernatural causes to the disease and interpreted it as just punishment for unacceptable behavior or even impure thoughts. Sometimes when a family member got sick, it brought the family together, which was often interpreted as divine intervention. It is still very common to search for some meaning in disease. Many people have found that illness serves to teach them how to have greater appreciation for all the good things in their lives that they previously took for granted.

Sometimes the meaning we ascribe to an illness catalyzes physical, psychological, and emotional healing. When we view an illness as a chance to examine our lives and take action in line with our authentic life values, it serves as an opportunity rather than as some terrible thing that has victimized us. Imbuing the illness with meaning is self-empowering, enabling us to rearrange our lives to better conform to our life values. In doing so, we not only catalyze all our natural physiological healing mechanisms; we develop a sense of being in control of our lives.

No one can predict the degree to which a debilitating disease will prevent someone else from living a meaningful life. Theoretical physicist and ALS patient Stephen Hawking has found a way to live with meaning and purpose despite unimaginably extreme quadriplegia. Perhaps this is why he is still alive after well over four decades of living with a disease that normally kills in a few short years.

O. Carl Simonton, MD, founder of the Simonton Cancer Center

Researchers have observed and studied this phenomenon of finding meaning in illness. Dr. Lawrence LeShan and Dr. Carl Simonton found that living with a serious disease, especially one that is life threatening, often leads to a renegotiation of life values and priorities, which eventuates in a new search for meaning and purpose—of both the diagnosis and life in general. Behavioral medicine researcher Roger Katz discovered that an active search for the benefits of having a disease—the proverbial silver linings—leads to greater compassion for others and a greater willingness to openly express feelings. And psychooncology researcher Sharon Manne and her team discovered that this search often results in a greater appreciation of one’s own inner strengths as well as the greater possibilities in life—all of which add up to living more vibrantly and with greater enthusiasm. 

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