Professor Anand Prakash, Head of Psychology, University of Delhi

Meaninglessness as a Culprit for Stress

What if meaninglessness or a lack of meaning was the reason we are unwell!

That is just an idea, but research seems to suggest that we are in-fact operating with this 6th sense— meaning. We tune into things which we feel are meaningful. Often clouded by our peculiarities, where we are always habituated to make sense in specific ways.

This lack of clarity of meaning along with our thinking habits leads us into stressful states. We, in fact, get addicted to thinking so much that our loss of meaning takes us in directions that are negative and toxic, making us unwell.

You will see this often in parents who derive meaning in life by raising their kids. When kids grow up, establish themselves and leave home, parents often report of having Empty Nest syndrome, where a deep sadness overwhelms them.

Since children are born, parents associate their life’s meaning to raising their kids, and once the kids leave, parents lose their sense of meaning as well, leading to a state of sadness or depression. This in turn strains their relationship with life and kids.

Engaging in something meaningful might help parents re-engage in life – things like taking up gardening or travelling around the world. They help improve their relationships with now-independent children, instead of adding stress and sickness to both themselves and their kids.

Meaning if often agreed upon as a combination of coherence, purpose, and significance. Now, I agree with words like coherence, purpose, and significance seem very heavy. So, let’s break it down.

Coherence is when things make logical sense and appear to be complete. This is like the compass that you hold in your hand when you navigate through a forest. Coherence tells you, “Yes, this makes sense I need to do this, I will be out of the jungle.”

Now, purpose is like the map upon which the compass sits. Why do you want to get out of the forest? “Because I want to survive and be with my family.”

Significance tells us that what we are doing matters, it’s important to us. “I need to get out of this forest because I love my family.” Love, attachment, connection or passion drives you to things that are important to you.

A clear sense of meaning in life seems to be operating at the level of intuition; it’s the way you orient yourself in life. If what you do in life according to your understanding is meaningful, truly meaningful, research suggests you will be healthy.

Victor Frankl based his entire study of clinical practice of psychology as helping his patients reinvigorate their sense of meaning in life. Having survived, the absolute bottom of hell in a concentration camp, losing his wife and everything he knew, only to come back and help his patients find their meaning in life.

Maybe all this is a conjecture or pop-psychology or perhaps trying to understand the structure of meaning is a good idea. If all of us begin to discuss what is meaningful, maybe we will start to arrive at some answers.

So, let’s make this a conversation about where is that internal compass pointing towards? What is the map showing us and what meaning do we value as individuals.