What’s the Meaning and Purpose of My Life?

Is love a human need? How about achievement? How do we achieve “self-actualization?” What about Maslow’s hierarchy of “needs?”

Hi visitors, here’s a cool email question about the meaning and purpose of life that I got from a highly esteemed fan.

Hi David,

Looking at the comments thread on your home page, I had a question based on some comments from others. Is it important to know the purpose of your life in order to feel self-contented and happy?

I could not come out with an appropriate answer for myself. Is there really a way to find out what the purpose of your life is, or does it really matter? And even if it does matter, what do we do if we find out our purpose? Maybe that’s not practical in today’s materialistic world.

I read an article on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid. From the bottom to the top of the pyramid, he lists

  • physiological needs
  • security needs
  • belongingness and love needs
  • self-esteem needs through accomplishments
  • and finally, self-actualization.

Here’s my question: Can humans be really happy without any or even many of these missing needs?

Practically, I see it as difficult. But, by cognitive theory it seems to be possible at least to the level of not disturbing ourselves for the missing needs.

To make it short my question, in essence, is this: What can be the true drivers of happiness in today’s times while at least one or more needs is challenged in this need hierarchy, especially love and relationship needs along with the realization of our full potential.

Thanks,

Rajesh

 

Hi Rajesh,

Thanks for another cool question! I can only ramble a bit and give you my take on it.

I recall reading about Maslow’s “needs” theory in college, in a class on so-called “third force psychology.” The writers in that movement focused, if I recall correctly, on achieving peak experiences, as opposed to becoming less depressed or anxious. At the time, I like the class and found it inspirational.

However, my thinking as a cognitive therapist, and now as a TEAM-CBT therapist, has evolved a great deal from my thinking during my college days. I have discovered that some of these “needs” are not really “needs,” but wants, although this is, of course, extremely controversial.

Individuals who I have treated who thought of love and achievement as “needs” have been very depressed, and sometimes even suicidal. If you read my book, Feeling Good, you’ll find sections on the so-called “Love Addiction” as well as the “Achievement Addiction.”

One potential problem is that if you tell yourself that you “need” love or achievement to feel happy and fulfilled, you may set yourself up for intense anxiety and depression when you are rejected, or when you fail. In addition, it is not really true that adult humans need love or a certain level of achievement to feel happy and fulfilled. Of course, to some people, what I am saying right now will seem like the darkest type of heresy!

In the chapter in Feeling Good on the “Love Addiction,” you can read about a woman who was dumped by her husband, so he could have an affair with his secretary. She was devastated and told herself, “I need John’s love to feel happy and fulfilled.” This thought triggered intense depression and hopelessness.

I encouraged her to do an experiment to test this belief, using the Pleasure Predicting Sheet. She discovered, much to her surprise, that simply being by herself, and treating herself in a loving way triggered high levels of satisfaction. In contrast, a lunch with her husband turned out to be one of the most miserable experiences of her life.

This gave her morale a tremendous boost, because she realized she did not actually “need” her husband’s love. Being around him was clearly NOT a source of happiness or “self-actualization.” She began dating and soon fell in love with a fellow who was far more suitable for her. And of course, the moment she no longer “needed” her husband, he begged for her to return. Instead, she filed for divorce.

This happens almost every time. When you “need” things, they tend to be elusive; when you no longer “need” the universe, the universe will come to you.

Her husband called and said he was enraged with me, because he’d referred his wife to me and had asked me to take care of her in case she became suicidal. I told him, “I did, I did!”

So, to answer your questions from my, admittedly controversial, perspective, there is no one “meaning” or “purpose” in life. Instead, there are an infinite number of meanings and purposes that present themselves in the experiences we have at every moment of every day. For example, right now I am answering your question, and enjoying this dialogue. That’s enough “meaning” and “purpose” for me for the moment. When I finish this blog, I will find some other activity, or purpose.

And as far as “self-actualization” goes, that just sounds to me like another perfectionistic trap. Right now, I’m too busy having fun to care about “self-actualization.” I think life, and the many rewards of life, can be found in the here-and-now, in our moment-by-moment reality, and not so much in the clouds of abstraction.

As a psychiatrist, I don’t usually approach these things from an overly general or philosophical perspective. Instead, I ask my patients to pinpoint one specific moment when they were feeling anxious or depressed on the Daily Mood Log. Then I ask them to rate their negative feelings and record the negative thoughts that triggered those feelings. Then we can identify the many cognitive distortions in those thoughts.

At that point, I bring the patient’s resistance to conscious awareness and melt it away, using Paradoxical Agenda Setting Techniques, like the Invitation Step, the Miracle Cure Question, the Magic Button, Positive Reframing, and the Magic Dial. At that point, we use several methods to challenge and crush the negative thoughts. This usually leads to a rapid and fairly complete elimination of the negative thoughts and feelings, and often ushers in fairly intense feelings of joy.

That’s just a brief overview, of course. If the patient has Self-Defeating Beliefs that get in the way, such as the belief that he or she “needs” love, approval, achievement, or perfection in order to be “worthwhile,” then we sometimes modify those beliefs as a part of Relapse Prevention Training.

Achievement can be very rewarding—but it does not make you more “worthwhile” and is no guarantee for happiness. Same goes for love, approval, perfection, fame, status, or wealth. There’s certainly nothing wrong with love or approval, but it does not make you more “worthwhile.”

One last point is this: physiological needs are true needs. We do need food, air, and water to survive. Without them we die. So the basis of Maslow’s pyramid is valid. But most of the rest of his pyramid consists of wants, not needs. My take on it! Some will probably insist I’m a quack!

You might think of security as a “need.” For example, if you were in a dangerous situation, such as a war zone where bullets were flying, and you had no protection, you could die.

But Maslow includes financial security, health and well-being as “needs.” Well, if you listen to the podcasts featuring live work with Marilyn, you will discover that she experienced “self-actualization” after a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer. But if Dr. Matthew May (my co-therapist) and I had taken the path of believing that she could not feel happy and worthwhile without good health, this “need” approach might have doomed her to ongoing severe depression and anxiety.

And I’ve treated many people with intense anxiety and depression who feared going bankrupt. Five of them actually DID have to declare bankruptcy while I was treating them. And you want to know the really odd thing? The day they went bankrupt, every single one of them recovered! Their feelings of depression and anxiety were not caused by their lack of financial security, but rather from their distorted negative thoughts, thinking (wrongly) that they’d be worthless and unlovable if their business failed. That’s why their negative feelings disappeared–they discovered that their fears were baseless.

By the way, people elevate all kinds of things to the level of needs. For example, someone wrote to me earlier in the week, quite irate, because he did not believe that thoughts create emotions. He said the facts of your life create your feelings.

My goodness! I don’t think he’s read any of my books or listened to the live therapy with Marilyn! I’ve really addressed the idea that our feelings result entirely from out thoughts, and not external events, so many times! But many people still don’t “get it!” And some don’t want to get it!

He gave the example that if your IQ is only average, or even below average, you cannot be happy, since you might want to study physics, but you’re not smart enough to do that!

This actually happened to me in college. I thought it would be super cool to major in physics, but the kids in my class who were majoring in physics—Phil Allen, Farzam Arbab, and Joe Stiglitz—had IQs far above mine, and it simply was not a smart option for me. So, I majored in philosophy instead, which was a lot easier for me. And I’ve loved the road I’ve traveled!

Think about this: Half of the people in the world have IQs below 100—that’s the half-way point, by definition. Half of us have IQs above 100, and half have IQs below 100.

Does this mean that half of the people in the world are doomed to depression? That sounds totally nutty and simply doesn’t accord with the facts! But when you tell yourself that you “need” this or that to feel happy, you turn yourself into a victim.

The fellow who wrote to me was pretty indignant and seemed intent on proving how “wrong” I was! As I’ve said, these issues are sensitive and highly charged for many people, and controversial, to be sure.

That’s why I don’t evangelize too much. I treat people who are suffering, people who are motivated to change. If someone wants to view love or achievements as “needs,” and if this belief system is working for him or her, then that’s totally fine by me.

One last point, just to be safe. I mentioned that love is not an adult human need. When Aaron Beck first made that claim in one of the weekly seminars I was attending as post-doctoral fellow in psychiatry at the U. Penn. Medical School in Philadelphia, I practically fell off my chair and had the thought: “He must be some kind of sociopath to believe such a horrible thing!” But over time, I discovered he was right, and that insight saved the lives of quite a few rejected, lonely and suicidal people I have treated over the years.

When I say that love and achievement are not “needs,” people get annoyed with me as well. Some skeptics remind me about infants with the “failure to thrive” syndrome—they don’t develop properly without love, without being touched, that sort of thing. I think that line of research is valid. For infants, love and nurturing do seem to be human needs. For adults, I think it is more productive to think of them as “wants.”

A Cool Upcoming Workshop for you!

May 20th, 2018  Advanced, High-Speed CBT for the Treatment of Depression and Anxiety A one day workshop with Drs. David Burns and Jill Levitt. 6 CE Credits, $135
You can join in person or online from wherever you live!

 

 

10 thoughts on “What’s the Meaning and Purpose of My Life?

  1. Hi David,
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful and inspiring post on the meaning of life! I credit your work with inspiring me to be one a psychologist. I still vividly recall as a teenager in the 80’s walking into a bookstore and seeing a copy of Feeling Good. For reasons I can’t explain, since I wasn’t feeling depressed at the time and had never read anything in the psychology genre before, I picked it up and was hooked! Now, over 30 years later, and I’m still following your work and learning from it!

    I greatly admire your longevity and vitality and continued contributions to the field. I’m looking forward to another 30 years together! 🙂

    I thought I might add something to the meaning of life discussion. Another controversial point, perhaps, but in your post you make the case that food, water, and shelter, etc are human needs. I’ve read philosophers who take needs and wants a step further and argue that we don’t even need those! We want those because we want to live. But, we don’t even need to live, we want to! Some make take issue with this view or see it as morbid, but for some (including me) it can be exhilarating to realize that you WANT to be here! That concept may be useful to others, or may not be.

    Anyway, just a quick two cents. I thoroughly enjoy your posts and podcasts and will always remain a huge fan! Thank you again!

    Kevin

    • Thanks Kevin for another cool comment on today’s post! I appreciate your thinking. And yes, perhaps a Buddhist might argue that we do not really “need” to be alive, we just “want” to be alive. I can “live” with that for sure! I have to be brief right now, as my Sunday FB Broadcast is about to begin in 30 minutes, with the wonderful Jill Levitt and Mike Christensen. Keep those good thoughts flowing. The philosophy side of things is really kind of cool. And there’s no one RIGHT way to thinking about these concepts of wants and needs, either. Have a great day! david

    • I found this post very interesting Dr. Burns, and I found Kevin’s comment pretty brilliant as well!

      It’s a total mind shift to think that there doesn’t have to be meaning in life. For much of my life I didn’t see a purpose in life and it caused me a lot of anxiety and depression. Now I still don’t see a purpose in life. Instead of feeling anxious and depressed about that, I have learned to find enjoyment in my daily tasks and in moments with others.

      This shift in my thinking is almost entirely due to the books you’ve written, and your podcasts. I am very grateful to continue learning from you!

      • Thanks, Jess, I love your comment!

        I would put it slightly differently, but it amounts to the same thing. Instead of saying there is no purpose or meaning in life, I like to think that there are tons of purposes and meanings, and they vary moment by moment. For example, in the middle of the night I woke up and had to pee, so I got up and peed! That was my purpose at that moment! Right now my purpose is answering your neat email comment. And also, I am drinking a cup of coffee! But it amounts to the same thing–letting go of certain vague, nonsensical, philosophical concerns, and focusing, instead, on the majesty of being alive in every moment. I, personally, feel I have a fantastic amount to be thankful for, like teaching my students and colleagues, or going with them on my Sunday hikes and doing personal work! And sometimes going with them for a dim sum feast after the hike. It doesn’t get much better than that! Except this morning, our little Kitty, Miss Misty, jumped up on my lap and purred and cleaned herself. She is trusting me more and more. That’s cool, too!

        So much for the “meaning” and “purpose” of life!

        david

  2. Another Great answer David. A bit relieved on learning purpose of life is evolving every moment. Perhaps trying to achieve happiness in every moment is our purpose of life.

    Also, Love and achievement are not human needs. Does that belief makes us loose motivation to find love or achieve remarkably? Are there examples of people who have found love and achievements without needing them? I think people dont want to risk believing them as wants for the fear of not achieving them.
    Thanks
    Rajesh

    • Thanks, Rajesh.

      I would say that achieving happiness is only one of an infinite number of purposes of life. For example, my purpose in jogging is to maintain health and fitness, but I find jogging unpleasant. It gives me NO happiness, and NEVER a “runner’s high!”

      Right now, I am motivated to write a decent answer to your (as usual) cool questions! But I have no “need” to do this, and no “need” to achieve. I write and answer questions because I find the process enjoyable. And although I do not believe that I “need” love, my relationships with people have deepened a great deal since giving up that and other “needs.”

      But yes, I agree with you that sometimes people do cling to familiar beliefs out of fear! In addition, sometimes people kind of fall in love with their “beliefs” about life, thinking they are perhaps “special” because of their religious, political, or ethnic beliefs. Hitler told the German people that they were “special,” and “superior,” and this belief excited millions of Germans who wanted to believe it, even though it was a lie!

      David

      • I am still confused about one thing:if we admitt that we can be happy without needing love,then why do we spend energy on building intimate connections with our friends and family members,and on caring others’ thoughts and feelings?
        And what’s your reason for building warm or intimate relationships with other people?

      • I build loving connections with others because I find that profoundly rewarding, not because I “need” them! The critical distinction is between “wanting” and “needing” love, or achievement, or wealth, or status, or anything at all. However, there is not need to change a belief unless you are struggling. If you are perfectly happy with the way you are thinking about love, or achievement, or anything, then you’re in good shape!

        In my book Feeling Good, check out the chapter on the Love Addiction. It’s about a woman who told herself that she “needed” her husband’s love, and this belief almost led her to suicide! She didn’t need his love, she only needed her own self-love. When you “need” love, you may become “needy.”

        Thanks so much.

        david

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