Patrick, a tall, lanky, 67-year old man came into therapy describing a general sense of malaise. “Not quite a depression, Doc,” he explained as he loosened his tie. “Something doesn’t feel right, but I can’t tell what’s bothering me.”
Patrick expressed feeling aimlessness, restless, even lost. It became clear after a few sessions: Patrick was suffering from a sense of meaninglessness.
Meaninglessness as a form of psychological distress is not uncommon, but it’s often hard for people to articulate. There’s usually a sense of general uneasiness, but the reason for the discomfort is unknown.
We all have desires, longings, passions that live within us. The problem is that sometimes we don’t know what these are. Or we may think we are doing something we want, but it’s what we think we should want, as opposed to what we actually want. Additionally, what is meaningful can change as we age, so that, what was once meaningful isn’t any more.
There are basically two types of motivation:
Extrinsic motivation is the pursuit of a goal for the purpose of an external reward. The most obvious example is a financial gain, but it can be anything from good grades, or a good work evaluation, to external praise for an accomplishment. When we are extrinsically motivated to pursue a task, we are looking for something outside of ourselves as a reward.
In a culture where success is most often measured in concrete terms, such as status, money or looks, extrinsic motivations are high.
This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. It’s good to be motivated toward something that can lead to more financial security, greater job responsibility, higher performance in a sport or art, or the admiration from respected peers.
However, extrinsic motivation alone, without some intrinsic motivation, will inevitably lead to waning desire and a crisis in meaning.
By contrast, intrinsic motivation involves the pursuit of goals that have personal significance, such as volunteer work. In other words, these pursuits are motivated by the desire to fulfill something personal, without an external reward.
Let’s take exercise motivation as an example. Extrinsic motivations for exercise may include: weight loss, looking better at an upcoming event, or better physical health. Again, these are all important aspirations.
But many people who start exercising and then stop, do so because the motivation is purely extrinsic. People are more likely to continue an exercise program when there’s at least some intrinsic motivation involved. Examples of this are: feeling strong, using exercise as a respite from daily stressors, gaining endurance, or being spiritually fulfilled.
Why Having Meaning Matters
In Patrick’s case, he had worked in finance his whole adult life; he had built a home and was intrinsically motivated to be an excellent provider for his wife and three children. As Patrick neared retirement, with his kids grown and his home paid off, the intrinsic motivation of his work began to decline. He no longer held the same enthusiasm and passion for the work itself; it was losing its meaning. And with that, Patrick felt an overall lack of motivation.
Meaninglessness can happen at any point in our lives; our motivations change as we age. The transition into retirement is a particularly important time to reevaluate life meaning. An empty nest, with children being grown and less in need of support, is also a time to reassess.
Patrick and I spent a few weeks exploring Patrick’s other passions and desires: things he wanted to do when he was younger, but pushed aside in pursuit of raising his family. He decided that he always wanted to learn French, and that he wanted to pursue his music. He even decided to take piano lessons. He and his wife joined a community center, where they met new people. Patrick soon reported feeling better. The malaise had lifted and he felt reinvested in the new life he created for himself. A life of purpose.
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote, “the meaning of life is to give life meaning.” And while our motivations may change over time, we must rediscover our personal yearnings so that we can live a fulfilled, enriched life. It’s then that happiness will ensue.