By Nikki Rollo, PhD, LMFT

Trust that which gives you meaning and accept it as your guide- C.G. Jung

Each September for the past 29 years, The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) sponsors a Recovery Month. This is a month designated to creating awareness of and providing education about addiction and mental health issues and at the same time, celebrating the hope and possibility of recovery and living a meaning-filled life. It is a time to share stories of courage and celebrate the accomplishments of a very hard journey. The theme for 2018 is Join the Voices for Recovery: Invest in Health, Home, Purpose, and Community.  

I got excited to see that the theme this year includes the idea of investing in purpose. As a professional working with individuals on the path of recovery from eating disorders and often also substance abuse issues, I frequently have conversations with my clients about the importance of discovering and cultivating a sense of meaning and purpose in life, which is truly essential for our mental health. Although we are already nearing the end of September, there are plenty of good reasons to continue exploring this theme and giving attention to living a life of purpose.

The search for meaning and purpose in life can feel abstract and indefinable- even utterly mysterious! Quite honestly, it may just seem lower on the priority list of recovery, particularly when there are so many pressing issues to address in treatment, such as stopping eating disorder behaviors, following through on meal plan requirements, engaging in the thoughts and feelings work in therapy, and working on body image. Yet, meaning and purpose is a vital piece of the recovery puzzle.

Meaning is the overarching and fundamental belief that our lives are significant. Research describes meaning as a set of beliefs that help us understand the world. It includes life goals and purpose, values, family, friends, nature, and a sense of spirituality or connection to a higher power. This often shows up in the form of the feeling that what we do matters, that we matter, that we can make a positive contribution to the world, and that we are part of a greater purpose.

There is good evidence demonstrating that when we have a sense of meaning in our lives it can serve to protect us against things such as depression and substance abuse. Meaning in life can increase our psychological health and decrease our psychological distress. It can be a resource for us- a coping tool against stressful things in life. This is a dynamic process and what brings the presence of meaning into our lives can change over time. It can evolve and shift depending on the experiences we have in life. Sometimes things feel so clear and we can see our path and recognize our purpose. Other times, it is not quite so. We are searching for clarity on our purpose and need to invest time in cultivating the things that matter to us.

Emily Esfahani Smith identified 4 pillars of meaning in her book, “The Power of Meaning”.  The themes that emerged from her research are:

  • Belonging: we all have a core need to be recognized, understood, and valued. We need to be a part of a community.
  • Purpose: living with purpose gives us the motivation to make it through good and bad times in life. We can find and utilize our talents to make a difference in the world.
  • Storytelling: this is our personal myth. What do we tell ourselves about our life? What is out story? We need to have a sense of our identity and be able to share it with others.
  • Transcendence: these are moments in meditation, prayer, or nature when the anxieties of life seem to melt away and we feel connected to something bigger.

So, whether you already feel that strong sense of meaning and purpose in your life or if you are in that foggy place where you are searching for clarity, it is important to remember you absolutely can cultivate and invest in a sense of meaning and purpose. It can be as big as doing something that impacts thousands or as small as tending to a small part of nature in your community. It is here now, for you to invest in, cultivate, and grow.