The Role of Life Purpose in Addiction Recovery

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

Addiction and recovery are rarely linked to two fundamental human concerns, meaning and life purpose. Let me point out some links.

If you understand meaning to be a certain sort of psychological experience, as I do, then it becomes clear that a lack of such experiences opens a person up to the pain of meaninglessness and a craving to find one or more meaning substitutes – substitutes like substances or activities that will fill the void.

Likewise, a task of recovery is to produce as many of these psychological experiences of meaning as a person needs, or else the craving for that substance or activity is likely to remain potent. Addiction is fueled by too few psychological experiences of meaning; recovery is supported by the active creation of such experiences.

Just as important, an absence of a felt sense of life purpose opens the door to addiction; and the presence of a felt sense of life purpose supports recovery.

The work may prove difficult, tedious, or even unpleasant—many things that we do in the service of meaning do not necessary feel meaningful.-Eric Maisel

It is crucial to remember that life purpose as well as meaning is needed for a solid recovery, for the following not-very-well-understood reason. An activity that a person may suppose is going to feel meaningful, like working for a good cause, creating a painting, or building a profitable business, may not actually feel meaningful a lot of the time. The work may prove difficult, tedious, or even unpleasant—many things that we do in the service of meaning do not necessary feel meaningful.

But if we know that this boring or difficult task is aligning with our life purpose, then we can persevere working for that cause, creating that painting or building that business even though, sadly enough, we aren’t getting the “meaning” payoff we’d hoped we would get.

If your addiction is fueled by too few experiences of meaning and too weak a sense of life purpose, what should you do?

Step one is to consider if these are issues of real importance to you. I think that you’ll find that they are, but that’s for you to decide for yourself.

You might frame the question to yourself in the following way: “Do I have a pretty good sense of how meaning and life purpose operate in my life, am I having any problems with them, and, if I am, are those problems contributing to my compulsive or addictive behaviors?” Of course, if you’re in the throes of an addiction it may prove extremely hard to ask yourself such a question, since you may be actively denying that you have any problems and secretly wanting to maintain your addiction. But hopefully a little space exists in your being for that question to have a chance to percolate.

If you manage to ask yourself that question and if you realize that meaning and life purpose are indeed real problem areas for you, a reasonable second step is the following. Try to name some of your life experiences that have felt meaningful in the past and turn those into a “menu of meaning opportunities” – a menu of things you want to try in the future that, based on your past experiences, have a chance of proving meaningful. There’s no guarantee that they will prove meaningful but there’s a decent chance that they will, given that they have felt meaningful in the past.

Try to name some of your life experiences that have felt meaningful in the past and turn those into a “menu of meaning opportunities” – a menu of things you want to try in the future…-Eric Maisel

Naturally you don’t want to choose your addictive behaviors as your meaning opportunities, although you may be sorely tempted to make just that choice. Since those behaviors have served as meaning substitutes and anxiety relief you may unwittingly be holding them as among your meaningful experiences. So you’ll want to change your mind about that. This is a natural confusion: if your drinking, drug use, sexual activity, or other behavior is helping you not think about meaninglessness or your lack of life purpose, they can be confused for meaningful experiences. Try to talk yourself out of this trap!

If you can pull this self-inquiry off, you will then have a menu of meaning opportunities that you can employ to help support your recovery. You can say to yourself, “If I don’t experience life as meaningful, at least some of the time, that will jeopardize my recovery and maybe provoke a slip or a relapse. So I am going to pay close attention to my meaning needs and my life purpose intentions as part of my recovery program. One way that I can do this is by actively using my menu of meaning opportunities as a kind of blueprint for living, as that may give me the best chance to ‘keep meaning afloat’ in my life.”

There is much more to say about the importance of adding meaning maintenance and life purpose articulation to your recovery efforts and I hope to say them in future posts. As obvious as it is to say that having life feel meaningful and purposeful is vital to a robust recovery, most people are not educated to add those two areas of focus to their recovery program. I do hope that you will add them to yours!


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