The Difference Between Meaning and Purpose in Veteran Mental Health

Meaning and Purpose. Purpose and Meaning. It’s the Holy Grail of post-military life: searching for something that will satisfy the need for meaning and purpose that a service member had while they were in the service. It’s more than just something to do, it’s a desire to find something to be. I’ve written about the need for finding meaning and purpose in our post military lives, as have many, many others. It’s one of the aspects of veteran mental health that go beyond just PTSD and TBI, and into places that medications can’t touch, coming to terms with the past can’t alleviate, and removing depression or anxiety can’t satisfy. With the number of veterans I work with as a mental health counselor, this is the single most common difficulty that veterans are looking to overcome.

But what the heck does it mean?

What does “meaning and purpose” refer to? Are they the same thing? Or different? If you say a word to yourself over and over again, it kind of means nothing, right? Sometimes “meaning” and “purpose” are interchangeable, and sometimes they’re very different. Meaning can be something that is important to you. My dogs are meaningful to me, my work is meaningful to me, life and veterans and freedom are all meaningful to me. I value them, I appreciate them, they satisfy me. Purpose can also be something that is important to you: I find purpose in the work that I do, the writing I create, the effort I make to support my family. I value them also, and appreciate them, and they satisfy me. And there’s a clue to how I see meaning and purpose differently, and the idea I’d like to get across today:

Meaning is value that we place on things from an internal perspective, and purpose is value that we receive from an external perspective. Meaning is the internal push, while purpose is the external pull.

We put them both together because we need both in our lives to be fully satisfied.

Walk with me a bit, and I’ll break it down a little further:

Purpose without Meaning Doesn’t Last

Considering purpose as something that brings us value from an external source, it is simply: something to do. A task to be accomplished. If I have something to do…write this article, see a veteran client for therapy, write a report…I have a purpose. I have a task to accomplish that will bring about a result. This is “work,” in a sense, something productive that I must do. It is possible to have purpose without meaning. Ever had a dead-end job, where the only thing it does is put money in your pocket? You didn’t enjoy it, it wasn’t satisfying to you, but the only reason you did it was because you had to. That’s purpose without meaning…and as soon as you find something better, you get out of there.

We had stuff in the military that gave us purpose, but didn’t mean anything to us. Getting smoked, anyone? The task to be accomplished…”do flutter kicks until I get tired”…was there, but it wasn’t meaningful. It wasn’t something that we continued to do even when we didn’t want to. Or guard duty? Mindnumbing hours staring at the same barren hillside, just in case the enemy horde suddenly materialized on the other side? Again, a task to be accomplished, but it didn’t have meaning, an internal drive or satisfaction.

Meaning without Purpose Is Not Satisfying

Just like you can have purpose without meaning, you can also have something that satisfies you without actually having a purpose. Six hours of Call of Duty, anyone? Or binge watching Netflix. Sure, you’re entertained, you’re satisfied, but nothing was actually accomplished. We don’t do anything. It’s like soda: empty calories. We may find something in our post-military lives that we enjoy doing, but if we don’t have the external pull of a purpose, the meaning doesn’t go anywhere.

We can find something meaningful but not give us a sense of purpose if the job is too simple. Like my example of the dead-end job earlier: if it’s assembly line work, or sweeping up sawdust in a lumber mill, it’s not challenging enough for us to keep our attention. Sure, it satisfies us to the point of meeting a need, but then what? Or, if we’re stay-at-home parents. The kids are pretty good kids, taking care of them is meaningful to us, but it’s on auto-pilot and not that hard. If the purpose is not challenging enough for us, then it’s not satisfying.

Meaning and Purpose Together are the Key to Post-Military Satisfaction

So finding something that is both meaningful to you and purposeful for you is critical for satisfaction in your post military life. Finding something you enjoy (meaning) that also gives you a sense of accomplishment (purpose) is key to finding balance. They don’t have to come from the same source, either. You can satisfy a sense of purpose in your life by working at your chosen profession, and find a sense of meaning by going home and growing a garden. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a guy who builds railroad cars for a living then goes home and works on his rock garden, which includes sprinklers and lights to create rainbows and shadows. A thing of beauty to look at, which he finds meaningful. 

So meaning as an internal motivator, and purpose as an external motivator. We must find both in our post-military lives to truly be satisfied, and continue to make as big a difference in our communities as possible. Let’s hear what you’re doing to satisfy your need for both.

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