Whether it’s rehoming abused donkeys, campaigning for the establishment of a Palestinian state, volunteering for a political party’s election campaign, or fundraising for a homeless charity, causes come in many, many forms.
Getting involved with some such cause can bring great meaning to life. But why is this?
Well it’s likely that for many people, it fulfills the altruistic yearnings I talked about in my post ‘Altruism and the desire to do good’, because many causes (though by no means all) do have altruistic foundations. Many people find meaning in the idea that, through their actions, they might leave the world a better place.
It might also be about being a part of something that will outlive us and through which we can leave some kind of legacy. For example, by being involved with an organization that campaigns for changes in the law, or better treatment of some persecuted group, we hope to play a part in permanently changing society for the better.
And of course when we are part of a group of people all working towards the same goal, we are able to achieve much more than we would if we were working alone.
Being involved in a cause may give our lives meaning in more indirect ways too – it keeps us busy and actively involved in something we feel is worthwhile. There might also be a feeling of camaraderie and social contact with like-minded people.
Dedication to a cause also leads to self-transcendence, in that it takes us outside of ourselves. For some, this process can satisfy what Yalom describes as a “basic craving to transcend one’s self-interest and to strive toward something or someone outside or above oneself”.
There are many different types of cause and not all are of the obviously charitable ilk. Some may be of a more utilitarian nature where the well-being of a few might be forfeited for the benefit of the many. Communism is an example where the suffering of some was accepted as necessary for the supposed betterment of society as a whole.
They also come in what might seem to some more malevolent forms such as Nazism and, more recently, the ever-evolving phenomenon that is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). As destructive as they may appear to many, there are those who find great meaning in such causes. They believe deeply in what they are trying to achieve, to the extent that they will die for these causes.
Whatever the nature of the cause, if we are engaged in it then we are engaged in life. We care about something. We have something on which to focus, something that gives us purpose and direction.
That’s not to say that those of you seeking a more meaningful life should go out and jump on the first cause that comes along. For it to engage you and deliver all the benefits I’ve talked about in this post, it’s got to ignite a spark inside you. And that’s not something you can necessarily just make happen.
The first step might instead be starting to engage more with the world; embracing opportunities that come up and connecting with the people around you.
And of course not everyone that feels their life is meaningful has a cause that they are passionate about. It’s not an essential part of a meaningful life for everyone, but rather an important part of a meaningful life for some.