Meanings in Life: An Inquiry (55+)

Research indicates that a coherent sense of meaning contributes significantly to the quality of our lives, the more so as we age. Yet if we’re unsure how to discover this sense, or which paradigms of meaning we can refer to, we might not engage with what’s truly meaningful in our lives.

Drawing on diverse sources—including the philosophy of Albert Camus, the psychologies of Viktor Frankl and James Hollis, the social-anthropological perspective of Ernest Becker and the Aristotelian virtue theory embodied in the work of Martha Nussbaum—as well as on poetry, art and mythology, this course will reflect on the big questions: Is there meaning in life? Does my life have meaning? How do we know what is meaningful? How has meaning evolved over the arc of my life?

Note: Back by popular demand, from fall 2018.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to:

  • Give examples of some of the many myths about meaning
  • Describe some essential features of a range of paradigms of and perspectives on meaning
  • Evaluate, from a personal perspective, their relative merits and values
  • Discuss the relationship between purpose, value, and meaning and its relevance for our lives
  • Explain the significance of meaning from a life stage development perspective

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: Introduction to the dimensions of meaning

What is the significance of meaning specific to the older adult? We will explore the concept of meaning as a multidimensional experience with the intention of broadening our understanding of meaning itself, particularly how it relates to happiness, contentment, and life satisfaction.

Week 2: Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus

Following a brief exploration of Paul Wong’s Contextual Mode, we will delve into a range of approaches to meaning, beginning with the Absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus and, paradoxically, the illumination of hope, commitment to life, and compassion that ensues.

Week 3: Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death

Shifting from a philosophical to a sociological perspective, Becker addresses the issue of the cultural denial of death arising from a collective anxiety and its implications for meaning. We will discover the meanings we impute to what Becker refers to our ‘immortality projects.’

Week 4: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

“. . . the deepest form of meaning accessible to an older person is the freedom to choose their response to the ultimate challenge, suffering and death.” So writes Frankl in his renowned reflection on the relationship between suffering and meaning. We will delve into Frankl’s discovery of meaning through the practices of the creative, experiential, and the attitudinal.

Week 5: Aristotelian virtue ethics

According to Robert Butler, Pulitzer prize pioneer in the field of gerontology, personal integrity, values, and character are primary psychological needs of the older adult and has a direct correlation to living a meaningful life. We will explore and analyze virtue ethics as a lens through which to consider what Aristotle defined as the precursor to wisdom.

Week 6: James Hollis’ depth psychology and fidelity to the Self

Hollis, meaning making and discovery is a function of becoming the whole of oneself, a fully conscious personality, of individuating from our archetypal impulses, and orienting to our authentic selves.

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

If you're 55+, you may take this course as part of

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