Sunday, December 28, 2014

Goal Setting and the Meaningful Life

Before You Write Another Goal

Goals, Meaning, and Faith

Have you thought about goals for the new year? The question annoys some and engages others. And some use the occasion of a calendar event to assess their progress on life goals. Goals add meaning to life. Goals reflect a sense of purpose – so it’s no surprise that research on goals and purpose would include a study of the role of religion or spirituality. Even if you are not familiar with the scientific study of religion, you would probably find it easy to see that religion or spirituality, however defined, offers people a sense of purpose in life and ways to connect various life events so they make sense. Perhaps this is behind the popular book by Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life? And on the downside, as I have written elsewhere, there is a purpose driven death—seen in those who sacrifice their lives for a religiously motivated goal.

A favorite reference for writers on meaning and purpose is Victor Frankl and his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl wrote about three routes to a meaningful life (Galek et al., 2014, p. 1):

Victor Frankl: Three paths to a meaningful life

1. Create a work or perform some action
2. Experience something or have an experience with someone
3. Adopt an attitude to cope with “unavoidable suffering”

     (This is sometimes called the meaning triangle)

Roy Baumeister and his colleagues have studied human needs related to meaning. Galek et al. summarize his focus on four basic needs.

Roy Baumeister: Four basic needs that lead to meaning.

1. We need to believe that life has meaning.
2. We need to believe that we can meet life’s challenges and reach our goals.
3. We need to believe we have worth.
4. We need to believe our actions are good and justified.

Kathleen Galek of  The Spears Research Institute in New York and her colleagues in various places studied the subject of religion, meaning, purpose, and mental health in a survey of 1453 U.S. adults. Their article provides an excellent summary of the relevant research and many interesting analyses of this extensive survey. The article is far too large to summarize here; however, I will adumbrate a few findings and include the reference below for those interested in details.

Three Ways to Link Faith, Meaning, and Mental Health

1. Religious commitment was significantly linked to fewer mental health symptoms.
2. Meaning and purpose in life were significantly linked to fewer mental health symptoms.
3. Meaning and purpose in life interact with religious commitment to explain mental health symptoms.

The interaction effect is important. Highly religious persons reporting a lack of meaning and purpose in life experience significantly more symptoms of social anxiety, paranoia, and obsession than either people who were less religious or those who were highly religious but who felt their lives had meaning and purpose.

Setting Goals: Four Ideas

1. Setting goals compatible with one’s faith enhances spiritual well-being and mental wellness. For example, a believer who commits to prayer and the study of scriptures enhances their identity as a spiritual person and increases their capacity to face the challenges of life from a faith perspective.

Self-help books and the support that comes from sermons and friends help in times of distress.

2. When a highly religious person is overwhelmed and finds little sustenance in their faith then their distress will be worse than those who never had such faith or those who can see the link between life events and their faith.

Millions of religious people suffer pain and loss each year. Looking back over the past year can be painful. And the idea of setting goals for another year can seem so futile. The whole experience of review and goal setting makes matters worse. Offering religious words of encouragement increases anger and despair. Clergy and friends would do well to keep quiet and demonstrate their faith in supportive actions.

3. Think about the ideas of Frankl and Baumeister when writing personal or career goals.

4. Psychotherapists would do well to read the Galek et al. article and think about the role of goal-setting in therapy and the importance of religion and spirituality.

I often read clinician notes indicating that the client did not find religion or spirituality relevant. I suggest that therapists may not be assessing the role of religion and spirituality in sufficient depth. People who struggle with depression and anxiety may not see how their faith can make matters better or worse. In the U.S., most people report they are Christians and for a substantial percentage of those, their Christian beliefs are important.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” ― Viktor E. FranklMan's Search for Meaning

Related Posts


Galek, K., Flannelly, K. J., Ellison, C. G., Silton, N. R., & Jankowski, K. B. (2014). Religion, Meaning and Purpose, and Mental Health. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, doi:10.1037/a0037887

Related Articles

Sutton, G. W. (2014). Psychology of forgiveness: An overview of recent research linking
psychological science and Christian spirituality. Encounter, 11Academia Link 

Sutton, G. W. (2007). [Review of the book Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths by C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez]. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 26, 273-274.   Academia Link

Sutton, G. W. (2007). [Review of the book StrengthsQuest: Discover and develop your strengths in academics, career, and beyond by D. Clifton & E. Anderson]. Journal of Christianity and Psychology, 26, 82-83.   Academia Link

Sutton, G. W. (2010). Spirituality and health: Considering spirituality and religion when planning
strategies for psychological assessment and treatment. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 38,
132-133. Academia Link

Sutton, G. W., Jordan, K., & Worthington, E.L., Jr. (2014). Spirituality, hope, compassion, and
forgiveness: Contributions of Pentecostal spirituality to godly love. Journal of Psychology and 
Christianity, 33, 212-226. Link to Researchgate 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Flash mob greets Maria and Jesus

A Merry Christmas Story
Jesús Born Reports Lucas

Back in the day, Cesar Augusto declared that everyone should have healthcare and all working families should have a path to citizenship. The deadline to sign up was 24 December. This happened when politicians did not get along. And everyone went online to register for healthcare.
Those who were not citizens were to make sure they paid their taxes and completed a citizenship application.

José and María, his pregnant fiancé who needed healthcare, could not even afford internet service. Anyway they bundled up and began their taxing trip into town to use cousin David’s line. David was out. Exhausted, they decided to stay at the Holly Day Inn, where they could get online. “Sorry guys, we’re full,” said Clark. José noticed a sign on an office door and asked if they could use that room. The kindhearted Clark nodded his head. Then María exclaimed, “omg, I’m like having a baby.” So Clark called 911. And María gave birth. She wrapped him in Holly Day Inn towels and put him on the floor of the Manager’s office.

Exhausted but joyful, María and José tweeted the good news. Angela retweeted it and began texting her pastor and friends (fortunately, they had sms service). “Where?” They replied. “Mangers place, Holly Day Inn, near David’s house.” 

Soon a flash mob appeared. Everyone was saying, “omg.” Gloria, a large angelic woman was married to Gabe. They both gave a shout out to God and called for peace. When the twittersphere calmed down, everyone said let’s go check it out. 

So they raced to the Manager and found María and José and their baby. Everyone pulled out their small screens and spread the good news.

The story of the poor family spread round the world. The wealthy Maji family decided to visit and bring special gifts. Meanwhile, the local government, frustrated with Cesar, devised their own plan to round up illegal immigrants and deport them. The Maji had some problems with the TSA but after questioning and giving detailed personal information, they found their way to the family home. They brought gold cards and other special gifts. But in the night they got a message that they were under NSA surveillance so they left early and used a different route. 

Meanwhile, María and José decided to take Jesús and leave the country. Technically they were illegals. And they were afraid the government might not honor previous decisions. Although they had relatives in the area, they did not want to be separated from their newborn baby who brought such joy to them and all their family and friends.

Merry Christmas!

Geoff W. Sutton  @GeoffWSutton  

Revised from 2013

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Joy to the World vs. Joy Aborted


In the next five minutes, 8 or more mothers will lose their unborn child in the U.S. The joy of welcoming a baby into the world will be lost. Many mothers have lost a child more than once. Christmas is a season given to celebrations of joy and focused on gifts to children. But many families feel a deep sense of loss. Christmas without children can mean days of sadness.


We met at breakfast and passed around the picture of my granddaughter before she was born. The beauty of an ultrasound photo brings joy and confirms hope for millions of parents and grandparents. She and her sister have been sources of great joy. Sadly, millions of parents and grandparents will not experience this joy. In fact, many mothers and fathers suffer in silence as they struggle with the loss of a child they may have wanted for years. The term miscarriage sounds so dispassionate. Miscarriage makes the loss of a pregnancy like another medical event instead of the death of a child.

But medical technology has brought children to life in ways never seen before. Knowing that one is pregnant with a wanted child brings hope. Seeing a moving baby via ultrasound brings joy and confirms hope. My child is alive and well! Modern fathers say, “we are pregnant.” They are bonded as well. But many couples lose their child.


“We are going to have a baby!”
             Announcements stream across social media.

In the U.S. women report some 4 million pregnancies each year. Estimates vary but 15 to 20% of these unborn children will not be born. The language for the cultural experience of pregnancy is changing to reflect a sense that a mother is with child. And as noted above, many fathers share the experience.

We seem to be in an extended cultural transition when it comes to the role of children in contemporary industrialized cultures. Family sizes have shrunken to 1-2 children. Having huge families to help with a family business is no longer a part of industrialized societies. In fact, raising children in western cultures is expensive—if one is to keep up with social expectations.

Some successful children give back to their parents but many depend on their parents late into life. More and more, children are valued for their contribution to a sense of family—people bound together in the journey of life with a common set of values and the potential to make the world a better place. Of course that does not always happen, but babies offer promise and parents and grandparents invest heavily in the next generation.

As noted above, the language surrounding having children has changed. Advances in technology provide moving images of an unborn child. We see recognizable bodies in motion and we hear a beating heart. We are convinced this is a child—not a fetus or some other clinically distant term. People are having a baby—it’s not just a pregnancy. Miscarriage and abortion is not terminating a pregnancy—a child dies. Moreover, medical technology has advanced in saving the lives of unborn children that would have died in decades past.

I suspect that the current trend will continue. Increasingly, the unborn child will be viewed as a family member and expectant parents will keenly feel the loss when a child dies.


Most religions are prolife. Some religions permit abortion in special circumstances. In the U.S., the prolife movement has been quite successful in their quest to protect the life of the unborn child. But where are they when millions of unborn children die each year?

More and more churches have responded to the need to provide homes for pregnant mothers who have been encouraged to keep their children. But where are the churches when parents lose these unborn children? My wife and I received cards, some calls, and a few visits when our parents died. People who have been part of a community for a long time usually draw large crowds when they experience the loss of a loved one. The loss of a child is a huge tragedy. And the support is usually generous as well.

So where are the churches when an unborn child dies?
After all, haven’t conservative churches been actively preaching that the unborn are children?
Don’t these parents feel the loss?
Don’t these parents grieve?
Don’t these parents need to mourn?
Why are there no funerals or memorial services?
Where are the graves?
Where are the markers?
Why the disconnect in caring for families when people die at different ages?
Does caring for a child in the womb count as being a parent?
Must your child be alive to still be considered a parent?


Fortunately, parents are opening up about their losses and receiving care from family, friends, and healthcare professionals.

1. Some parents seem to benefit from support groups.

2. Some parents benefit from naming the unborn child and holding a memorial service.

3. Some parents benefit from cultural practices honoring the death of any family member—planting a tree, donating to charity, giving cards and memory gifts.

4. Some light candles and honor their loss in the U.S. on October 15, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.

5. Churches who believe that the unborn are children can demonstrate this belief in the way they support any member who grieves a loss. And they may need to rethink how they honor parents on mother’s and father’s day.

6. Church members already help grieving families. An awareness that parents of unborn children also grieve can motivate congregants to include them in their circle of help.

7. Churches can be places where parents who lost their bundle of joy can find a measure of joy in caring for others.

There are many ways to bring joy to those who grieve.

And on a personal note, we too lost an unborn child. It was a time when mothers and fathers kept such events quiet. Times are changing for the better. 

Restore the Joy

References and Resources

A recent article in TIME magazine. Someone I Loved Was Never Born

A related TIME article about miscarriage.

Day of Prayer for the protection of unborn children

African American Faith resources for bereavement

How one couple dealt with shocking news about their unborn child. ABC news

One mother's story ABC Good Morning America 

Article for clinicians on complicated grief following loss of an unborn child NCBI

If you have resources to share, please add them with links in the comments section

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Black Lives Matter Love Your Neighbor


Many in the U.S. will honor Black Lives Matter Sunday. This is an important opportunity to celebrate the love theme of advent by making it clear that the lives of Black citizens really do matter. Black leaders have called for a day of prayer and lifting up the significance of black lives and black communities.

Christians are supposed to be people characterized by love for others. Obviously, many fall short. This weekend can be an opportunity for redemption. All Americans can show their respect for and love of Black Americans on Sunday, throughout the Christmas season, and in the years to come. Despite a Civil War in the 1800s and Civil Rights actions in the 1900s, racial prejudice and racial inequality persist in the 2000s. There's more work to do.

Whites need to understand that racial inequality has not ended. This Sunday is an opportunity to realize the work begun in the Civil Rights era has not been completed. Discrimination persists in the labor market. Having a white-sounding name increases your odds of a call back in response to a job application compared to those with a black-sounding name. In a Chicago study, car dealerships offered significantly lower prices to white men compared to offers to black men, white women, or black women.

LOVE  Mourns With Those Who Mourn

Learning that a friend was murdered is a terrible experience for anyone. Celeste Johnson (2010) looked at how African American girls dealt with the murder of a friend. Dealing with the death of a friend or relative may be more difficult for teens because they have a greater understanding of the permanency of loss and a longer relationship with the loved person than do children. And they do not yet have the stability, experience, or developed worldview of adults.  For teens and for others, the loss of a friend due to homicide evokes two major responses sets: coping with the distress of separation (sadness, longing) and coping with murder as an unexpected traumatic event (disturbing images, avoidance, and an excessive startle response). When people do recover, they sometimes show more maturity. Johnson studied the responses of 20 African American teens ages 16-19. Their recover was marked by religious and spiritual themes. Many began by questioning God and proceeded to finding meaning. Some spiritual meanings expressed—things happen for a reason, he’s gone to a better place. The girls remained connected to their friends. For example, “I know that he’s still here with me” or “…I know I’ll see ‘em again one day.”

LOVE Understands Pain
Many Black children from poor urban settings experience or are exposed to acts of violence. These children are likely to report symptoms of PTSD, depression, aggression, substance abuse, and delinquency. They often have poor school performance and engage in risky sexual behavior. But it is important to note that the research findings are mixed. The experience of violence is not always linked to acting out in violent ways. Children deal with trauma in different ways depending on the type of trauma. In one study of 6th to 8th grade Black students, boys exposed to nonviolent trauma were likely to have PTSD and depression. Girls were more likely to have PTSD. Girls were most influenced by personal victimization, which predicted not only PTSD but also depression and acting out. The active symptoms common to trauma victims indicates the importance that relationships have on many of these children. The presence of trauma symptoms suggests they were not so desensitized to all kinds of violence. The sample size was 403. Those reporting family violence (e.g., pushed, grabbed, shoved, threw something, slapped, hit, kicked etc.) 43%, those exposed to other violent trauma (e.g., family member badly hurt, robbed, killed raped etc.) = 71% and those with a close relationship to someone who experienced nonviolent trauma (hurt or killed in an accident) = 75% (Jenkins et al., 2009). See the article for more details.

LOVE Builds Friendships

Similarity is an important basis for friendship selection. Adolescents select their friends based on activities and interests that they consider important. A common finding is that academic orientation and substance use are frequent criteria for similarity. However, studies comparing friendship among African Americans, Asian Americans, and European Americans find more diversity among African Americans (Hamm, 2000).

Contact between Black and Whites improved attitudes when their partners were present (Welker et al., 2014).

Perhaps Black and White Christians share some similarities based on a common faith. It is important to state the obvious: White Christians have kept Black Christians out of their churches and ministry for much of U.S. history (e.g., Olena, 2010). Yes, I know times have changed. My point is, that we must be vigilant to affirm all people are created in the image of God. Given that Christianity is the dominant religion in the U.S., the call to value Black lives ought to be motivated by love.

Coming Together NY Times Story 13 December 2014

Hamm, J. V. (2000). Do birds of a feather flock together? The variable bases for African American, Asian American, and European American adolescents' selection of similar friends. Developmental Psychology, 36(2), 209-219. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.36.2.209

Jenkins, E. J., Wang, E., & Turner, L. (2009). Traumatic events involving friends and family members in a sample of African American early adolescents. American Journal Of Orthopsychiatry, 79(3), 398-406. doi:10.1037/a0016659

Johnson, C. M. (2010). African-American teen girls grieve the loss of friends to homicide: Meaning making and resilience. Omega: Journal of Death And Dying, 61(2), 121-143. doi:10.2190/OM.61.2.c

Olena, L. (2010). I’m sorry my brother: A reconciliation journey. In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds.) Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration: Multidisciplinary studiesfrom a Pentecostal perspective. 89-106. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

Mostert, J. & van der Spuy, M. (2010). Truth and reconciliation in South Africa. In M. Mittelstadt & G. W. Sutton (eds.) Forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration:Multidisciplinary studies from a Pentecostal perspective. 145-176. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

Welker, K. M., Slatcher, R. B., Baker, L., & Aron, A. (2014). Creating positive out-group attitudes through intergroup couple friendships and implications for compassionate love. Journal of Social And Personal Relationships, 31, 706-725. doi:10.1177/0265407514522369

Friday, December 5, 2014

Seasons Greetings: Peace or Violence on Earth


Imagine greeting people with a blessing of “Violence” as in, “Violence to you and your family.” Of course violence has been a part of life for millennia. And we often hear that peace is fragile in some part of the world. But we hope for peace. And some of us work for peace.

In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, peace follows justice. That makes sense. We hear news stories of violent protests following a legal decision that seems unjust. Peace follows justice. Injustice disrupts peace. Future peace is predicated on evidence that the offended people will be treated justly.

The image of peace created by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah strikes us as strange. What kind of world would it be if a wolf and a lamb could eat together without the latter being the meal? A wise lamb would flee from the presence of a wolf. In the Bible, many texts admonish people to live righteously and justly. True, biblical notions of justice involve right relationships with God. But they are also about right relationships with other persons, regardless of their ethnicity. People who count as strangers (Leviticus 19:34) deserve to be treated fairly.

And for Christians, peace is often a theme for the second Sunday of Advent. Peace is a theme for the season.


There are spiritual and psychological aspects to developing inner peace. People on the verge of death are sometimes encouraged to “make peace with their maker.” Most of the world’s people are religious. And they are concerned with life beyond life. Peace with God requires an appreciation of justice. When people sense they have done wrong they wish to be forgiven. Faith provides a path to forgiveness. Forgiven people sense an inner peace. But often they need the help of a member of the clergy or a clinician to accept forgiveness and let go of the troubling and unsettling inner disturbance. Anytime is a good time to “let it go.”

Whether religious or not, self-forgiveness works. And self-forgiveness seems to follow the same process of learning to forgive others. Here's a link to a book on self-forgiveness and a research study: Moving Forward.


People who work for justice are working for peace. The scales of justice is an image that implies that a balance is needed. People need to be treated fairly within their society. Special treatment of one group or another is unjust. People constantly seek benefits for themselves and their kin or group. If they win special favors, they foster injustice and seek to disrupt peace. Peacemakers support just and equitable treatment of all persons.

Reconciliation is one process that can restore peace following a disruption. The reconciliation process is built on trust. Words alone will not build trust. Trust happens one day at a time. Every act of good faith builds trust. Every violation of a commitment to fairness and equality destroys trust. I have written about reconciliation before.


Here are some suggestions about promoting peace. Do share more in the comments section.

1. Promote peace by emphasizing improvements in policies and practices that foster justice for all persons in a community or workplace.

2. Resist the urge to characterize all of a person's life based on a few or even many failings.

3. Consider mercy when justice is required.

4. Take a stand against violence and protect the vulnerable.

5. Consider the possibility that people can be transformed rather than assume people will never change.

6. Learn conflict management skills.

7. Seek support when dealing with difficult people.

8. Practice self-forgiveness to experience inner peace.

9. Practice forgiveness of others to lessen internal distress.

10. Consider the possibility of reconciliation when others appear ready to rebuild trust.



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