Having a meaning can fill the existential vacuum that can dominate your everyday life.
Updated: Apr 8, 2019
When Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl was imprisoned in the hell-on-earth place that was the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, he believed the most important focus to prevent a significant deterioration of his mental state was to have a meaning for his life.
I have recently finished the book 'Man's Search for Meaning' by Viktor Frankl. I previously had some understanding of the horror Jewish prisoners faced during the holocaust but I had never read a book about it. Frankl's account of what he and the people around him were subjected to in these camps is truly awful. It left me with an overwhelming sense of wondering how something so terrible could happen in 20th century Europe ... and what good could ever possibly have come of it. Crucially, Frankl believes the thing the got him through the toughest of times was the meaning he fostered in his own life. A meaning that endured throughout such terrible captivity and treatment at the hands of the Nazi SS soldiers.
His work has since been codified into Logotherapy, his ideas being based on the Kierkegaard philosophy that our reason for being (all humans) is our will to find meaning in life. I.e. to know and understanding our purpose. Frankl states that seeking and finding such a meaning is significantly more important than a will to find power/achievement (Nietzschean/Adlerian) or a will to find pleasure (Freud) - because the latter two are said to be by-products of having a meaning in our life. Although, we all probably spend a disproportionate amount of time seeking the gratification of power and/or pleasure rather than meaning during the time we have on planet Earth.
In his book Frankl agues his belief that life is underpinned by the following basic principles:
1. Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
2. Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
3. We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stance we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.
All principles resonate with me but the point that struck me the most is point 2 - that finding meaning is our main reason for living, yet so many of us don't spend any (or much) time thinking about it. In fact, all to often, we battle our way through life without much clarity on why we're doing the things we do. Sometimes we strike it lucky but often we do not. Then, when the going gets tough, it can get really really tough. In Frankl's concept of Logotherapy, he believes that this meaning and the creation of a more positive psychology is found in three key areas:
1. By creating a work or doing a deed.
2. By experiencing something or encountering someone (e.g through love or friendships).
3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
The last point is particularly important. Frankl's case of suffering, like so many unfortunate others during that time, is of course extreme. He says though that, in life, we will all suffer in some way. That much is inevitable. Sometimes through life events. Sometimes day-to-day. It is during these times that understanding the meaning of our life (the 'why' we exist) will be the thing that gets us through. (Point 3 in the principles above).
Much of his work is used today in modern-day CBT 'talking therapies' where a therapist will try to help you discover your value(s) and what you can uniquely offer the world around you. Our meaning is completely individual to us. It doesn't have to be some grandiose concept or idea. The main thing to consider is whether it can stand the test of time and adversity; through an ability to stay lit as a guiding light when everything else around us goes dark.
Frankl talks about imagining that you are eighty-something and on your deathbed. When you look back on your life, what would you want to say your meaning was? This retrospective view of one's life can help a person discover what their meaning could or should be. Then they can apply this meaning day-to-day, as if the person were living their life in that very moment but for the second time; using this newly acquired wisdom of their eighty-something self to look at life through the lens of their meaning.
It might not be for everyone but I personally love the idea. I have recently done some work on my own meaning or purpose in life. It has helped me a lot. I have kept it pretty simple but ensured that it has room to grow as I do. Try it for yourself. It might help you find the fulfilment that you are looking for; this might not be that far from where you are right now.