Finding meaning is one of the most essential tasks in life, for meaning provides an impetus for living, growth, well-being, and development. Victor Frankl was a practicing psychologist when he was sent to a concentration camp in WWII, after making it out alive he wrote A Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl observed how having a meaning was essential for survival in the concentration camps, and how meaning could be found even in the most miserable circumstances.
Frankl astutely observed that although their external sphere of influence was restricted by their imprisonment, each individual still had the freedom to choose how to respond to the situation at hand. The prisoners that exercised their power to adopt a meaning and a positive attitude were the ones that were able to survive the harshest physical and psychological environments where many others perished.
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
“We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.”
3 ways to provide meaning in life:
1. By engaging in work or a deed that is attached to a higher level purpose you identified for yourself
“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’”
2. By experiencing something or giving yourself whole heartedly to someone
“The second way of finding meaning in life is by experiencing something—such as goodness, truth and beauty—by experiencing nature and culture or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness—by loving him.”
3. By the attitude taken towards unavoidable suffering
“Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless…One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenges and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.”
“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.”
I think we have a tendency to make ourselves believe that meaning, purpose, and passion are these esoteric things unreachable by us. However, the truth is that they are as simple as Frankl outlines in the 3 points above. Every single moment provides an opportunity to be meaningful if we are willing to take responsibility for that moment.
This could manifest in working on projects and ideas that put us into a flow state and connects us with the present moment. This could be by giving yourself to the people you love, and by realizing that connection with the world and people give you a reason to live. This could even be by realizing that the difficult situations in life provide an opportunity to grow and develop.
This is our society’s challenge, to understand what it is that provides meaning in our lives. For as Frankl observed and I agree with, those that lack meaning are most susceptible to replace this void with money, power, momentary pleasures, and stuff. For the health of each person and for the well-being of society as a whole it is imperative for each person to figure out what provides meaning and act accordingly.
I spent a lot of my early-mid twenties trying to figure out a meaning in my life. I spent countless hours trying to figure out what I was passionate about to no avail. I’ve slowly come to realize that it is futile to come up with a life meaning in a vacuum, rather I should actively pursue activities that make me feel most “alive” (you can replace “alive” with connected, in-flow, present etc.).
For me, writing and thinking about the intersection self development, spirituality, and technology brings a lot of joy. I also find meaning in the deep conversations I have with some of my closest friends. I feel meaning and passion flowing when I’m dancing & performing. Whenever I psychologically hit rock bottom I find a ton of meaning in this suffering, since I always without fail adopt an attitude that pulls me out of the abyss and challenges me to develop.
What gives you meaning in your life?
“We have come to know Man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas champers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer on his lips.”
“So, let us be alert—alert in a twofold sense:
Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.
And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”