Seeking a Rich and Meaningful Life
Perhaps we can begin with a quote by Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist and neurologist who survived three years in Nazi death camps during World War II, and later wrote the beautiful and moving account, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” (Of note: if written today, the title and text may have reflected a more inclusive pronoun.) In his description of our frequent search for happiness, he states “…a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.” He suggests that when we find ourselves on a determined quest for happiness, we may find our goal elusive. He goes on to equate seeking happiness directly with asking a friend to laugh on command, without providing something humorous. Instead, if this friend finds an experience funny, he or she will laugh naturally. Similarly, if you find meaning in your existence, then happiness will ensue.
We have been experiencing a universal disruption of daily functioning in the setting of a worldwide pandemic. We cannot hug our distant family, laugh over a meal with friends outside of our “bubble,” or experience novel sights through travel. We are suffering from boredom, loneliness, and fear simultaneously. Some days we may thrive, but often we simply plod ahead, hoping to receive each day without disaster.
How, then, can we find meaning? As Dr. Frankl writes, “Once an individual’s search for meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering.” He found this power of meaning so vast, in fact, that he created an entirely new form of psychotherapy, entitled “Logotherapy” after Logos, a Greek word indicating “meaning.” At the time, this new type of therapy reflected a departure from Freud’s writing on drive theory, which suggests humans are seeking gratification of drives and instincts, as well as reconciling conflicts, with the goal of pleasure above all.
Dr. Frankl describes three main avenues for seeking meaning—First, by “creating a work or doing a deed,” which many may pursue in their career, secondly by “experiencing something or encountering someone,” suggesting that meaning can be derived through our loving relationships and life experiences, as well as from our work. Lastly, he suggests “…even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself.” He suggests here that meaning, which can lead to true happiness, can be found through our attitude toward our suffering.
He goes on to clarify that suffering is not necessary for us to experience meaning, but that by giving us permission to view our pain through a different lens, we can be strengthened by our difficult experiences. We are encouraged to relinquish our shame for feeling “unhappy” and seek an understanding of the broader context of our suffering. For example, the lockdowns and isolation we are experiencing, when viewed through the lens of our contribution to society—the safety of our essential workers, protecting our health care providers from overwhelming numbers, and seeking a more rapid return to economic health for our struggling businesses and families—may take on new meaning, and become more bearable in the process.
In our lives, we often transition through each of these described avenues for meaning. We seek loving relationships with our family, friends and partners, new insights through travel and academic pursuits, productive and fulfilling work and, inevitably, experience periods of suffering. The goal of seeking a rich and meaningful life, therefore, is not in avoiding suffering or seeking repeated achievements, but through our awareness of our connections with others, our ongoing contribution to society, and our attitude towards suffering. To quote Dr. Frankl further: “…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.”
At times of loss, rejection, or stymied progress, in can be difficult to find meaning in our challenges. As thousands cope with the sudden unemployment during this pandemic, they may feel that if they are not working, they are somehow “useless” and equate this with having a meaningless life. However, as discussed above, other avenues to meaning are still available to them, such as through love and connection with others. A father may suddenly find time to play with his children in the snow, a neighbor may reach out via text to check on a friend, a businessman may discover time in his day to volunteer at the local food pantry. This is not to minimize the agony of their experience, but to describe opportunities for coping with their loss.
When the avenues of productive work or connection are not open to us, even the very suffering that we are experiencing can create meaning. If we can transcend the downward pull of grief and consider our lives as a journey bolstered by struggle, or enlightened through painful growth, we may find a path forward. Frankl writes “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.” In a given moment, he suggests, meaning can be found in our focus on a future goal. Perhaps one step in that direction can lesson our suffering and create a path forward. To quote Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
A rich and meaningful life, therefore, is not the absence of suffering, but rather an acceptance of the inevitable struggles we face. We are encouraged to engage daily in the value of our beautiful and imperfect existence. What a lovely thought.