In his book, Man's Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl takes readers through his experiences in a Nazi Concentration camp and how he survived the experience, both physically and emotionally. Throughout his experience, he saw people who survived in these unimaginable circumstances, and people who were mentally and emotionally broken down. One common trait he found in people who had emotional resilience was having, or searching for, a sense of meaning and purpose, even during unavoidable suffering.
The following are the three ways he says we can discover meaning in our lives.
Creating Work or Doing a Deed
Many people can create meaning in their lives through work that they feel matters and has a positive impact on the world. However, work isn’t the only thing that falls in this category. Through volunteering, mentorship, and hobbies we can work towards a meaningful life. I once worked with a man who found meaning in his work until he was laid off. He went into a deep depression following this, but then discovered that it wasn’t one particular job that gave him meaning and purpose, but the act of creating.
As he explored new ways to create art on his own his life and mood turned in a positive direction.
Experiencing Something or Encountering Someone
By being present in relationships and creating meaningful experiences, we can also create a purposeful life. To some this might mean close, intimate relationships, to others it might mean traveling to new places and experiencing diverse cultures. By stepping outside of ourselves we can lessen the burden of difficult situations and create vital relationships and experiences in our lives.
The Attitude We Take
When I see clients experiencing severe depression and/or anxiety, they sometimes reach a point of helplessness and hopelessness. This is sometimes a point where they have lost their purpose in life or feel that a previous purpose is now out of reach. In these times, we sometimes have to rely on the third option listed. There are times in our lives where suffering is unavoidable. Things like the loss of a loved one or being laid off can produce great suffering and sadness, but are also our of our control. By choosing the attitude we take towards these situations and looking for the meaning we can draw from them, we can move forward with purpose and hope. This isn't about putting on a happy face or looking at everything through rose colored glasses, but rather it is about finding the meaning and recognizing that even in the face of ultimate suffering there is still a part of ourselves that cannot be taken or controlled.
It is best put in the words of Frankl:
"We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, where facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters 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. When we are no longer able to change a situation — just think of an incurable disease as inoperable cancer — we are challenged to change ourselves."