A little over a year ago I was given the book Man’s Search for Meaning by a relative. At a time where reading was, to say the least, an unfamiliar practice aside from school-related purposes. I was confused about this strange gift. Regardless, I began reading simply out of respect for my uncle’s kind notion. This book turned out to be one of my all-time favorites.
So what exactly is Logotherapy? Founded by Viktor Frankl before WW2 and excessively studied and documented after, Logotherapy is a psychotherapeutic concept which expresses that the main motivation for humans to live is a search for meaning in life. Yes, finding the meaning to life can sound daunting, vague, and perhaps even cliché, but as any inspirational quote page will tell you: It’s about the journey, not the destination. It’s about the search, not the find.
In the book, specific experiences from concentration camps are used as a medium to explain logotherapy, but I’ll try to put things into a more modern and relatable standpoint. Logotherapy outlines three sources of meaning in life and they are as follows: Meaning through work, Meaning through love, and Meaning through the attitude about suffering. In the frame of the holocaust, many of the prisoners were experiencing some form of situational depression as a result of the stripping of their basic human rights, so any of these three meanings can be found in even the grimmest circumstances. The camps can seem drastic, but it makes a great point about if the prisoners were able to find meaning, then anyone, at any time and any place, ought to be able to do the same.
(1) Meaning through work. The work can be pretty much anything; it can be schoolwork to get good grades, working out to get in shape, volunteering for a greater purpose, etc. This particular one has been pretty important to me in both not-so-good times, as well as great times. In the not so good times, finding work has been able to bring me above depressions in life, as the meaning was encouraging and motivating. Finding work to do and realizing how it’s meaningful can take your mind off of other things, and allow you to focus on something productive. Now, I couldn’t say what exactly is meaningful to you – it varies by person. You can, though. Acknowledge your interests, what makes you feel happy, rewarded, or important. Then you can apply yourself to focus on one something productive. Your partner dumped you? Try spending your time preparing for an upcoming test and making sure you get the best grade you can! This shift in mindset, over to something meaningful, has been my saving grace. In Frankl’s description of the holocaust, he explains how the meaning he found through work was simply to speak to other prisoners in the camp who had lost more than he had, offering his therapeutic experiences to help them stay alive.
(2) Meaning through love. One’s meaning can be found through love, care, and concern for another person. This can be romantic love but also familial. I have the least experience with this one, but hopefully, it’s something you can relate to, if not now then later on. In the holocaust, men and women were separated into different camps; each side of each marriage could only pray that their partner was still alive. With high hopes, many of the men endured their starvation in hopes of seeing their wives alive again. Whether or not you’re in a life or death situation, having this bond with another person can provide you meaning in life, making the tough parts far more endurable. An example of this meaning is in the Netflix show After Life with Ricky Gervais. An alternate example comes directly from Frankl’s book:
“Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now how could I help him? What should I tell him? I refrained from telling him anything, but instead confronted him with a question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive without you?:” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left the office.”
In this case, his meaning had been through the love of his wife. What to do when it was taken away leads me right on to our third reason.
(3) Meaning through the attitude towards suffering. Suffering is undoubtedly a part of everyone’s life. While we instinctively oppose it, acknowledging suffering as unavoidable and reacting accordingly can bring meaning to our life. Upon acknowledging that the reality can’t be changed, as the man in the above quotation must have, we are left only with the ability to change how we see the situation. To familiarize this once again, let’s say that you find school to be quite the drag. It’s not fun for you, and virtual learning just makes things worse. Well, what can you do? By embracing the suffering associated with school, suffering that comes to all people throughout their lives in various forms, you earn the capability to turn school into a much more tolerable experience, and one that gives meaning to your life. In the concentration camps, simply embracing hunger, sickness, and sadness was emphasized by Frankl to be an important distinction between those who made it out alive or not. I’d like to note that embracing suffering isn’t necessary to find meaning, but it does provide an avenue to do so.
So, there really is no one cut and dry answer for the age-old question of the meaning to life. It completely depends on person to person, from time to time. You don’t have to find meaning in all of these things, or just one. Odds are, though, that your meaning, the thing that motivates you to live your life and keep going, can be found in one of these categories. So if you want, start exploring and see how you feel.
So what are some of the main takeaways?
- Life has meaning in all circumstances, no matter how bad. You just need to find it
- Our main motivation for living is to find meaning in our life
- We have the freedom to find meaning in what we do and our experiences, if not that then in how we react when facing suffering
Like I said, this is a really great book. It gives a lot more insight into the experiences faced in the camps, as well as Frankl’s therapeutic approaches. I encourage you to do your own research or even read Man’s Search for Meaning!