By Jimmy Warden
Finding meaning in life is something that we all search for, but we don’t all find. Living a life that has meaning is one that will be fulfilling, and hopefully has as little regret as possible. In addition, the most meaningful events in our lives will also be some of the most challenging. These are some of the ideas that were written about by psychiatrist Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which takes place in the concentration camps of Auschwitz. A place where one is going through such difficulties that it is tough to fathom that Frankl and others still found meaning in their lives, while going through the camps. In addition to that, Frankl also mentions several more ideas that have really resonated with a lot of people over the years.
A lot of these ideas stem from trying to find meaning in one’s life amidst its inevitable suffering. A lot of our life is indeed suffering. From losing jobs, losing loved ones, experiencing heartbreak, living apart from our families, living in difficult circumstances, to everything in between, these are all various forms of suffering that we might experience throughout our lives. If we don’t have any reason to push through this suffering, we will inevitably get sucked into what Frankl has termed the “existential vacuum”. This vacuum refers to how people get caught in a state of believing their life is meaningless and they are feeling an emptiness about who they are and what they have to offer in this world. This leads to a feeling of nihilism, as if nothing in the world matters, despite any attempt to change it. A nihilistic individual feels like there is no escape from their tragic life, so they don’t even bother trying to make anything out of themselves. However, Frankl discusses techniques, referred to as logotherapy, which helps clients find meaning in their lives, because living a meaningful life will allow us to have a good life.
Getting sucked into the existential vacuum while in Auschwitz was almost inevitable, but Frankl and others were quite special in that they found meaning despite their horrible circumstances. Something that Frankl recognized is that the vacuum doesn’t immediately suck the meaning and purpose of one’s life away, it slowly turns that function on, as the challenges and grimness of one’s life increase. In today’s society, we have a lot of existential angst because we aren’t sure if what we’re doing is meaningful or purposeful. There is an underlying anxiety that we have and it creates a feeling within us that there is always more that we can do. This drives us insane to a degree, and in some cases, fully. A lot of this can be attributed to the fact that the United States is a society that places a lot of importance on individualism. Specifically, in the form of status in society, high amounts of wealth, a lot of assets, and having a job that pays very well. These things don’t actually create a whole lot of meaning because what is meaningful to each individual is variant. Through Frankl’s techniques of logotherapy, he helped to find more meaning in his own life, as well as help others find more meaning in theirs.
The first way to start creating more meaning in our life is to find out what parts of our life are meaningful to us. These could range from simple everyday things, such as watching the sunset or sunrise, to more complex things, such as having a job that we feel is worth doing, to falling in love, or acknowledging cherished memories. Once we have an awareness of what we find meaningful, we can acknowledge it more sharply by allowing it to come into our focus when we are engaged in it, rather than thinking of how things could be different. This is a form of acceptance as we are accepting what is meaningful and we are acknowledging it as such, rather than trying to change it.
These are meaningful things that often get overlooked because they are outside of us rather than inside of us. Frankl mentions how we often try to look inside of ourselves for meaning, when in fact, what we’re searching for has often been in front of us all along, in the form of something that is external. Therefore, we must think of the things that strike a chord with us, such as watching that sunset, or taking that walk in nature, or being the best version of ourselves in jobs and relationships, so that we can feel like what we are doing matters.
Another way to create meaning is to do something that benefits others. We are often fulfilled when we are serving others, which is why taking perspective at our work place or in our relationships can be so key to creating more meaning in our lives. The more that we can think of others and what we can do to serve them, will in turn help us feel like we have purpose and meaning in what we do. It does take some internalization in order to fully live out these ideas because we must internally understand that we serve a purpose for the people that we are helping and that it is of aid to them in their lives. The best part about this is the fact that doing things for others can help make relationships even better than they previously were and open the door for building a community.
When we are experiencing challenging times, we often feel alone, but the more meaningful relationships that we have, the less likely we can feel alone during our challenges. There can be a sense of collectivism that can take place if we are willing to open up and share our experiences with others. This demonstration of vulnerability often opens the door for others to sympathize and perhaps empathize if they have been through something similar. There is a potential that they too could offer their assistance in whatever manner is suited. This is seen throughout Frankl’s work as the fellow camp members were often looking out for one another by sharing their rations when others lost theres or didn’t get any, bartering with each other for cigarettes and soup, and perhaps most importantly, reminding each other that their time in Auschwitz would eventually come to an end. This sense of community really helped campers stay out of the existential vacuum.
A third way to create more meaning in our lives is to recognize that we have more choice to optimism than we might think because we can find meaning in even the darkest, most challenging times of our lives. Yes, there are neurochemicals involved in our feelings of joy or sadness and they can be hard to control and monitor, but we can help modulate these neurochemicals in our favor through our actions. We must choose to see the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how challenging the circumstance. Whether it be losing a loved one, losing a job, or anything in between, the grief period will eventually come to a close, and can make us a stronger person if we let it. In this case, we must acknowledge the fact that not only was it challenging, but more importantly, that we got through it. This is also a time that we can remember the other parts of our lives that give us meaning, and seek out opportunities to engage in them. Not only that, but also seek out the supportive community (or communities) that we have within our lives, so that we can use their support as fuel to push through the suffering.
At the end of the day, we regret more of the things that we didn’t do rather than the things that we did. This often comes in the form of things that we wish we did for ourselves and others. Things that we often find meaningful, but sometimes lose sight of within the existential angst, and at times, within the existential vacuum. We feel that there is nothing good in our future forecast, so at times we don’t bother trying to do anything about it. This is why it is so critical for us to find meaning in our lives. As the Buddhists say, life is suffering. If we cannot bear this suffering, we will not be able to live a good life or a life that is fulfilling. This is why Frankl’s book and logotherapy techniques have been so helpful for so many people. It has helped us realize that we can find meaning in the everyday (jobs, small moments, love), we can find meaning despite suffering, and we can find meaning when we choose to be optimistic. Hopefully, we can all choose as correctly as we can despite the suffering we may be going through.