An Examination of What Brings Meaning to My Life under the Framework of Man’s Search for Meaning

Written in Nov. 2021 for Dr. Thelisa Nutt’s PSYCH-2301​

​​In the past few years, ​I’ve received recommendation after recommendation to read the timeless book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. So when I saw it as one of the listed options on the book list, I decided it was finally time for me to sit down and digest this novel in its entirety.

Frankl’s experiences as a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps also piqued my curiosity at the time, and I thought that reading about the insights he gained from his observations during his imprisonment would expand my own baseline worldview. A major part of me was also drawn to the existential topics that Frankl unraveled by providing explanations of his personal philosophies and ideologies on human psychology.

At the core of my curiosity, however, lay my desire to know what he discovered in his own exploration of the meaning of life because I wanted to gain insight from another perspective as I, myself, continue to shape my own outlook on the meaning of my life. My intentions behind reading this book resonated most with Frankl’s own words when he stated in the preface of his novel:

“… if hundreds of thousands of people reach for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails” (Frankl XIII).

As I finished reading the book, I found the most impactful passages to be Frankl’s descriptions of logotherapy, along with his reflections on the behaviors of the concentration camp prisoners.

In the foreword of the novel, Harold S. Kushner comments on how the essence of Frankl’s principles on logotherapy was the central idea that —

“Life [was] neither primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for anyone [was] to find meaning in his or her life” (Frankl X).

In this quote, I found it interesting how Kushner contrasted Freud’s psychodynamic approach, which is defined as a psychological perspective that “… emphasizes unconscious thought, the conflict between biological drives, … society’s demands, and early childhood family experiences” to Frankl’s own approach.

This is because it enabled me to form a deeper connection on how logotherapy actually closely aligns with another school of thought known as humanism or the “… humanistic approach that emphasizes a person’s positive qualities, the capacity for positive growth, and the freedom to choose one’s destiny” (King 12).

Alongside logotherapy, Frankl also expands upon the idea that humans derive meaning from three main sources:

  1. in work (doing something significant)
  2. in love (caring for another person)
  3. and in courage during difficult times

This framework for deriving meaning caused me to deeply reflect on what brought meaning to my own life and I began to mentally separate significant moments into the three buckets that Frankl mentioned.

When I think of what brings meaning to my life I immediately think of two main pillars: intellectual stimulation and human connection.

For the former, I find significant meaning through the process of learning and acquiring knowledge. Pursuing my curiosity and falling into thought spirals about fascinating subjects are among the few things that suspend my sense of reality. Exploring new ideas and challenging the boundaries of my mind are experiences that ground me to this world whenever I’m overcome with the sensation of emptiness.

My fascination with the concept of discovery and innovation goes hand in hand with my love of problem-solving, and I believe that my ambition of being able to solve a challenging problem that would make a difference in people’s lives in the future is something that provides me with a sense of purpose that helps me push forward through each day.

My sentiments related to my ambitions and life goals definitely align with Frankl’s suggestion that humans derive meaning from work that is of significance to them.

As I mentioned earlier, the second pillar that brings me meaning in life is human connection.

Although I find meaning in having the potential to solve challenging problems, I’ve also found that a major part of the reason why I continue to exist is because of people. I’ve realized that I would find a life that is absent of human connection and consumed by solitude to be one that is also devoid of any meaning.

The desire for “love and belongingness” is also one of the five tiers that make up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This inclination is best described as —

“a human emotional need for interpersonal relationships, affiliating, [and] connectedness” which “include[s] … trust and acceptance, … giving affection, and [receiving] love” (McLeod 17)

Frankl’s accounts of how people found meaning in love through caring for another person prompted me to reflect upon relationships in my own life.

Since the beginning of middle school, I’d grown accustomed to displaying empathy towards those around me, and being able to play an emotionally supportive role among my friends was definitely something I derived a level of fulfillment from.

But now, when I think of what it means to find meaning through caring for another person, it is moments with my younger sister that truly hit me.

There was a time when my sister texted me to come home from school as soon as I could, which was a first, to say the least.

When I got home, she explained to me how her best friend had gotten into a potentially risky situation, and that she, as a 13-year-old, had no idea how to respond or support her friend through such an emotionally tense and complex circumstance. Her friend then agreed to talk to me for the time being because my sister had told her that I was the most emotionally mature person she knew and that I could offer a lot more wisdom than she could have herself.

Up until then, I had always thought that my sister had never needed me to be a part of her life because the people she had always depended on to meet her needs were our parents.

But it was that moment when I realized that I was the person my sister went to when she was paralyzed by uncertainty, that I finally grasped the amount of impact I had on her as her older sister.

Listening to her talk about her ambitions and her perspective on life while I dropped her off at school from time to time made me want to be a better person for her so that she would never limit herself and so she could have a living example of what she was truly capable of.

It reminded me of the relationship that parents have with their children, and even though I’m her older sister, my relationship with her helped me internalize what it truly meant to find meaning in caring deeply for another person.

As long as there’s at least one other person where I can play a meaningful role in their life, then I feel like I have substantial enough reason to continue living. In essence, the existence of people and having the ability to positively influence their lives is a major facet of what brings meaning into my own life.

Even when a person had no significant work to pursue or the presence of genuine love in their lives, Frankl believed life still held meaning in even the most painful situations. He supported this idea by stating that —

“suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of sacrifice” (Frankl 113)

Previously, I had understood the concept of persevering through difficulties in order to succeed as encapsulated in the saying “no pain no gain” and had considered short-term suffering as an expected sacrifice to fulfill long-term goals. I also held the mindset of accepting pain as an unavoidable aspect of life, so it had always made sense to me to instead focus on the blessings that I already possessed.

Although I always reflected on lessons I learned from particular life experiences, the differentiation between my previous mindset and Frankl’s statements was that I had only judged difficulties that arose during the pursuit of an ambition as having the potential to hold sacrificial meaning because I considered those forms of pain to be a type of “chosen suffering”.

This varies from how Frankl conveys how meaning through sacrifice can be found even in circumstances where suffering is rooted in an external factor or could fall under the category of “unavoidable suffering”.

I had never thought about how meaning through sacrifice could also be found in other forms of suffering before, which made me re-evaluate how I processed insufferable experiences in my own life.

For example, I was reminded of how my grandmother’s death was out of my control, and of the overwhelming pain I felt at the time of her passing. But under this framework of thinking, I realized that the grief I felt for her loss was the sacrifice that I unknowingly made to have had her be a part of my life in the first place.

This idea that it is possible to find true meaning through any form of suffering and that the sensation of emptiness that can come alongside immense pain is not inevitable is a mindset that I will continue to carry with me as I navigate through life.

Another notable point that Frankl made on the meaning of suffering was viewing the endurance of suffering as a feat of “human triumph” and viewing immutable situations as opportunities to change ourselves (Frankl 112).

This attitude aligns closely with characteristics of the hardy personality type. People with this personality type have three main qualities that enable them to cope with stressful events in a healthy manner. One of these traits includes their approach to dealing with difficulties in life by “viewing challenges as opportunities’’ (Tracy 38).

I’ve definitely been able to recognize the ability to overcome immense hardship as an honorable accomplishment because of how such a feat demonstrates resiliency, adaptability, and mental strength. However, I had never really considered my own ability to manage and overcome difficulties in life as one of my personal achievements.

This is in part because I’ve always had the tendency to fixate on areas of self-improvement instead of acknowledging how much I’ve been able to develop and change as a human being. Personally, I’d definitely say I have an appreciation for the nature of certain types of challenges because of how they force me to push myself and strive for growth.

Although I was already able to recognize how challenges can be opportunities, moving forward with Frankl’s statements in mind, I’m now more cognizant of how challenges can also be highly effective drivers for pushing the limits of human potential.

In essence, the novel, Man’s Search for Meaning offers a compelling narrative supported by Victor Frankl’s years of psychiatric expertise and borderline fatal experiences from his time spent in Nazi concentration camps.

Although used to cope with deeply traumatic and dehumanizing experiences, Frankl’s explanations of logotherapy offer an arsenal of psychological tools that, if applied, can strengthen the mental resilience of anyone, regardless of their life experience.

Gaining exposure to key insights from this novel, such as practices in finding meaning even in suffering, has definitely shifted my outlook on life to some degree, and I no doubt found this book to be a worthwhile read.

Even though there is no definitive answer to the meaning of life or any singular way to cultivate meaning, Frankl’s philosophies have provided me with valuable realizations as I continue to explore and become more cognizant of how I define what brings meaning to my own life.

Citations

Mcleod, Saul. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Simply Psychology, 29 Dec. 2020, https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Tracy, Steve. Stress. Jan. 2007,
https://drive.google.com/file/d/17ujo2lbwgT5ca-37lteK2Rl2o8HABpGg/view. PowerPoint Presentation

King, Laura A. The Science of Psychology: An Appreciative View. McGraw-Hill Education, 2020.

Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Beacon Press, 2006

End Note to the Reader: Hey I’m Sualeha, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this essay, so definitely feel free to connect with me to start a conversation! Any feedback that you may have is 100% welcome! Thank you so much for taking the time to read my content!

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Sualeha Irshad

Sualeha Irshad

17 y/o life long learner who’s passionate about sharing stories related to education, the brain, and linguistics! twitter: @SualehaIrshad