Reflections on ‘meaning’

Over the Christmas break I read Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Part memoir, part overview of logotherapy (Frankl’s pyschotherapeutic method), I found the book riveting. The overall thesis of logotherapy is that finding meaning is the primary purpose of life. Lack of meaning is posited as the cause of many illnesses (primarily mental but at times physical). Frankl himself was able to stress test much of his theories through his experiences as a holocaust and concentration camp survivor, where he lost much of what many would deem as ‘meaningful’ – his career, family and friends.

In 2020, half a century after Frankl’s book was published, I can still see how the overarching principles of logotherapy stand true. But yet, I feel not enough attention is paid to it.

To me, true ‘meaning’ can only really be describe as pursuing things that make you feel you are “at one with nature” – borrowing terminology from Stoic philosophy. It means finding purpose in what feels natural to you, what you feel when you are are in a “flow state”.

This idea of ‘meaning’ will be different for each individual. You may find meaning in being an parent. You may find meaning in learning. You may find meaning in sitting on grass and basking in the sun. But nevertheless, these are examples of what true meaning feels like, and it’s in your best interest to be at one with it.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for ambitious dreams and goals and to make ourselves better people. We should. But I believe that such pursuits are supplemental and incidental to true ‘meaning’. Your ambition may be to earn enough money to give your kids a life without worry – but that’s not ‘meaning’ – true meaning for you might actually be to be a good parent. Your ambition may have been to study and work really hard for 20 years to become a surgeon – but that’s not ‘meaning’ – true meaning might be that you actually just really love learning about science and medicine or that you really want to help people.

I feel that as a society we are increasingly misinterpreting true ‘meaning’ for its supplemental and incidental outcomes. Which may be okay if true meaning underlies the pursuit of these outcomes. But often, this isn’t the case. Many people in our society are pursuing monetary, status and other outcomes without considering whether it’s what they are “at one” with. Whether it’s something that drives happiness in a very natural, innate way.

Under the principles of logotherapy, this may explain a lot of the collective psychological issues we face in our world today.

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