The Search for Meaning

04 June 2014 · 3 comments

Note: This article was supposed to appear on Monday, but I forgot to hit “publish” when I finished it last week. My apologies!

Shifting from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control isn’t just important for happiness, but also for making meaning in your life, for obtaining personal (and financial freedom). Freedom comes from focusing no on your Circle of Concern, but exclusively on your Circle of Influence. As long as you allow yourself to dwell on the things you can’t control, you are not free.

We’ll discuss freedom at length in the months ahead; for now, let’s take a closer look at how you can create purpose in your life.

Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps during World War II. The extreme suffering and harsh conditions caused many inmates to lose their will, to choose death.

To be sure, prisoners often had no control over whether or not they died. But Frankl observed, “A man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.”

When treated like an animal, Frankl said, a person can choose to be an animal — or she can choose to be “brave, dignified, and unselfish”. According to Frankl, the way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails…add a deeper meaning to his life.”

In the classic Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl states his thesis thus:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Frankl’s experienced served as a crucible for his theory of personality development, which he called logotherapy. Before him, Alfred Adler had argued that people possessed a Nietzschean “will to power” (more here), and Sigmund Freud had argued that we’re all motivated by a “will to pleasure” (more here). Frankl, on the other hand, believed that humans are born with a “will to meaning”, a fundamental need to find meaning in life.

The three basic tenets of logotherapy are:

  • The search for meaning is the primary motivation in each of our lives. This meaning is unique and specific to each individual. (If you’ve read me for a while, you’ll recognize hints of this in my maxim: “Do what works for you.”)
  • Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones. What matters most isn’t the meaning of life in general, but the meaning of each person’s life in each moment.
  • Humans are self-determining. That is, we don’t just exist, but choose what our existence will be. We have freedom to find meaning in what we do and what we experience — or at least in how we respond to each situation.

Frankl’s argument that you’re always free to choose your attitude is echoed in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s statement that “how we feel about ourselves, the joy we get from living, ultimately depends on how the mind filters and interprets everyday experience”. It also echoes Johnstone’s Impro: “People with dull lives often think their lives are dull by chance. In reality everyone choose more or less the kind of events that happen to them.”

Accepting responsibility for your own fate and attitudes can be uncomfortable and intimidating. There’s a kind of solace when you can attribute your situation to the winds of fate, the will of god, or the workings of the universe.

But recognizing that you’re a free agent can also be liberating. When you take matters into your own hands, you shed your fears, create your own certainty, and discover that you’re freer than you ever imagined possible.

1 Elizabeth June 4, 2014 at 16:59

Thanks, I needed that :) Been facing some tough challenges lately, but your post reminds me that I can control how I approach them.

2 Affording Happiness June 5, 2014 at 06:26

“recognizing that you’re a free agent can also be liberating”

I have found your statement to be so true. It is very empowering to know you are in charge! Strangely enough it took me way too long to realize this but maybe I’m just a slow learner. Great post Thanks!

3 Lila July 26, 2014 at 17:55

I loved this post. I have read “Man’s Search for Meaning” and it is one of my favorite books and has influenced me a lot.

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