In search of meaning

Finding meaning is profound and essential part of our life. Whether we realize this or not, as Carl Jung says: We cannot stand meaningless life! Yet, at times many of us feel that our life is meaningless. When life, work or relationships seem meaningless, many people resort to different things – some distract themselves with pleasures of various kinds, some try to seek meaning through spiritual gurus, and so on.

Why is meaning important?

Man cannot stand a meaningless life. ~ Carl Jung
Man cannot stand a meaningless life. ~ Carl Jung

I am trying to look at this quest for meaning from philosophical as well as practical perspectives here. I am planning to write 2-3 articles in this series related to meaning, own purpose/calling and our quest for finding calling & meaning. I also want to emphasize that meaning is not an elusive goal, all of us are perfectly capable of finding meaning through our daily work and pursuits. In fact, many people find their work meaningful in some of the most unlikely jobs as Barry Schwartz has written about hospital custodian Luke in his book Why We Work. In another TED talk What makes us feel good about our work?, Dan Ariely, professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics teaching at Duke University discusses experiments showing importance of meaning in our work. He mentions that irrespective of money, people cannot sustain their motivation when the work is Sisyphus work (meaningless work). He further asserts that studies reveal that meaning is far more important than what most people would imagine.  It is fascinating to learn more about his experiments and studies about work. There are numerous articles, books and videos talking about meaning of life. One such wonderful, impressive and exhaustive article considering various aspects is available on Wikipedia: Meaning Of Life. Another short, simplified but interesting video by School Of Live is available on YouTube: The Meaning of Life. You can have a look at them.

Holocaust survivor psychiatrist Viktor Frankl on Meaning

Among other things, I would like to discuss the incredible experiences and associated work by Viktor Frankl (1905 – 1997). Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. During the Holocaust in 1940, he spent 3 years in concentration camp. His book Man’s Search for Meaning is based on his experiences being an inmate in a concentration camp during World War II and his insights about human psyche & consequent human behaviour during extreme adversity, which ultimately impelled Frankl to do some path-breaking work on meaning that he termed as Logotherapy. Rather than power (Nietzsche, Adler) or pleasure (Freud), logotherapy (Frankl, Kierkegaard) believes that striving to find a meaning in one’s life that is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning has been translated into 24 languages and sold over 10 million copies. This book has influenced me greatly especially as Frankl writes this:

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”.”

― Viktor Frankl,  Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl

Frankl’s wife, father, mother and brother died in different concentration camps while he spent 3 years in Auschwitz concentration camp himself. He narrates some really disturbing events from one of the most heinous events in the human history. Most of the inmates in his camp went into depression but some of them survived.  He mentioned that the doctor in their prison confirmed increased death rates between Christmas 1944 and New year 1945 – because many inmates hoped to be free by that time but they were still in prison and lost any desire to live, which resulted in decreased resistance to any illness. He talks about two inmates who contemplated suicide since they believed there was nothing to live for, but they did not commit suicide because one of them had a son waiting for him in foreign land, and the other one was a scientist who had written many books which were yet to be published. And Frankl summarizes this as:

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”.”

― Viktor Frankl,  Man’s Search for Meaning

Man's search for meaning
Man’s search for meaning

Being a neurologist and psychiatrist, Frankl analyzed physical health and psyche of his fellow prisoners with amazing clarity and offers explanation about people who eventually succumbed to despair and died and also those who somehow survived. According to Frankl, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity. Frankl himself was one such survivor and he found hope and meaning during all this. Frankl’s love for his wife kept him going through all this, and he didn’t know if she was alive and had no ways of finding it out.  He also kept on writing his experiences somehow in the camp and had hidden manuscript of his book in the lining of his coat, which later became his famous book Man’s Search for Meaning. The first part of the book narrates his experiences in the concentration camp, whereas the second part introduces his ideas of meaning and his theory of Logotherapy. The original German title of this book translates to: “Nevertheless saying ‘yes’ to life” (trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen). Frankl is important because he writes authentically from his own experiences in the concentration camp and analyzes them as a psychiatrist. Like many other concentration camp prisoners, Frankl returned home to find that no one awaited him; his wife, father, mother and brother had died. The hope that kept him alive in the concentration camp was now gone. Frankl cites this experience as the most difficult to overcome. Despite all this, Frankl emphasizes that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living, life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. One of the most crucial conclusions of Frankl’s experience is that a prisoner’s psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his life, but also from the freedom of choice he always has even in severe suffering.

After his return from the concentration camp, Frankl published his book circa 1946, remarried, wrote many books and lived a meaningful life for 92 years developing a new school of psychotherapy: Logotherapy. His another book The Will to Meaning explains his idea of Logotherapy in details.

One of Frankl’s clients, an American diplomat thought his professional problems were due to relationship with his father, and he perceived his employer, the US government as father figure, causing more agony. Frankl, however, simply diagnosed a lack of purpose in the man’s work and suggested a career change. The man took his advice and prospered very well in his career.

Logotherapy is a form of psychotherapy oriented around finding meaning in one’s existence. Frankl’s logotherapy suggests that many forms of mental illness are rooted in a basic lack of meaning in life.  For Frankl, the ultimate motivational force in people is a “Will To Meaning”, which is more fundamental than a “will to pleasure” or a “will to power”. For instance, people will suffer and even die for their values or for the meaning of their life. Frankl mentions that the modern person has almost too much freedom to deal with. We no longer live through instinct, yet tradition is no guide either. This is the existential vacuum often showing up as boredom, in which the frustrated will to meaning is compensated for in the urge for money, sex, entertainment, even violence.

I can go on about Frankl’s book and Logotherapy, but I would stop now. I am trying to connect meaning with more practical, day-to-day life and work based on what I understand about meaning as of now. This is essentially based on what I have read, explored and experienced in my life as well as in the lives of others who shared their own journey with me. I am also trying to make connections between all of these.

Meaning in everyday life

So let’s look at why of our work & life. As I mentioned above with respect to the article Why We Work?, Luke knew that as a hospital custodian, cleaning rooms in the hospital, one crucial aspect his work was helping, alleviating pain of the people who were suffering, thus he discovered meaning of his own work and how it helped others. In the same book (Why We Work), Schwartz mentions that when university students who worked as phone solicitors, calling alumni to ask for contributions to their university had a chance to meet beneficiaries of such donations talking about how these scholarships helped them, the money that these students raised increased by 171 percent. That’s because they understood how their work was meaningful.  It doesn’t always have to be altruistic pursuits or service as such, the crux is understanding how your work is meaningful in the larger scheme of things. You can consider an example of a small entrepreneur who is probably making  t-shirts, when he accidentally overhears conversations where some talks about how much he loves those t-shirts, that gives him immense joy.  I had written about Amit Godse few days ago on My Zen Path, he finds it meaningful to save the bees. It could be anyone doing anything, right from baking cakes to writing books – work could be meaningful! Knowing how you make difference to the world, or to the people around you in whichever small way you can through your actions/work is what makes your work meaningful. It could even apply to other aspects of life beyond work such as meaningful relationships.

The meaning does exist in several aspects of life including our relationships with others & ourselves, in our work and what we offer to others. I would refrain from going into the details of other aspects besides work in this article to save it from becoming even longer. But let’s keep in mind that it’s not only about our work.

If I may simplify meaning, I would say meaning is about understanding our connection with others, with this world.  In terms of our relationships, it is understanding our intellectual, emotional connections with our friends, family or loved ones. In terms of our work, it is understanding connections between our work and how it helps to make difference in this word – it could be superficially as insignificant as working as a cleaner in the hospital or working as barber (there is an interesting story of a barber that I’d like to share in another article).

So if you are already thinking that all this is fine about meaning, but how do I find meaningful work that I can do? Then it has more to do with your own purpose/calling and I plan to delve deeper into that in the next part of this series dealing with finding your own purpose/calling.

About the featured image: The featured image for this article is used with gratitude from Wikipedia. It is Post-Impressionist one of Paul Gauguin’s most famous paintings called: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, and available freely in the public domain.


3 thoughts on “In search of meaning

  1. I like that you are now getting to putting it all together with this set of articles. A valiant attempt given the universality and expanse of the topic, but well worth it.

    I see ‘meaning’ having two dimensions when we apply the word to a job. One of them is the ‘value’ it creates for the world. Rather, the person’s perception about this value. This is the aspect you have dealt with in detail using the example of the cleaner. We use the story of the stone-cutter in our work to highlight this aspect. (When asked what is he doing, his reply can be ‘I am cutting the stone’ or ‘I am building a temple’). The lower level worker in the modern world’s large corporates finds it difficult to perceive the meaning of his job this way in terms of the value it creates for the world (someone). This is where work on shared vision, strategy and objectives and percolating the same through congruent organisational structure and performance model helps a great deal. We see the benefits of this in our work when the junior-most employee is able to connect the value added by him in his job with the value created by organisation along its purpose. Communication and Involvement play a big role in this. For an entrepreneur or a freelancer however, this is too obvious.

    There is however, the second dimension/aspect of meaning of the job/work for the person. This one is more person-centric and refers to the subjective match between the person and the job. This is the domain of the career coaches who help the person explore and understand himself (his personality, strengths, and interests) and choose a job/ construct a career that best resonates with his being. This for example would reflect in the choice of an ISTP with Realistic (Holland) code, to take up stone-cutting in the above example and take immense joy from cutting the stone efficiently and fine.

    Let me call this the ‘process meaning’ and the former the ‘product meaning’ for the sake of differentiation.

    In a world where building stones are cut with machines such a guy can leverage his strengths and passion to cut gemstones! Which stones he chooses to cut may be a function of his perception of the value of those stones (product meaning), but he can derive the same process meaning from either. There are also environmental factors such as organisational values, culture processes that effect the process meaning in addition to the person-job fit. Work is also required on those at the organisational level.

    Frankl focuses on the product meaning, which I reiterate is also personal (based on one’s perception of the value of the work for someone/the world). Csikzemihalyi focuses on the process meaning. A person needs both!

    1. Sachin, I like how you expand on this one. Stone cutter is classic, anecdotal example!

      In my opinion, when it is more about personal aspect of work, or what you refer as “process meaning”, I would call it as purpose/calling – something that is deep within a person’t being! I am planning to cover purpose/calling at length in the next part of this series.

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