We ask ourselves many questions throughout the day, starting with “What shall I have for breakfast” and then “did I turn the iron off”, and on it goes. A stream of trivial concerns passes through our heads. Meanwhile, the Big One lurks in the background: “What’s it all about, and why am I here?”
This is all quite normal (in the UK, anyway). A survey by YouGov found that 75% of Britons think about life’s meaning regularly, with 25% pondering a few times a week to once per day.
According to Victor Frankl, the founder of logotherapy, “Striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man”.
But although our sense of living a meaningful life increases with age, a significant proportion of people remain unsatisfied until the end.
It’s no wonder Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning still flies off the shelves today and has sold more than 16 million copies worldwide.
The question of meaning raises lots of other questions and can send you into a loop-de-loop. Maybe logotherapy could help you find this elusive meaning and set you on the straight and narrow to a purposeful life.
Without meaning, what have you got?
Existential issues, that’s what.
These range from an ‘existential vacuum’ to ‘existential frustration’ and then ‘existential crisis’. None sound particularly fun.
Not knowing why you live or what you should do, and feeling directionless with nothing to aim for is a severe problem that causes anxiety and depression (not to mention suicide) and brings about physical illness.
Viktor Frankl came up with logotherapy to respond to the loss of hope he saw among his fellow prisoners in Auschwitz. He wanted them to make sense of their lives and use this to make the changes necessary to get through difficult circumstances.
Logotherapy is meaning-centred psychotherapy based on the premise that “the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning in life”. By the way, ‘logo’ comes from the greek for ‘meaning’.
Before Frankl introduced this ‘will to meaning’ as a basis for psychotherapy, two other types of therapy were being practised in complete contrast. The first was based on Freud’s pleasure principle, and the second was based on Nietzsche’s idea that power was the motivational force of humans.
How it came about
Life in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany was one of the worst experiences anyone could imagine a human being having to endure. Viktor Frankl was one of those humans.
The newlywed psychiatrist was taken from home, eventually landing in Auschwitz, one of the camps “with a chimney”.
Each prisoner’s life was stripped bare. Their identities gone were gone; they were now just a number. They had no money, no power, and no proper meals. The living conditions and treatment from the guards were horrific.
The pleasure principle and will-to-power philosophies were of absolutely no help here whatsoever.
We were not told often enough that we were ‘not worth the soup’.
With life reduced to even less than the essentials – to mere raw existence and suffering – everything about life got called into question.
What was left?
Maybe something could be made out of this hell-on-earth situation. The curious psychiatrist gradually realised an opportunity and learned some profound lessons about human existence.
Lessons from the camp
Despair and loss of hope seemed to expedite the demise of inmates.
Frankl estimated he had a one in twenty chance of survival, but despite that had no intention of losing hope.
He clung to his purpose of rewriting his manuscript of a finished book that had been confiscated from him when he entered Auschwitz.
Remembering Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous statement, “He who has a ‘why’ to live can support almost any ‘how’”, he would rewrite his book no matter what – which turned out to be keywords on tiny scraps of paper.
1 – In the face of all the uncertainty, one thing he knew was certain – that death happens to us all. Therefore to make death worthwhile, we must have reason to exist.
2 – Secondly, suffering is inevitable in life; therefore, responsibility is essential to realising life’s meaning (as echoed by Jordan Peterson).
“No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
3 – Meaning creates man’s destiny, so it must be uniquely personal to the individual. The meaning of life can’t be satisfied by a sweeping statement or a platitude (or a Monty Python joke, however funny it might be).
“The question life asks us, and in answering which we can realise the meaning of the present moment, does not only change from hour to hour but also changes from person to person: the question is entirely different in each moment for every individual.”
4 – We will always be free to choose how we respond to suffering.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
How Logotherapy works
Frankl’s findings were turned into a method for treating anyone unsatisfied with life, whether it manifested as a full-blown existential meltdown or a general malaise. He believed their anxiety was a lack of unfulfilled responsibility, and patients could discover the meaning necessary to take it on through psychotherapy.
Logotherapy is based on these three principles:
- Finding meaning is our primary motivation for living
- Meaning exists under all circumstances, even the worst imaginable
- The ultimate freedom: “We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stance we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.”
Logotherapy is less reflective than psychoanalysis and focuses more on the future (which sounds a bit like coaching). And like coaching, it’s not just a cosy chat lying on a Persian rug-covered couch by the fire. There will be actions to take as you go out into the world, taking on tasks that will give you meaning.
According to logotherapy, there are three ways that meaning can come into your life:
- Through creativity: by giving your work, deeds or wisdom to the world
- Through experiencing: what we receive through experiencing people, relationships or nature
- Through our attitude: the stance we take in the face of circumstances.
Logotherapists use Socratic questioning methods to draw out underlying beliefs, challenge assumptions, clarify what you really mean, and crack your meaning nut once and for all.
Going it alone
What if you can’t afford logotherapy or don’t fancy psychoanalysis but still crave meaning and purpose? You could try coaching. Some coaches specialise in purpose, fulfilment, and the circumstances themselves, like divorce, grief, or loneliness.
An excellent place to start is reading, beginning with the obvious ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ and his series of talks, ‘Yes to Life’. Then go where your curiosity takes you.
Look around you. Ask yourself what responsibility you are willing to take on to fulfil your life that would make it worthwhile. What is the story behind your suffering going to be, not just in the future but in every moment?
While you’re figuring it out, the Monty Python school of self-help is always at hand:
“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations”.
Photo: Muhammad Akfi