Many people have a constant feeling that there is more to their life. For some, it is like a background hum, while others hear it as though it’s a relentlessly loud screaming out loud.
Some people may even have great material success – but still, feel and deep inside know there’s something more. They need to find their meaning in life.
It’s one thing to realize and know this… but how does anyone discover their purpose?
Search for meaning
A century ago, Viktor Frankl was a successful psychiatrist in Austria. Since the 1920s he had realized that meaning was the key motivational force in people.
He had superb expertise in his field, which included from his teens onwards having contact with esteemed psychotherapist Sigmund Freud. Frankl studied medicine at the University of Vienna, specializing in psychiatry and neurology with a particular focus on depression and suicide.
But because he was Jewish, Nazis forced him to close his private practice after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. Four years later, Frankl and his family were forcibly taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
His father died within months there of pneumonia and starvation. Frankl and the remaining family members were taken to Auschwitz in 1944. His mother and brother were killed here.
After this, in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, his wife died of typhus. Viktor Frankl spent a total of three years in four different concentration camps before the Second World War ended in 1945.
Within months of his freedom Frankl, then aged 40, started to write a book that he had thought about frequently while in the concentration camps. He wrote the first draft in nine successive days.
In the opening pages, the book details some of the horrors of the concentration camps. But the book’s real purpose is to look at our human ability to survive even in the most despicable and arduous conditions.
Nevertheless saying ‘Yes’ to Life
“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,” wrote Frankl in his book.
Its original title translated from German was “…Nevertheless saying ‘Yes’ to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp”. It became a bestseller in Germany but it was more than 10 years later until it was published in English with the title “Man’s Search for Meaning“.
It has since become one of the world’s bestselling books read by those in recovery having sold more than 10 million copies in 24 languages. Frankl believed its success was a sign of the “mass neurosis of modern times” because its title is about finding life’s meaning.
Frankl wrote in the book that the greatest test for everyone is to find meaning in our lives. His story of having survived in the most atrocious conditions showed that it is possible to find meaning, even in the utmost dire and seemingly hopeless circumstances.
Pursuit of happiness
In Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl introduced a school of psychology and a philosophy that he termed “logotherapy”. It says that the main motivational force of people is a search for their meaning in life.
Frankl saw that people sought success and happiness. But he said about this: “For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself… It is the pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”
How do I find meaning in life?
Frankl went on to say that anyone who knows the “why” for their existence will be able to bear almost any “how”. It is actually finding meaning in life that gives us the happiness we all seek.
But the question most people ask now is: how do I find that meaning? Thankfully, there are some positive things that anyone can do to help them find their meaning.
Follow your bliss
Sometimes we lose sight of our real selves. This can be for a multitude of reasons, including suffering from trauma as well as cultural and family pressures. When we cannot see who we are we are likely to also lose sight of what our meaning is intended to be. We are not being true to ourselves.
Paying attention to gut instinct is one way to get back on the right route for your life. Professor of Literature Joseph Campbell, known for his discovery of the extraordinary “hero’s journey” concept, put it this way: “Follow your bliss. We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”
Develop positive habits
Positive habits are vital when looking for your meaning in life. They will help us to feel fulfilled.
In the 1920s a Boston Globe columnist called Frank Crane wrote a list of ten things to do every day that could be considered positive habits. From this developed the Just For Today card that is read and widely used in recovery communities since it was printed in a pocket-sized form by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in the 1970s.
An example of a couple of these is: Just for today, I will try to strengthen my mind. I will study. I will learn something useful. I will not be a mental loafer. I will read something that requires effort, thought, and concentration.
Just for today I will have a quiet half-hour all by myself and relax. During this half-hour, sometimes, I will try to get a better perspective of my life.
Starting every day by reading through the Just For Today card and then living out what it suggests, will help steer anyone towards finding their true meaning.
Choose your attitude
It’s easy to have a good attitude when things are going well. But when they aren’t… Yet this is one way to learn and grow – and so to keep on track to know our meaning in life.
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering,” said Viktor Frankl. “Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.”
Frankl thought it was not suffering that actually causes someone’s despair, but that if someone feels they have no one to love and nothing to give, then they will lack meaning in life – and it is that which makes any suffering especially hard. So if we can keep a strong attitude when things are not going well, we will not stray off our path and we will be much more likely to know our real meaning.
Meet new people, visit new places, have new experiences, read lots – and as you do keep looking out for something that gives you real meaning. Discovering a meaning, a sense of purpose vitalizes us. This is perhaps especially important for those people who are aging.
“If you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back,” Morrie said in bestselling book Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson, a true-life story about Morrie, 78, during the last months of his life. “You want to go forward. You want to see more, do more.”
What would you like to be remembered for?
As poet Mary Oliver wrote: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Our life is fleeting, and as far as anyone knows we only have one chance at it. So ask yourself what it is that you’d like to be known for – and that will definitely give you a sense of what your real meaning is on earth.
Finally, Frankl offered some wise words about how to find meaning in life: “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.
“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
So look around because the meaning of life is being revealed every second – our choice to do the right thing under any circumstances reveals this to us and to others too.