Written by therapist Mariah Kelty

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” – Viktor Frankl

In 1945, just a few months after being liberated from a Nazi concentration camp, Viktor Frankl wrote a manuscript detailing his three years as a prisoner and his viewpoint on the psychology of survival. As a psychiatrist, Frankl had a remarkably unique perspective on witnessing and enduring the death camps in Nazi Germany. Frankl’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning, tells the story of how he and others survived the Holocaust and his theory of psychology, which asserts that the “will to meaning” is the primary motivation for humanity. His book is considered one of the most influential books, selling 10 million copies in 24 languages, but what is the, “will to meaning,” and what significance does it have in the therapy room? 

The Will to Meaning

With great wisdom and compassion, Frankl astutely observes that amid the worst conditions of the concentration camp, those who were able to transcend their immediate circumstances and hold onto something meaningful, such as a reunion with a loved one, were more likely to survive than those who saw their situation as hopeless. Namely, even when everything was stripped from the victims, including their families, jobs, health, and possessions, Frankl found anyone could change how they think about that situation to give a sense of purpose.

Preceding psychologists argued that pleasure or power drives humans throughout their lives. After enduring such extremity, Frankl disagrees and asserts that humans are driven by a “will to meaning” or an inner desire to find purpose and meaning in life. 

That said, Frankl makes no promises about the general answer for meaning in life; instead, he is concerned with an individual’s specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. Just like in a chess game, the best move in the world is not an objective answer apart from a particular scenario and the particular disposition of the opponent. The same is true for our lives; each person has a specific purpose or mission to fulfill. Therefore, meaning is not something to be created, but discovered. 

How do I begin?

Each person has things in their life that are innately meaningful to them, sometimes even at an unconscious level. But how does one begin to uncover these? The Meaning Triangle is a tool to help people identify how we can add purpose to our lives. It has three components to finding meaning: creativity, experience, and attitude.

Three Components

Creativity. This could be through work or giving something to the world through self-expression and using our talents in various ways.

Experience. This looks like receiving from the world through nature, culture, relationships, and interactions with others and our environment. Often, meaning occurs through love, which is frequently shown in service to others.

Attitude. Frankl believed that everyone has the power to choose the way we think about a situation to give us purpose and meaning. Even if we can’t change a situation or circumstance, we can still choose our attitude toward a condition. This is often a self-transcending way of finding meaning through suffering.

Additional questions to consider include:

  1. What would you love to do most if you were free to pursue anything you want?
  2. What do you really care about? What matters to you?
  3. What are the things you are passionate about? What am I skilled at?
  4. What dreams did you cherish when you were young? 
  5. Does the value of your life depend on your career or profession?
  6. What legacy do I want to leave behind?

Meaning and Therapy

Many enter therapy disillusioned with life, uncertain of their purpose, circumstances, or future. Some of us have asked questions like, “why am I living?” and “what is the meaning of life?” Or, maybe you find yourself confused about your faith or feeling stuck or directionless. Finding a satisfying answer is difficult to come by, but therapy could be a place to explore these existential questions – how to make sense of our lives and how we can keep our hopes alive, even at the worst period of our lives. 

With a therapist, one can dive into discovering, understanding, and clarifying the meaning components of your life. This can look like uncovering your values and learning to live by them. It could also begin by being brave enough to ask purpose-driven questions and consider different perspectives on our circumstances to create meaning– not simply optimism. If you would like therapy to be a space to explore these questions, do value formation, or consider greater purpose amidst the storms and seasons of life, please give us a call to schedule an appointment with a counselor. It would be a privilege to walk alongside you! 

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