When Viktor Frankl was freed from a Nazi concentration camp, he already had a developed theory of what makes us tick. He saw beyond the incomplete tale of lives lived solely for the pursuit of pleasure or power. Frankl interpreted his horrific experience as a challenge to find meaning when you are stripped of everything. The Nazi machine struck at the core spark of being that allows any person to hold her head up and say, “I exist.” The will to meaning, as Frankl spoke of, is the ongoing process to affirm our being and dignity. Meaning is felt when we have a sense that our lives are worth living.
Frankl stressed three layers of the human being –physical, psyche, and noetic. While science has greatly expanded our knowledge about the physical body and psychology, there still remains hesitation to take the “noetic,” or spirit, seriously as a frontier worth exploring. Frankl was unhappy with the English word “spirit” because it can suggest something disconnected from the world. We use spiritual to indicate something that cannot be observed. For Frankl, spirit is a very real quality that is easily described, observed, and experienced. People act with their spirits when they express creativity. Creativity is any action that hints towards newness. It is seen in the artist’s painting and in the politician’s pen stroke of a healthcare solution. Through our creative faculty, housed in our noetic level, we encounter the root of a meaningful life.
While Frankl left us with a theory about meaning, it is hard to piece together any practice to help establish a sense of meaning in life. Since Frankl, a lot of research has been done about the presence of meaning, the depth of the meaning , and sources of meaning , but not much research is done about the how-to of meaning given the challenges of contemporary society. This article is based on my 2009 study that explored meaning through the collection of narratives from twelve adults. By using a narrative approach, I was able to peel away the layers of the meaning experience and construct five themes towards a sustainable sense of meaning.
Begin with Being
Our pervasive cultural value of ceaseless productivity is making it difficult to maintain a sense of personal meaning. People feel meaningful when they set and meet goals. This can be called “meaning through doing.” As unemployment increases and the percentage of those deemed “successful” decreases, it is dangerous to weigh meaningfulness solely on what one has gained. For example, if all of our meaning is dependent upon a job, what happens when we lose that job?
In order to buffer our meaning through doing we must refocus to the ground on which life takes place. This is related to mindfulness as we learn to notice the vitality which pulses vibrantly in each breath we take. A universal word for the core of each individual is being. Being has been well nuanced by existential philosophers (for example, Sartre and Heidegger). With the more recent attention of science to mindfulness, being can be taken more seriously as a real and influential human phenomenon. (See, for example, the work of the Mind and Life Institute.) Thus, we can emphasize the experience of meaning through being.
When we place being at the center of our life, we find ourselves engaged in an ongoing process of affirming our very existence. When something external to us impresses its meaning upon us, it registers as meaningful, not because of any objective meaning found in the external sphere, but because we ourselves, as living beings, already are saturated with meaning. When we get a job, the meaningfulness of the moment does not come from the job itself, rather from the affirmation that “I am alive!” Meaning is in the knowing that we have intrinsic value and dignity. Mindfulness helps to cultivate knowing that your being, with your aliveness in tow, is always present.
Creation and Discovery of Meaning
Cultivating meaning through being happens in a phenomenological loop between discovering and creating meaning. Throughout life we happen upon experiences that remind us of our aliveness and we feel a sense of personal meaning. An example of this might be baking with Grandma. She teaches you how to make a delicious chocolate cake and cuts off a small corner of the cake for you to taste while it is still hot. Tastes like heaven. You feel warm and complete inside, and you fall in love with baking. You have just made a meaning discovery.
Alternatively, we walk around with a “Mary Poppins” purse full of activities, locations, and people that have offered us a sense of meaning. When we create meaning, we consciously manipulate our environment in order to re-encounter our meaningful repository. Continuing with the example above, you might take a job as a baker in order to tap into that original sense of meaning that you discovered with Grandma.
The cycle begins with early discoveries of what is meaningful. These discoveries of being-affirmative moments lead to creation of meaning, as one paints the world with a sense of “I exist.” We further discover new access points to meaning that shift our choices along our journey. A healthy attitude toward meaning honors the flow between discovery and creation.
The Willingness to Willfulness Spectrum
Creation of meaning can be arduous. Gerald May wrote about two extremes, a spectrum extending from willingness to willfulness that speaks to our attitude towards creation. Willingness is openness to what comes your way. There is a beautiful overlook hike, but a sign reads, “Trail Closed!” The willing hiker will forgo that path, certain that beautiful sites exist elsewhere. In terms of meaning, when I am forced off my chosen path, chances are I will discover something fresh about my meaning framework.
Willfulness is an attitude by which a person refuses to surrender will to circumstance. A willful hiker will ignore the warning and press on. She might still reach this desired overlook, though with wet socks or worse. Willfulness is detrimental to the creation of meaning when it is completely inflexible. If the hiker does not turn back, no matter what, she can find herself in serious danger. We create meaning in order to further discover our access to meaning. Discovery cannot occur within extreme willful attitudes.
In order to successfully create meaning, a degree of willingness must be present. This is true even where we are sure we have it all figured out. Addiction provides an extreme example. An addict’s meaning framework is entirely consumed by the need for the next hit. The hunt for more substance gives him a purpose and creates drive – it also creates the potential for tremendous pain for himself and his loved ones. Addiction kills the willingness to see an alternative way to live until it may be too late.
Expanding the Spiritual
Another critical element in the quest for meaning is the spiritual dimension. This is different from believing in God. Spirituality can have very little to do with the Judeo-Christian God that served us best during adolescence. As mentioned above, the noetic realm is our core of creativity. We use the word spiritual because it allows for newness to seep into our rigid lives. Moments thought of as spiritual often include: (1) an immersion into a particular moment and, (2) personal transcendence, as discussed by K.I. Pargament in The Psychology of Religion and Coping: Theory, Research, Practice. The following story exemplifies this view of the spiritual:
A man in his twenties joined a reconciliation trip for Germans and Jews to a concentration camp. He is not German, nor Jewish, but was the trip’s logistics person. When he encountered a wall inscribed with the names of hundreds of victims, he began to sob. He connected to the suffering of these victims as humans, regardless of their nationality. In that moment he became part of the group seeking reconciliation; he later decided to choose a career that extends compassion to all people.
Though he does not mention God, this is a meaning story pervaded with spirituality. There is an immersion into the moment when he becomes aware of the story the wall tells and the emotional processing which ensues. This immersion is followed by personal transcendence. He moves from being an outside observer to an affected participant. He feels his net of compassion casting wider, and there is impact beyond that moment.
Although the story is an extreme case, we live an infinite amount of moments that can have the same effect. Expanding our awareness of the spiritual strengthens our antennae attunement to the meaningful moments that are broadcasted but often missed. We can ascribe meaning to situations that otherwise might be described as mundane, or commonplace. Not because these moments are “messages from God,” but because they affirm our existence, connect us more deeply to our experiences, and expand the limits of our potential.
What Is Meaninglessness?
This fifth and final theme is about what happens when the personal meaning system melts down. If we are too rigid to discover new or more refined aspects of our personal meaning, we may experience life as meaningless. If we refuse to use the information gathered from a discovery of meaning in order to shape our future path, we may experience life as meaningless. If we deny ourselves a spiritual framework that introduces creativity and newness into our lives, we may experience life as meaningless. Extended meaningless can be perceived as depression, emptiness, and loneliness. Meaninglessness is your signal that your existential system is craving something fresh.
According to Frankl, rebooting your meaning framework can occur through experience, creativity, or attitude. A meaningful experience is a discreet encounter with the outside world that affirms your existence. For example, our hiker on the beautiful overlook is having a meaningful “I am alive!” experience. Meaningful creativity affirms your existence and expands upon your perceived limitations. Baking a cake, just as Grandma used to, connects the passions of your past and present self plus you share that passion with whoever nibbles a moist morsel. If all else fails, if you are barred access to meaningful experiences or are limited to undertake any meaningful creativity, you can always practice shifting your internal narrative (or attitude) about your circumstances. Frankl’s example is the interpretation of his suffering during the Holocaust as a quest for survival – not only for his own sake, but for future generations who will read his words and live more meaningful lives. Struggles can be transformed into challenges. Failure can be seen as an important step on the way to success. Illness can be a time to draw inward and take stock of what matters most.
The important take-away is that meaninglessness should not be seen solely as a crippling psycho-spiritual condition. It is a whole-being wakeup call for attention to your meaning framework. Meaninglessness is a beckoning from the depths of your being to shake things up in some significant, though not necessarily drastic, way. Shifting our attitude about meaninglessness can aid to jumpstart our system that keeps our sense of meaning stable and sustainable.
Is meaning given to us from God, or do we pretend to have some real purpose in life in order to make it through the day? People have been chewing this question for as long as we have been reasoning. I do not think an answer is forthcoming any time soon. In the meantime, the responsibility is in our hands to care for our own meaning schemas and to validate the lives of others as meaningful. We can learn that it is our meaningful beings that are constant and our expressions of this ever-present personal meaning that change and become more refined over time. With more awareness of the internal processes of personal meaning, we can become more adept at tapping into a sense of meaning, no matter what circumstances we are facing—transforming not only ourselves, but the world around us.