Discover and Embrace Meaning in Your Every Day
“Humans are a meaning-making species,” pens Brene Brown in her phenomenal book The Gifts of Imperfection* (affiliate link).
We turn situations upside down like a magician’s hat, hoping that a reasonable reason fascinatingly falls to the floor. We assign meaning to the positions of planet and stars (and sometimes weigh our decisions based on a stranger’s prediction of the day). And we patiently look for patterns in the behavior of our lover, searching for anything that might give away who we truly are in their eyes — hoping to discover fragments of ourselves that we haven’t met yet.
In his book Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning* (affiliate link), Victor Frankl notes how Abraham Maslow, the psychologist who developed the “Hierarchy of Needs Theory,” deemed our will to meaning “an irreducible need.”
In the same book, Frankl also referenced a John Hopkins University study that sought to find out what is “very important” for 7,948 students at 48 different colleges worldwide when considering a career path.
Only 16% percent considered “making a lot of money” their ultimate priority, while a whopping 78% of the respondents had “finding purpose and meaning in life” at the top of their list.
Interestingly, another research in organizational behavior recognizes how the meaning of work has influenced work motivation, absenteeism, work behavior, job satisfaction, stress, personal fulfillment, and a couple more outcomes in organizational studies.
In another study, the search for meaning was positively associated with well-being — greater life satisfaction, more happiness, and less depression. One even explores how meaning in life can affect the psychological well-being of chronically ill patients.
In simpler and fewer words, we want things to make sense.
Thankfully, logotherapy exists. It is the meaning-focused existential philosophy founded by Viktor E. Frank after surviving Nazi concentration camps. It focuses on the meaning of human existence — our search for meaning — but its process does not tell the patient what the meaning is. Instead, it assists the patient to discover it for himself.
The first two books I read in 2021 is Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning* and Man’s Search for Meaning* (affiliate link). I wasn’t kidding when I told you I was hungry for meaning!
Below I share my favorite excerpts along with my takeaways.
1. Life is asking us the same thing
“We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly.” — Victor Frankl
Reading Frankl’s books on meaning felt like a wake-up call from Providence. Often I am guilty of being caught up in the quest for meaning that I forget to mind what life asks of me. Just as we’re wondering about life’s meaning, I imagine life asking us the same things:
What are you here for?
What good or evil will be done through your life?
What healing or poison will you bring into the world?
The text further talks about how life ultimately means taking responsibility. And in a world where finger-pointing is the norm, I gotta admit. That concept of responsibleness is mind-blowing and life-changing. So I began to shift my thinking. Instead of plainly demanding life to make sense and satisfy my thirst for meaning, I now see it both as a duty and a privilege as a human to take responsibility for my actions (and the consequences of not doing so).
2. Look at your own paper
“…meaning of life differs from man to man, from moment to moment. Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements.” — Victor Frankl
If our whole life is a test, this is a great heads-up: You won’t find the answers by peeking at your friend’s purpose. Look at your own paper. Each of us carries a unique calling that can be fulfilled by no one but us. This is both a burden and a joy! A responsibility and a privilege!
3. Nothing lasts forever — even meaning
“The meaning of life always changes — but it never ceases to be.” — Victor Frankl
From moment to moment, from season to season, our life’s meaning may change. But though it transforms from one kind to another, meaning always exists within our circumstances and our choices.
4. It’s not entirely about you
“Therefore man is originally characterized by his search for meaning rather than his search for himself…The more he forgets himself — giving himself to a cause or another person — the more human he is.” — Victor Frankl
According to Frankl, we can discover the meaning of our life by:
- Creating a work/doing a deed
- Experiencing something/encountering someone
- Our attitude towards unavoidable suffering
From both his expertise as a neurologist and psychiatrist and from his experience in the concentration camp, Frankl concludes that we find meaning that is worth living and dying for, not within ourselves but in the extension of our being — when we care for something or someone more than our self.
This may look like dedicating our life to meaningful work, or loving someone with our whole hearts, or holding firmly on one’s integrity and kindness amidst unavoidable suffering. The joy of chancing upon our life’s meaning is not entirely about us, after all.
5. Meditation and journaling may not be enough
“Our answer [to life’s question] must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct.” — Victor Frankl
This one hit me right in the gut!
As someone who loves to introspect, journal my thoughts, and visualize the future I want, I often do much planning and then miss out on the execution part.
I’m all talk with little to no walk. I
n the same way, finding our meaning is not the same as fulfilling it.
We are not only to seek the abstract meaning of life but also to do our unique and concrete assignment.
What we find in our search for meaning must be lived out. Or else it would have been all for nothing.
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