The Search for Meaning

What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? These questions are lofty and enormous. They may even seem slightly absurd. They may be totally impossible to ever answer. But I would argue they are incredibly important and vital questions. The answer to them is not as important as the search for them. Everyday we think: what is the greater purpose for my existence? We go through school and work and some days seem utterly mundane. We wonder what the point of it all is. I once heard a song called “Birth, School, Work, Death.” Cynical? Sure, but I think many of us have thought the same thing at various time.

So what is the purpose of life? I think many of us think the purpose of life is to be happy. So often you will hear parents, for instance, exclaim: “I just want you to be HAPPY.” And it is no surprise that happiness is such a powerful pull. It makes us feel good. It makes us feel alive. It fills us with joy, enthusiasm, positivity and hope. So let me be clear: I ain’t got nothin’ against happiness! I just don’t happen to believe it is the purpose of life, or at least not the primary one, nor is it the most important thing to attain.

For me the meaning of life is the search for meaning. I wish I could take credit for this idea. But it comes from a well known book, Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor. Frankl details his horrific experiences in concentration camps. He also writes a lot about trying to make sense of this experience. While we place enormous emphasis on happiness and success, Frankl puts the emphasis on the search for meaning. “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning…” I am someone who has suffered a lot during my 44 years of existence. I have to believe that this was not just suffering for suffering’s sake. I believe that all the suffering I have experienced has produced meaning. Sometimes I am better at listening for this meaning than others. Sometimes I am so wrapped up in the pain that I don’t hear the lessons of meaning that are trying to come through. But time elapsing can sometimes be a great teacher. The suffering I have endured has made me the person I am and has made me wiser and more introspective.

Another great quote: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” What will we choose to do in the space between stimulus and response? This to me is very empowering. This is where we can use our agency. This is where, even in the space of victimization, we can choose a response that furthers our own survival and our own humanity. This can be a very deliberate space. Sometimes we go with an automatic response and we end up regretting it. This, too, is part of our learning. But being intentional in our deliberation can help us to improve in our response to various stimuli. My hope is that as I get older my response will be less reactive and more pro-active. It will be less chastising and more compassionate. In our search for why we are here, we can continue to think about our responses, especially our responses to difficult circumstances, to situations when we are triggered, to times when we feel weary or exhausted. I want to have self-compassion AND I want to do better in my human responses to other people and situations.

Human’s “search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health. There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that so effectively helps one to survive even the worse conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.” There is meaning to your life and there is meaning to my life. I like how he talks about “inner tension” in a positive light. Too often in contemporary psychology, it seems like the goal is to get rid of “inner tension” and have total calm and tranquility. While calm and tranquility are certainly a beautiful part of life, they are neither permanent nor particularly commonplace. Life is filled with tension. It is not the goal of life to get rid of tension but to learn how to live with it. One way of learning how to live with it is to give it meaning. We give our suffering meaning and realize it is in service to something greater, including our own growth and expansion as human beings.

To sum up, happiness is great, but the search for meaning, the finding of meaning in our own lives, is infinitely better. Happiness comes and goes, but a belief in our lives having meaning is persistent or even permanent. We must not lose sight of the path we are on and the reasons for the good and bad things that happen to us. Frankl writes that a human being’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to find meaning in their life. As someone with depression, I am often not happy. I can’t help it, as depression is not something that you can turn on or off like a light switch. But even in the darkest of moments, there is something I can do. I can ask: Why is this happening? How can I make meaning out of it? How can I think about the source of the pain and the reaction I have to it? How can I think about how this makes me a stronger person and a more unique person? I wish you well in your own search for meaning, and in the blessings it brings into your life.