Making Meaning

Posted on Posted in Happiness

“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.” Victor Frankl (1)

Do you believe, and more importantly feel, that you are a part of something bigger than yourself? The sense of belonging – to a group, to a quest, to a belief system, to the cosmos itself – is the essence of meaning. It’s the “yes” answer to the question “does this experience matter?” Meaning is one of the three pillars of happiness. But is it something we can cultivate? Where does it come from?

Victor Frankl was an Austrian Psychologist, the founder of the “Third Viennese School of Psychology,” and a Nazi concentration camp survivor. His book Man’s Search for Meaning was initially published shortly after World War II, but its message resonates across the decades. The book chronicles his experience in the camps and his theory that meaning is the primary motivator of human life. Although he developed the theory before being captured by the Nazis, Frankl used that most horrific of experiences to observe the impact of his fellow prisoners’ and his own sense of meaning on their time in the camps. The experience affirmed his hypothesis that many of our problems are solved by putting our lives in the context of something larger, thereby setting the stage for the experience of meaning. He outlines three key sources of meaning: relationships, work and suffering. 

Relationships. The Harvard Grant Study is a decades long research project that has followed the graduates of Harvard’s undergraduate classes of 1939, 1940 and 1941. The participants have been periodically interviewed in depth about their life circumstances, their relationships, their outlook, and their experiences in the 75 years since graduating. George Vaillant, the psychologist who has been in charge of the project since 1966, concludes simply, “the most important influence by far on a flourishing life is love” (2). While romantic love is an important component, Vaillant used the term inclusively: love for friends and family in addition to a partner. Furthermore, he uses love as a verb: it is the act of caring for the other, not a gift you receive from them. If you are only going to do one thing deliberately to affect your quality of life and your experience of meaning, focus on your relationships. 

Work. When Frankl first arrived at the gates of Auschwitz, he told a fellow prisoner of the papers he carried hidden under his clothes. “This is the manuscript of a scientific book. I know what you will say; that I should be grateful to escape with my life, that that should be all I can expect of fate. But I cannot help myself. I must keep this manuscript at all costs; it contains my life’s work” (1). Mere minutes later, it was stripped from him in the disinfection chamber. Later, reflecting on the experience, he explained, “my deep desire to write this manuscript anew helped me to survive the rigors of the camps I was in” (1). Whereas our relationships are the direct give and take with another, our work is our effort, in some small way, to add to humanity by pushing the boundaries of human potential. How have we raised the bar? How have we added to knowledge? How have we created products, services and organizations that have contributed to the lives of others?

Suffering. Frankl, who experienced the most depraved human suffering of the twentieth century in Auschwitz, Kaufering and Türkheim, still concluded that suffering was the “most important” component of experiencing meaning. “Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph” (1). Admiral Jim Stockdale, the senior officer of a group of American prisoners of war that were held for over seven years in Vietnam, said of his experience, “I never doubted that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade” (3).

Our character is forged in fires of difficulty. The noble endurance of suffering builds individuals who are more compassionate, more resilient and more aware of the fleeting nature of our existence. How often, in times of challenge and pain, do we look for how it will build us, rather than complain about how it is tearing us down? This can be difficult to do because often, our pain is apparent while its benefits come much later, and in surprising ways. Stockdale knew that the experience would shape him profoundly, but he did not know it would be as an author, philosopher, educator and politician. He didn’t know exactly how his leadership during imprisonment would shape the lives of his comrades, like future Senator John McCain, just that it would. Like Stockdale, we shouldn’t expect to know exactly how our suffering will prove useful. Instead, we should seek to make use of it and trust that by meeting that challenge, we’ll become stronger than the next. 

Calvin and Hobbs, Bill Watterson

Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson

Making Meaning. It would be easy to expect meaning to come from without: a relationship or work that would give us a sense of significance. And certainly we should foster relationships and seek a vocation that are particularly meaningful to us. However, an essential component of experiencing meaning is the cultivation of our awareness of it. Meaning is the experience of being a part of something bigger than ourselves, but that’s not something we necessarily have to go out and find; we already are a part of something bigger. We are a part of our family, our social groups and humanity. Our work, whether today’s tasks seem important or not, is building toward our lifetime contribution. In the best of cases, our work today is already directly a part of our unique purpose. However, even if it seems insignificant or unrelated, it is still either training us for something better or helping us to determine what that something better might be. And suffering, to some degree or another, is already a part of our lives. 

Imagine you were given the opportunity to sit on the moon for 5 minutes with your safety guaranteed inside a state of the art spacesuit. Think how incredible an experience that would be: feeling the gravity of the moon, looking out across the lunar landscape, taking in breathtaking views of the galaxy. Wouldn’t it be among the most meaningful experiences of your life? Now look around wherever you are now. Life on earth is so much richer, more beautiful and abundant than on the moon. We have become desensitized to the joys of interacting with others, the marvels of our technology and the beauty of our surroundings. We ignore meaning all around us. 

Developmental maturity is a lifelong process of becoming more aware and more awed by interconnectedness. The frustrating line at the grocery store is also a part of all the effort we put into caring for and raising our children. Our commute is maddening, but also an experience of an incredible technology, the automobile, that, in geologic time, has existed for a brief moment. Our recent difficulties at the office prepare us for leadership down the line. Our illness builds a compassion that will touch unknown lives later on. 

From the mystery of nothingness, we now exist. From existence, we’ll pass back to nothingness. We can absentmindedly view the intervening years as annoying banality, or we can open our eyes to the wonder all around us. We often feel alone, let down by others, stuck in jobs we don’t love, agonizing about our suffering. But with this time we have, let’s pursue fullness of life. Let’s seek meaning in our relationships, our work and, yes, even our suffering. We can view each moment and each interaction as trivial, or we can see them as a part of something greater: the arc of our lives and our connection to life.

For consideration: What is a recent experience you have had that, while it seemed insignificant at the time, was actually a part of a larger, more meaningful story?

This post is part of a series on the three elements of happiness: mood, meaning and engagement.


(1) Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (first pub. 1946)

(2) George Vaillant, Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study (2012)

(3) Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Comanies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t (2001)

Photo credit: “EPIC”, Deep Space Climate Observatory, NASA

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