Why do so many of us experience a feeling of being stuck in life and career? Why do we often feel disappointed and even sad as the end of the year approaches and why are we filled with excitement at the beginning of a new year? Viktor Frankl, psychologist, and Nazi concentration camp survivor, believed this is because the most fundamental human need, is the need to find meaning. Even if our lives look perfect on the outside, but we derive no meaning from the things we keep ourselves busy with, we will experience a feeling of emptiness or “stuckness”. You will feel stuck or frustrated, or bored, or even downright depressed, because there is simply no meaning. The start of a new year promises the possibility of finding that which is missing – i.e. meaning.
According to Frankl, there are three ways in which you can derive meaning in your life, or three possible “Why’s” that you can cultivate. Firstly, there is the meaning we derive out of creating something, or doing work that matters. For each person that would be different. Most artists and musicians are driven by a desire to create and to give expression to their authentic selves through their art or their music. But across various industries, we find people who love the work they do and who derive immense satisfaction from their work. When our work adds to our sense of authentic purpose, we can endure difficult working conditions, because the actual work matters so much.
Some of us don’t necessarily derive the meaning we are looking for from our work, but we do find it in the connections we have with others. The second way in which you can therefore derive a sense of meaning or purpose in your life, is by loving another more than you love yourself. Our loved ones – our family and friends – can be a tremendous source of meaning, especially if they depend on us and we spend a lot of time building quality relationships with them.
There are also those who do not have loved ones to share their journey with, or who have lost their loved ones or even their work and thus now face very difficult and trying circumstances. Having survived the Nazi concentration camps, Frankl could relate strongly to the challenge of finding meaning in such circumstances and he concluded that there is one factor that separates those who survived and lived from those who did not. Meaning. Thus, the attitude you take when faced with unavoidable suffering – i.e. having dignity in suffering – is what helps you overcome the difficult circumstances, and emerge stronger. Knowing in your heart that the suffering you are enduring will also end, and approaching the challenges you face as opportunities to learn and become a better person, provide a sense of meaning and purpose when there is none. We have heard the zero-to-hero stories of people overcoming the most difficult obstacles and becoming successful beyond even their own imagination. What it took, was commitment, perseverance, hard work, and the belief that they could change their destinies.
So, to derive authentic meaning from your life, you must either find work that gives you the sense that you are working towards something bigger than yourself or you must find purpose and inspiration from your relationships with others. Some of us are faced with difficult circumstances that cause us tremendous suffering. The only way to overcome the suffering, is by finding the meaning within the suffering or the purpose to be achieved once the suffering has ended. This could be in the form of work we want to do, something we want to create or give to the world, i.e. our calling, or because someone loves us and depends on us and they give meaning to our lives.
Finding your calling isn’t like taking a pill or doing those five things you read about in a “How to” article. There’s no simple recipe. Of course, in a fast-paced, got-to-have-it-now society, many of us demand templates and action plans. But discovering what you are meant to do in your life and career is not only about doing, but also about undoing all the beliefs that stand in your way. It requires deep self-work and the right kind of work.
- Frankl, V. E. (1969). The will to meaning: Foundations and applications of Logotherapy. New York: World.
- Frankl, V. E. (2004). Man’s search for meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust. London: Rider.
Originally published at leapjourney.org