Give your life a meaning

Born in 1905, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl founded a special psychotherapy school of thought: the Logotherapy. The Greek word “logos” stands for meaning and this basically already outlines the central content of this therapy concept. Frankl sees the search for meaning as a human fundamental motivation: As the only living creature aware of its finiteness, and so as not to despair, the human being must give its existence meaning. If his innate “need for meaning” is frustrated, the resulting sense of futility manifests itself in emotional disturbances such as depression, aggression, or addiction. Conversely, one could say: happiness is to have found the meaning to one’s life.

Whoever lives sensibly feels that he/she is using his/her life meaningfully. He/she knows why he/she has been put into this world and what constitutes his/her uniqueness. Someone who lives sensibly, knows that his life means something and makes a difference in the larger whole even if the difference is not as obvious as the one made by Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King. That is not at all necessary. Someone who finds meaning in his life has found his own response to the eternal question: “What am I living for?” Sooner or later everybody has to face this question–therefore, it makes sense to deal with it sooner rather than later!
Even Frankl himself who saw the meaning to life as so very central states: “The human being is unable to answer the question about the absolute meaning.” It merely depends on discovering the meaning in acting and being during a totally normal life. This includes goals one pursues passionately and joyously, tasks that captivate, the sense that one will leave something behind when one departs this world one day, that not everything was for naught. Moving something, changing something, passing something on; creating something permanent – those are the elements characterizing a meaningful life. Those who are able to live with this feeling are more content in the long run, have more self-confidence, feel healthier, and are less prone to depression.

In order to give our lives such meaning, one must have one priority: establishing goals and projects in life that are dear to the heart. (Here, the character strength enthusiasm plays an important role again). In his 1932 treatise “How to be Happy Though Human” the Australian psychiatrist W. Béran Wolfe wrote: “When you observe a truly happy person, you will see him building a boat, writing a symphony, raising a son, breeding dahlias, or searching for dinosaur bones in the Gobi desert.” This makes the point perfectly.

Goals in life give us direction; they provide us with a good reason to get up in the morning, and working towards them begins activating the anticipation of the brain’s reward system that you read about earlier in this text. Additionally, a goal automatically provides a certain measure of structure and motivation in every day life, something that is vital to life for us humans, so to speak. It also gives us a feeling self esteem when I know where my life is going; if I see that as a good cause, then this automatically provides my life and my existence with meaning and relevance.

In this connection, a sociological study in 1933 about the unemployed in Marienthal became famous. Marienthal was a small village near Vienna where practically every resident was employed by a single factory. When this factory was closed, an entire village became suddenly unemployed. Two scientists conducted a long-term study to document the effect of long-term unemployment on the human psyche. The majority of the residents soon succumbed to resignation, desperation, and apathy that then – a quote from the study – “led to the abandonment of a future that does not even play a role as a plan in the imagination.” Only very few residents managed not to give in to this collective depression: they were those who were able to maintain and develop plans and hopes for the future.

Whoever has a goal in mind does not just live happier and more contently during the good times, but he/she also has an easier time dealing with difficult times and crises. Viktor Frankl who, as the survivor of a national socialist concentration camp, continued to recount that even under extreme conditions those of his fellow prisoners were able to live better (and if necessary die better) who despite everything, had not abandoned the faith in a meaning and an objective; therefore he liked to quote Friedrich Nietzsche who once wrote: “Whoever has a why to live, endures almost any how.”