I love the psychology greats. Old thick-bespectacled blokes – and occasionally women – who lived through events like the World Wars and came out the other side to map the science of living well.
Back then, psychology was a new field and, often, emerging ideas were met with resistance. One of my biggest fears is that with the tsunami of self-help literature in our worlds now (on the net and in our bookstores), some of these leading lights suffer a different type of resistance: being forgotten.
Earlier in the year, I blogged about two of my favourite old greats: Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. This time I want to write about Viktor Frankl, whose story needs to be made into a movie, if this hasn’t been done already.
His beef was meaning and how to find it.
Frankl was a medical graduate and head of the neurological department of Vienna’s only hospital for jews during the Nazi era. Back then it was policy for the mentally ill to be euthanised – and Frankl saved many patients from this fate, though really that’s another story.
Eventually he was sent to a concentration camp where he dodged serious illness, and where sadly, he lost his father, mother and brother. Later in life he discovered love – big love!
His theories on living and purpose sprung from these experiences. Meaning, he said, gets people through. He agreed with fellow philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”.
Meaning needs to be found, believed Frankl. It is not given. So how do we find it? Here’s the broad science he lays out:
Meaning can be found through experiences
By experiencing something (eg. natural wonders), or someone, we value, we can assign (and find) meaning.
Love is a great example of this. As Dr C. George Boeree, psychology professor at Shippensburg University in the USA explains: “Through our love, we can enable our beloved to develop meaning, and by doing so, we develop meaning ourselves.”
Quoting Frankl direct, “Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire”.
Meaning can be found through ‘projects’
While this can include classic creativity – art, music writing and inventing things – it can also include ‘doing a deed’. As Boeree says, it comes from “becoming involved in one’s projects, or, better, the project of one’s own life.”
Meaning can be found in suffering
Yep, serious. Here’s an example. A man loses his wife and experiences terrible suffering. “How would your wife have felt if she were the one to die first?” Frankl asked the man. The answer was that she’d have felt bereft.
Boeree explains Frankl’s reasoning: “By her dying first, she had been spared the suffering, but now he had to pay the price by surviving and mourning her. In other words, grief is the price we pay for love… With meaning, suffering can be endured with dignity.”
Meaning can be found by focusing on others
Self-reflection is fine up until a point, Frankl believed, but we need to be mindful not to take it too far.
He says that ever since Freud’s time, we’ve been encouraged to look deep within ourselves, but too much of this turns us away from finding meaning.
In his words: “The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”
Was Viktor Frankl onto something? Where do you find meaning?