The need for meaning / Viktor Frankl

The ‘will to meaning’

We may not dwell on it day in, day out, but we all need meaning. In fact it seems man has a need for meaning in his life almost as surely as he has a need for food and for water.

Sure, many people manage to plod through much of their lives relatively unaffected by worries about meaninglessness. Some psychologists would say this is because of the hugely efficient defense mechanisms that we use. Operating at a sub-conscious level, these psychological mechanisms push such concerns down and out of our awareness, keeping them conveniently out of sight and out of mind. Well – our conscious mind at least.

But the chances are that at one point or another, some life event will catapult these concerns right into the forefront of our mind. It could be anything – a bereavement, the diagnosis of an illness, a birthday, children leaving home or even the birth of a baby. When the chips are down, it’s the question of the meaning of our lives that we want to be able to answer.

Kierkegaard thought this too. For him, the most important question for any individual person is the meaning of his or her own existence.

And Frankl asserted that ‘striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man’. He called this man’s ‘will to meaning’.

When Frankl coined this term, it was in contrast to Sigmund Freud’s concept of a ‘will to pleasure’ which suggested the main driving force in man is to feel pleasure. Also known as the ‘pleasure principle’, this driving force is manifested in man’s urge to respond to instincts such as that of thirst and hunger, and also sex.

It was also in contrast to Alfred Adler’s concept of the ‘will to power’. He claimed that achievement, ambition, and a constant striving to reach the highest possible position in life was the fundamental force motivating any individual human being.

Frankl did not deny the will to pleasure or power, but he did think that they were secondary to man’s will to meaning.

He suggested that when man’s will to meaning becomes frustrated, they might attempt to compensate for it through fulfilling their will to pleasure. This could manifest itself in behaviours of gluttony, excessive drinking, drug addiction and rampant sexual behavior.

Alternatively they might attempt to compensate for it through fulfilling their will to power, and becoming obsessed with money, material success, promotion and their status in relation to others.

All of these behaviours are certainly rife in our modern world and it’s an interesting idea to think that in some cases they are perhaps the result of an unfulfilled will to meaning. Frankl certainly would have thought so. As far as he was concerned, man’s will to meaning trumps everything else. He claimed that it is essential for life and for this reason he dedicated his career to studying the role of meaning in psychopathology and psychotherapy.

And he should know. The survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, he claimed it was having a sense of meaning in his life that enabled him to survive.

For those of you who can relate to this need for meaning but haven’t yet found an answer, know that you are not alone, you are not ill, and you are certainly not mad. You’re just – in the truest sense of the word – human.

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Nietzsche

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