Frankl was absolutely clear that every person’s sense of meaning is unique to them and can only be realized by them.
He did however think that different types of meaning generally fall into one of three broad categories. We might think of these as three different meaning systems.
1. Creative – creating a work or doing a deed
Frankl summed up this first category as ‘what one gives to the world’. It includes our achievements and accomplishments, as well as the fruits of our creativity and also of our labour.
Making a quilt, building a house, setting up a charity, having and rearing children, even simply doing one’s job to the best of one’s ability. These are all ways in which we might ‘give to the world’.
And it seems that it is not just the end result that is meaningful but the actual act of creating that is somehow meaningful too. Irvin Yalom noticed that ‘A wide array of life’s activities, if approached creatively, may imbue one’s life with meaning’.
2. Experiential – experiences and encounters
This category Frankl described as being more about ‘what one takes from the world’ in terms of the experiences that they have and the people they meet.
In our modern world, new and exciting experiences certainly do seem to be a popular way of finding meaning. This probably explains the current proliferation of books along the lines of ‘1001 places to see / holidays to take / books to read / meals to eat / beaches to sunbathe on (and so on, and so on)…….before I die’.
And engagement in even routine activities can make life more meaningful too. Whether it be cooking and eating good food with friends, climbing mountains, dancing to the early hours of the morning, swimming in the sea, or even reading – when we are fully immersed in doing things we enjoy and are passionate about, life can seem more meaningful, even if only fleetingly.
Relationships would fall into this category too, and Frankl specifically talks about the experience of falling in, and of being in, love and the way in which this can bring meaning to one’s life. The sense of meaning derived from an appreciation of beauty and of nature would also fit into this category.
3. Attitudinal – how one deals with suffering and a fate one can’t change
It is perhaps Frankl’s third category of meaning which is the one which most clearly defines him and his work.
Frankl was an Austrian Jew and also a psychiatrist. He spent a number of years in Auschwitz concentration camp during the second world war, and his mother, father, brother and wife all died in concentration camps. Other than his sister, his entire family perished.
This horrific experience caused him to think deeply about the relationship between meaning and suffering. He noticed that the people who survived the concentration camps were those who had something to live for, be it children, a spouse, some kind of project which they needed to complete, or a strong desire to live long enough to tell the world about the camps.
Based on what he witnessed and experienced in the camps, he believed survival in these sorts of extreme circumstances depended on one being able to find meaning in one’s suffering.
Fortunately, few of us will ever have to tolerate those sorts of conditions. But suffering to some extent is part and parcel of life; living with chronic pain, the end of a relationship, the death of a child, redundancy and the consequent financial hardship, the diagnosis of a terminal illness – life is hard.
All of us will at some point have to find meaning from all sorts of painful situations which cause some degree of suffering, whether physical or emotional.
But how exactly might we do this? This is a question that warrants far more exploration and consideration than there is room for in one post. Frankl wrote whole books on this subject, and to attempt to simplify his thoughts into a few lines would be to risk sounding trite.
This is an area which I intend to explore in depth on this site. For the time being though, consider that, amongst other things, Frankl would say that suffering can have meaning if it changes one for the better and leads to growth.
Experiencing hardship or suffering in whatever form can teach us things. If we survive what life throws at us, we are likely to come out the other side of that experience stronger, wiser and tougher. The essence of this idea is encapsulated in the words of Nietzsche, “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”.
It must be said that Frankl did not think that suffering is in any way necessary for finding meaning. Not at all. Rather, he believed that it is possible to find meaning in spite of suffering.
And this is only when suffering is unavoidable. He did not think there was anything heroic about putting up with suffering for the sake of it. If there is a way of avoiding suffering, then one should take steps to do so.
Frankl’s way of categorizing meaning into three different types is just A way of conceptualizing meaning. It is not by any means THE way. For some people this approach might be helpful, for others less so. And that is okay. As with all psychological models and theories it is just a framework that attempts to help us to make sense of an abstract concept.
We may want to find THE true system for understanding meaning, but we need to realize that such a thing does not exist. Instead we need to learn to be comfortable with fluidity and uncertainty and complexity. If we can do this, it bodes well for our search for meaning more generally.