What is the meaning of life?

Have you ever wondered why people continue to fight to survive in the harshest conditions? As I was reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, he discusses how having a personal meaning for life motivates people to stay alive even in the harshest conditions like concentration camps.

As a psychologist and concentration camp survivor, Viktor is able to reflect on his time in the camps to understand what motivated people to survive against all odds.

Photo by Andrew Neel | Accessed on Unsplash.com

Main impacts

These are the main topics that stood out to me:

  1. Humans are resilient
  2. You need meaning to survive
  3. Meaning is completely personal and unique

Keep reading for more details on each.

Humans are resilient

Humans can endure far more than you can imagine. Unfortunately, concentration camps showed how much people can survive and what people are willing to do to each other.

There’s this fascinating line from the book that talks about how all the doctors and medical professionals found out that the textbooks lied to them. It turned out that they really could stay awake longer or could do more work with less food and water than they ever thought was possible.

It’s a terrible thing to have experienced. People don’t want to live through hardship or see how much suffering they can endure. None of us want a life that forces us to be resilient or show strength.

But I also think we are all far more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. When push comes to shove, we will find a way to survive.

Finding their motivation

Concentration camps show the extreme of what humans have gone through, which is why it was an interesting place to see why people continued to fight to stay alive. It provided an opportunity to see what truly motivated people to survive.

Sometimes people discuss how the pursuit of pleasure is the meaning or focus of life. But in a concentration camp, there’s no longer any pleasure. So pleasure can no longer be a viable reason for why people live and survive.

As Viktor is a psychologist and concentration camp survivor, he was able to take an intimate look and reflect on what helped people survive and why some were able to persist through it all.

You need meaning to survive

As mentioned above, Viktor is a psychologist and after surviving the concentration camps he came up with his own theory about life called logotherapy. Logotherapy is a theory that says everyone needs meaning in their life to survive.

Life doesn’t revolve around the pursuit of pleasure or a grand ideal, but rather that everyone needs some kind of meaning in their life.

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

Friedrich Nietzsche

Your personal meaning can be anything — a person/relationship, a belief, your work/art/contributions, a higher ideal/religion, etc. There’s no one meaning to life, but everyone has their own. It can be whatever you think is meaningful or brings purpose to your life.

Everyone needs meaning and without it, people often lose the will to live. In the concentration camps, once people lost their focus or meaning, they often lost the will to live. For instance when they lost all hope or all of their family, or if the war didn’t end on the date they expected (maybe because of a dream or some sign), they often became so discouraged they stopped fighting to live.

Viktor talks about how difficult it was to watch people lose hope and their meaning for life. It was obvious when people gave up their will to live.

But there were many who had a reason to keep fighting. Each person’s reason or meaning was unique but everyone had something.

Meaning is completely personal and unique

As mentioned above, your meaning can be anything — a person, a belief, your work/art/contributions, a higher ideal/religion, etc. It’s anything that provides meaning or purpose to your life.

Everyone’s meaning is unique and personal. There is no universal meaning, just a universal need for meaning. Your religion or personal values maybe your personal meaning for life, but that doesn’t apply to everyone.

It think it’s powerful to understand that your meaning for life isn’t the same as everyone else’s. Even if your belief in making the world a better place (or any other value driven purpose) is what gives you meaning and may be the most important part of your life, you likely don’t share that with others. Some people may share a similar meaning to you, but everyone’s meaning is unique and manifests in their own way.

I feel like many disagreements stem from mismatched priorities or the level of importance placed on the topic. You may feel like it’s the most important thing (especially if it directly affects you), whereas others may not place the same value on it or simply value something else more. The difference in value can lead to feeling like others don’t care, but maybe it’s a matter of them caring about other topics more.

Finding your meaning

You need to discover your own meaning, whatever provides you with a purpose. There is no right or wrong meaning to life, nor any singular correct meaning; anything that works for you can be your meaning for life.

If you are unsure of your meaning for life, I would encourage you to take time reflecting on what’s most important to you and why you’re living this life. I personally love journaling, it helps me sort through my thoughts. You can read about the power of journaling and writing in my previous post HERE.

Meanings can also evolve or change throughout your life. It may not stay constant. As you change, grow, and develop, your values and meaning may also change. It’s important to revisit and re-evaluate what gives your life meaning.

The only true danger is when you have no meaning for your life. That’s when people are at the highest risk for giving up completely. If you feel like life is meaningless, please speak to a medical or mental healthcare professional.

Final thoughts

I found this book really interesting. It took the very difficult topic of concentration camps and looked at it through a psychological lens. This was much more a philosophical or psychological book about the importance of having meaning in your life rather than a book purely about concentration camps.

If you’re looking for something purely about the concentration camp experience or World War II, this may not be the right book for you. But if you’re looking for a discussion on the meaning of life and why people fight to stay alive, then this is the right book for you. If you’re interested in why people are able to endure extreme situations and what keeps them motivated, then I would recommend this book.

I think if you approach the book with the right mindset, you can gain so much from it. Personally, I found it sparked a lot of thoughts and reflections on my own life and how others live.

I really appreciated how it emphasized that everyone’s meaning for life is unique rather than trying to justify a universal meaning for life. We’re not all the same and it makes sense that we’d each have our own motivation for life.


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