Searching for Meaning

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived three years in German concentration camps during the second world war. In Man’s Search For Meaning he analyses his experiences in the camps and provides a template for finding meaning in life, even under the most difficult of circumstances.

Frankl believed that life is not a quest for pleasure or power, but a quest for meaning. However this is not a search for an abstract meaning of life, but for a specific meaning of our particular life at a given moment in time. Meaning may vary from person to person and from day to day. Moreover, not only must we create this meaning, we have a responsibility to do so:

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked…

Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

How might we do this?

“The perception of meaning… boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or, to express it in plain words, to becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.”

Where might we look for meaning? Frankl saw three possible sources:

1. Work

The most obvious source of meaning is by achieving or accomplishing something: by creating a work or doing a deed.

2. Love

The meaning of love is about helping another human being realise their potential:

“By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualised but yet ought to be actualised. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualise these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

3. Suffering

The attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering can also be a source of meaning. The suffering must, however, be unavoidable – seeking meaning in avoidable suffering is merely masochistic.

Frankl describes how many prisoners in the camps occupied themselves with thoughts of happier times to make the horrors of the present less real. But:

“In robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist.”

Or, as others have said, “lean into the sharp points”. There is value in fully experiencing the difficult things in life, rather than running away from them.

Not everyone gave up, however:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

That insight forms the foundation of Stephen Covey’s hugely successful book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

We can find meaning in suffering by changing the way we look at it:

“Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how could I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering – to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office.”

In addition, we cannot be sure that a given situation is good or bad. Frankl recounts an instance when a transport of sick inmates to a “rest camp” was being organised. His name was on the list, supposedly because a few doctors were needed too. Despite the stated purpose of the transport, all the inmates believed it was actually destined for the gas chambers. However, when given the opportunity to have his name removed from the list, Frankl refused, an earlier incident having convinced him that it was better to let fate take its course.

“The next morning I departed with the transport. This time it was not a ruse. We were not heading for the gas chambers, and we actually did go to a rest camp. Those who had pitied me remained in a camp where famine was to rage even more fiercely than in our new camp.

Months later, after liberation, I met a friend from the old camp. He related to me how he, as camp policeman, had searched for a piece of human flesh that was missing from a pile of corpses. He confiscated it from a pot in which he found it cooking. Cannibalism had broken out. I had left just in time.”

The transitoriness of life should not deter us from searching for meaning:

“The only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but as soon as they are actualised… they are are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved”

It’s for this reason that we should not envy the young:

“What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? “No, thank you,” he will think. “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.”

Man’s Search For Meaning is an incredible story of survival and an invaluable guide to dealing with the difficult times in our own lives.

Seven Habits

The book that’s probably had the biggest influence on my life is Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

The book offers a paradigm, a way of looking at life, that really resonates with me. It isn’t a quick fix manual. It’s not a catalogue of techniques. It’s a framework for living, for helping you chart a course through life. It describes seven practices that, when internalised as habits, provide the basis for living a successful life, while leaving the definition of "successful" up to you.

The habits

Habit 1, be proactive, is the foundation. It’s about one simple idea: that there is a gap between a stimulus and our response into which we can step. Habit 1 is essentially nothing more than a reminder of our own free will. Yet the way Covey phrases it - a gap between stimulus and response - emphasises our ability to override our conditioning and choose our behaviour.

Habit 2 says we should begin with the end in mind. We can work as hard as we like at climbing the ladder of success, but it will do us no good if, when we get to the top, we realise it was leaning up against the wrong wall. Habit 2 is about setting a direction for ourselves, deciding what we want to achieve in our life.

Habit 3, put first things first, is about prioritising the things that are important to us, but which may not be urgent, in order to achieve our goals. It’s about managing ourselves effectively.

Habit 4, think win/win, states that in our interactions with others we should, wherever possible, go out of our way to identify solutions that both parties see as a win. It’s about having the courage to express your own feelings and convictions, balanced with consideration for the thoughts and feelings of the other person. You neither seek to win at their expense (win/lose), nor subordinate your own wishes to theirs (lose/win).

Seek first to understand, then to be understood, is habit 5. It says we should listen to the other person first, in order to deeply, thoroughly understand the way they see the situation. Only when we can explain their point of view as well as they can, should we focus on communicating our own point of view.

Habit 6, synergize, is about coming together to produce things that are better than what we could have produced alone. It’s about valuing the differences between people, building on each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses. It builds on the motive of win/win and the communication skills developed in habit 5.

Finally, habit 7 is sharpen the saw: preserving and enhancing our own ability to produce. Covey encourages us to do this by regularly exercising the four aspects of our nature: the physical, mental, spiritual and social/emotional. Physically, it’s about exercising, eating well, and getting sufficient rest and relaxation. Mentally, it’s about constantly informing and expanding our minds through study, reading and writing. Spiritually, it’s about keeping our bond with the sources that inspire and uplift us, whether that’s listening to great music, reading great literature, getting out in nature, or our religion. Socially and emotionally, it’s about helping and developing our relationships with others.

P problems are PC opportunities

I’ve taken more from the book than just the seven habits, however.

One of the things Covey talks about is the need to strike a balance in our lives between P - the things we produce - and PC - our production capability. He uses the analogy of the goose that laid the golden eggs: the goose is PC, the eggs are P. Enjoys the eggs and neglect the goose and before long you won’t have any more eggs. Conversely, a goose that can lay golden eggs is useless if it never actually lays any.

My biggest weakness is arguably my lack of patience. In particular, I get exasperated when my kids don’t do what they’re told and I hate being interrupted when I’m in the middle of something. Covey argues that these production problems should be viewed as production capability opportunities. If a colleague asks me to do something while I’m concentrating on a difficult task, I need to look at it as an opportunity to improve my relationship with my colleague instead of becoming frustrated because I've been interrupted. If my son refuses to tidy his room, I need to see it as an opportunity to improve my relationship with him.

I still struggle with this in practice, but it’s something I try to constantly keep in mind.

Love is a verb

People sometimes talk about love like it’s a feeling. For example, someone at a difficult point in a relationship might say, “I guess I just don’t love him any more”.

Covey asserts that love is first a verb, not a feeling. Love is something we do. It means sacrificing for, listening to, empathising with, appreciating and affirming the person we claim to love. Love the feeling flows from love the verb, not the other way around. As habit 1 emphasises, we can always choose what we do.

What is important to another person must be as important to you as the other person is to you

Covey uses the metaphor of an “emotional bank account” to describe the state of our relationship with another person. Many deposits into that account result in a relationship with a high degree of trust and mutual understanding; many withdrawals lead to mistrust and misunderstanding.

Covey lists six actions that constitute major deposits: understanding the individual, attending to the small things, keeping commitments, clarifying expectations, showing personal integrity and apologising sincerely where necessary. But the one piece of advice that really stuck with me was this: we should always strive to make the things that are important to another person as important to us as that person is to us.

If something is important to someone we care about, we should make that thing important to us too. Doing this shows the other person that we care about them and gives the relationship a significant boost. This is as true of our relationships with our children as it is of our relationship with our spouse.

Two people can disagree and both be right

Study the picture below:

image from www.phillipwells.com

Now look at this picture and describe what you see:

image from www.phillipwells.com

You would probably describe the woman in this picture as old and ugly, with a large nose and jutting chin. But what if you were told that you’re wrong, that this is actually a picture of a young woman, dressed in furs and a necklace, with a petite nose?

Covey uses this optical illusion to demonstrate that two people can see the same thing, disagree, and yet both be right. Moreover, our perception is influenced by our conditioning. By showing you a picture of an old woman first, I made you more likely to see the old woman in the second picture. Covey cites an experiment where those who were shown a picture of a young lady first tended to see the young lady in the second picture, and had difficulty identifying the old woman.

I was blown away by this demonstration when I first read about it. I now think about it every time I hear two people interpret the same event in different ways. In particular, it’s really opened my eyes as to why there often seems to be such a gulf between the way blacks and whites perceive a particular situation.


The Seven Habits was first published in 1989, but it still stands up as an insightful and thought-provoking manual for living. I first read it seventeen years ago, when I was single and just starting on my career, and it really helped me think about the direction I wanted to take my life. Now 41, married with two children, I recently re-read the book after wrestling with a sense of dissatisfaction with several areas of my life. Again, it helped me get my bearings.

It's not a panacea. Knowing what to do is one thing, doing it is another. But even when I get lost, at least I have a compass to guide me in the right direction. The rest is up to me.