Four Ways to Extract Meaning, from Viktor Frankl

By Liz Coleclough, Ph.D., Director of Counseling and Project DVORA at JFS; and Lena Neufeld, Psy.D., Teen and Young Adult Therapist at JFS. 

Across culture, geography, and history, there exist universal patterns within the human experience. Psychological research has identified two main components that fundamentally contribute to the emotional states we describe as “happiness” and “contentment”: social connectedness and sense of purpose.

In the last month, the emergence of COVID-19 has not only shut down society as we know it – but it has also interrupted our understanding of both togetherness and meaning. It is no surprise that we find ourselves facing a mental health crisis underlying the health and economic emergencies that dominate the headlines. 

Families, friends, and colleagues can no longer connect in the ways we have become accustomed to. Millions are suddenly jobless, and rendered “unessential,” within a culture that equates work with identity, and money with safety, security, status and happiness.

It’s times like these when, paradoxically, we can glean hope from the darkest parts of our history. At so many points, humanity has faced the question, “Is this the end?” For the Jewish community, nothing captures this existential threat to an entire people quite like the Holocaust.

And yet, here we are. Dig a little deeper into our history, and we can find bright spots of resilience. The renowned neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl illustrated his own survival experience in the memoir Man’s Search For Meaning.

Viktor Frankl. Courtesy of IMAGNO/Viktor Frankl Institut/Beacon Press

Beyond bearing witness to the horror of the concentration camps, his work identifies a new perspective on what it means to have a life worth living:

“Man is originally characterized by his ‘search for meaning’ rather than his ‘search for himself.’ The more he forgets himself—giving himself to a cause or another person—the more human he is. And the more he is immersed and absorbed in something or someone other than himself the more he really becomes himself.” (Viktor Frankl)

Frankl reflected on how those who survived the longest were not always the strongest physically, but rather those able to retain a sense of autonomy and control, even during the most difficult of experiences. When people were able to ground themselves in a sense of purpose—not just in spite of suffering, but informed and motivated by it—they were able to emerge resilient. In the ultimate deprivation of pleasure and power (which our modern societal narrative elevates as the essential goals in life), there was still meaning. 

This reflection highlights that perhaps it is meaning, not pleasure or power, that keeps us going. Resilience through trauma is strengthened by the ability to sustain our individual purpose across any life challenges. To identify the ways we can retain a sense of control, and build up from that foundation. It is within this process of meaning-making where we begin to heal.

How then can we view the current crisis through this lens? How can we find opportunities to create and refine a sense of purpose? In the most challenging of circumstances, Frankl identified four goals that can offer direction:

  1. Authentically interact with others
  2. Engage in creativity and self-expression
  3. Commune in nature
  4. Recognize we have choice in how we perceive our circumstances, and find empowerment within this choice

Using this list as a compass, we can each explore large and small opportunities to find grounding and even joy in the things that matter. If we can hold onto meaning within each day, we can begin to see a pathway through to the other side.


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