This article is not concerned with the movie about Vincent van Gogh nor with Iggy Pop’s album/song. Only indirectly; rather, it is about the importance of discovering and pursuing a meaning in life: about “the will to meaning” as it was called by the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl. People who have this kind of “lust for life” stay focused and happy regardless of the circumstances.
I have not read Frankl’s best-selling (At the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, it had sold more than 10 million copies in twenty-four languages. A 1991 reader survey listed it among the ten most influential books in America.) book Man’s Search for Meaning yet. But its popularity is interesting in itself. In an interview, Frankl pointed out that the success of his book does not prove so much the qualities of the author but rather indicates that “the very search for meaning has been frustrated.” Many people feel they are missing a real purpose in life. Why is this ‘existential vacuum’ of concern? In Friedrich Nietzsche‘s words, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
The “why” can be found within values: these are creative values in what we do and create; then what we experience (for example in relation with other people); and if all else fails, there is still the value of deciding how we are going to face that which we cannot change. Life is confronting us with a chain of events, and every situation carries its own challenge—a hidden imperative that we should decode using our conscience—and then take an action in response. This is the responsibility we have at any given time, so life is not passive “being,” it is choosing what we want to become in response to the challenges, and doing so in line with our core values.
Contrary to the popular belief, Frankl had formed the basis of his psychotherapy (called logotherapy) before his experience in concentration camps. Logotherapy is careful not to simplify the patient (Frankl was allergic to simplifications such as “human is nothing more than a biological machine”), and it avoids analyzing reactions in isolation. This is evident in how painstakingly he stresses that psychological theories show only a slice of a higher-dimensional reality. Frankl is convinced that an individual’s existence is always “pointing outside” to some cause or another person (to the values). The more we focus on things outside of ourselves, the better.
At the center of Frankl’s ideas is that a man can control his attitudes and is capable of self-determination even under the most adverse situations. As he put it, “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.” We have this freedom to ‘distance ourselves,’ and form an attitude not only to the external circumstances but even towards ourselves. “When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves.” In fact, terminally ill patients have higher than average scores in purpose in life tests. The key message of logotherapy is that life has always meaning.
Is the purpose in life linked to happiness? Of course, but happiness cannot be the intended goal, it must ensue as a result of pursuing other goals. If you aim at being happy, you will not achieve happiness. (“Pursuit of happiness”—taken literally—is a misleading contradiction; though it might be a shorthand for “Pursuit of ___ [fill in something meaningful], producing happiness as a result.”) Similarly, it is impossible to believe, love and hope directly just by “wanting to (And it is impossible to want to want something. Einstein adapted quotation of Schopenhauer as follows: “Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills.”).”
Freedom of man’s spirit was integral to Frankl. He suggested that the Statue of Liberty should be complemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. (Interestingly, there is an organization trying to achieve the goal of building such a monument.) Statue of Liberty answers the question “freedom from what,” but to Frankl, it was even more important to answer the question, “Freedom to do what?” It should be noted that the answer to that question is constantly changing together with the situation we are in.
This article was inspired by the book Der Wille zum Sinn (in Czech translation) containing selected lectures on logotherapy.