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The meaning of life - January 2021

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

With the 2nd Coronavirus wave and new lockdown restrictions, we are being confronted with more than just the effect of the virus on our physical and financial health, but more so on our mental health. How can one sustain a level of positivity in the midst of a growing number of personal acquaintances testing positive and the number of casualties growing by the day? The economic effect is tangible, as most households, business owners, and large corporations have not yet recovered from the first wave.

What history taught us

As humanity moves through the inevitable cycles of plagues, pandemics, and economic crashes, we know that these cycles are bigger than us and we can but only witness the devastating effects and hope that it does not last too long or hit us, personally too hard. It is a sort of 'grin and bear it' attitude, or the proverbial 'head in the sand' and wait for the storm to pass.

Being actively in the storm does elicit the occasional existential crisis or meltdown when you allow your head to go 'there'. We are constantly bombarded with social media quotes comparing our current circumstances to previous wars and that we should be happy that we only have to stay home and wear a mask. That is, after all, not too much to ask.

Whilst this is true and our physical safety is not actively threatened by military bombers and missile launches, the inner war is raging full steam ahead. We are, after all, confined, restricted, and 'herded', much like a modern-day concentration camp scenario.

Who will survive - mentally?

Whilst many lost their lives during previous earth-shattering events, those who lived had to continue living. How did those who survived transition from a victim mentality and survivor's guilt to being thriving and contributing members of society? What was that single spark, the driving motivation, the key to success after trauma?

Viktor Emil Frankl (26 March 1905 – 2 September 1997) was an Austrian Holocaust survivor, neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, and author. He is well known for his work with logotherapy, the founding work of what is known today as positive psychology. His training years were spent as a youth counselor addressing the high number of teen suicides occurring around the time of end-of-year report cards. His program was so successful that not a single teen suicide was committed in Vienna in 1931. Over a four-year period (1933–1937), he treated no less than 3,000 patients each year and after 1940 assisted numerous patients to avoid the Nazi euthanasia program that targeted the mentally disabled.

His most valuable years were probably spent in concentration camps himself where he had to apply this academic learning to real-life scenarios in such a way that it did not only assist him, but also those he was in contact with. Frankl discovered that those who survived the ordeal, mentally and showed physical endurance, were those who had something or someone to live for. In other words, those with a life filled with meaning.

Three basic philosophical and psychological concepts

  1. Freedom of Will

  2. Will to Meaning

  3. Meaning in Life

1. Humans are basically free to take their stance towards internal (psychological) and external (biological and social) conditions. This is akin to the notion that we can not choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond to what happens to us.

2. The search for meaning is seen as the primary motivation of humans. It is important to find and pursue meaningful goals in life. However, it is important that the attribution of meaning is ascribed personally. Not what society dictates as meaningful, but what the individual deems meaningful themselves. This notion is exceedingly important as the moment we allow others to determine what is valuable to us, we also give 'those' the power to take what we deem important away, leaving us powerless. Internal locus of control is thus very important.

3. The core of this philosophy is the idea that meaning is an objective reality, as opposed to a mere illusion arising within the perceptual apparatus of the observer.

How this works

There are three main ways of realizing meaning in life:

  1. Make a difference in the world through our actions, our work or our creations - referred to as "Creative Values". Simplified: creating work or doing a deed.

  2. Experience something (such as truth, beauty) or encounter someone (love) - "Experiential Values".

  3. Adopt a courageous and exemplary attitude in situations of unavoidable suffering - "Attitudinal Values."

The Primary Techniques

  1. Paradoxical Intention: When we are faced with an adversary, we tend to obsessively hyperfocus on our difficulties and the potential outcomes. This is a downward spiral. The best way to halt these thought patterns is to engage in what is known as paradoxical intention, which is a form of self-distraction. A reset if you will. Do something paradoxical to the situation to break the vicious circle.

  2. De-reflection: To remove the obstruction of instinctive, automatic processes caused by exaggerated self-observation, de-reflection breaks the circle of hyper-reflection and the ensuing inhibition by drawing the client's attention away from the symptom. In simple terms, focus on something else, externally, away from yourself.

  3. Attitude Modification: Specific questions are aimed to raise into consciousness the possibility of finding, and the freedom to fulfill, meaning in one's life. Create a possibility to develop a new outlook that may be a better basis for a fulfilled life.

What is the meaning of your life?

It is essential to understand that this search for meaning, gives meaning to life itself. It speaks to the logos ('reason').

Simplified, we can state:

  1. Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most intolerable of circumstances.

  2. Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.

  3. We have the freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stance, we take when faced with a situation under unchangeable suffering.

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