Existential Meaning and Wellbeing
Friedrich Nietzsche, the existential philospher stated, "He who has a why can endure almost any how". When Nietchze said this he was referring to the power of meaning in one's life. A few decades later, a physician, who had most likely read Nietzsche, was caught up in the Holocaust. This physician was Viktor Frankl. Dr. Frankl was imprisioned in several different concentration camps and witnessed and endured almost inconcievable human cruelty and suffering. Dr. Frankl relied on his meaning and purpose in this life to not only endure these hardships but to grow in his personal strength of character and resilience. Dr. Frankl went on to write a book about his experiences and the insights he gained from them. This book was published in 1963 as "Man's Search for Meaning". Below is an excerpt from that book.
We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that
cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a
personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one's predicament into a human achievement. 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.
We see here that severe psychological distress does not preclude posttraumatic characterlogical growth. Perhaps you think that Dr. Frankl is some sort of oddity, that more ordinary people cannot experience this level of meaning and growth. More recent studies have found that among veterans of the Iraq and Afganistan wars who had higher levels of posttraumatic stress symptoms also had the greatest amount of personal growth. The authors speculate that perhaps the trauma must be disruptive enough to force the individual to reassess, revise, and rebuild fundamental aspects of his or her psychological, philosophical, and/or spiritual life. (1)
What is meaning for one person may not be meaningful to the next person, and what is meaningful at one point in one's life may not be what is meaningful at another stage of life. Meaning in life is not handed to us or gifted to us but must be searched for and discovered and put in to action in our daily lives. Dr. Frankl founded a therapy based on these principles called Logotherapy. Unlike some journeys of psychological discovery that look to the past, logotherapy looks to the future and focuses on the patient's strengths rather than solely on psychopathology.
Some of you may notice that I often will ask a patient what he or she does that brings meaning to his or her life. This is not idle talk but rather a way to gauge how prepared you are to face the "hows" of life. Each person need some reason to persist day after day in this life in a meaningful way, otherwise one is merely alive but not living. More recent authors have expanded on Dr. Frankl's theme. A more recent iteration of this is the Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. I encourage you to get a copy of Dr. Frankl's book and give it a good read. It may be life changing.
1. Southwick, SM and Charney, DS. Resilience. The science of mastering life's greatest challenges. Cambrige University Press. 2012
Frankl, VE. Man's search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. Beacon Press. 1963
Warren, Rick. The purpose driven life. Zondervan. 2002
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Andrew Bishop, MD FAPA