The Four Sources of Meaning

Dr. Viktor Frankl is a world renowned Neurologist, Psychiatrist, Professor of Psychology, and Holocaust survivor. Having lost all of his family in a concentration camp, including his pregnant wife, Frankl became very interested in how individuals confront adversity. He discovered that those who are able to find meaning in suffering fare best, and ultimately built his theory of human nature on the notion that what drives our existence is not the pursuit of pleasure or avoidance of pain, but a search for meaning in one’s life. When we are able to find meaning, especially in suffering, we are able to withstand even the most devastating circumstances. Frankl outlines four main sources from which individuals derive meaning in their lives. They are outlined here. If you are interested in his work, I would encourage you to read his critically acclaimed book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

HISTORICAL – Life as a Living Legacy: this involves finding meaning through our personal history, be it in the legacy that has been passed down to us from previous generations; that is, how we were raised, our cultural background, our family, even our name, the legacy that we live; i.e. the values we live by, and finally, the legacy we will leave behind once we pass on. This could be the lessons we wish to impart on our children or succeeding generations, and how we want to be remembered.

ATTITUDINAL – Encountering Life’s Limitations: finding meaning in suffering is perhaps the most powerful experience we could live. For Frankl, viewing his concentration camp experience as field research he could use to help thousands of people if he survived it, helped get him through the horrors he witnessed. This source of meaning has to do with possessing an attitude that gives us strength or turning a personal tragedy into a personal triumph. For example, a cancer diagnosis can direct one’s attention to the things that matter most in life, especially if they had been neglecting them previously.

CREATIVE – Actively Engaging in Life: We tend to think that creativity is reserved for the artists and poets of the world, but this is false. Each one of us has creative potential whether we lay bricks, raise children, build cars, or work in an office. Creative sources of meaning have to do with actively engaging in life through our many roles and responsibilities. Think about your roles (ex. parent, employee, daughter, son, volunteer), or your hobbies. What do you like to do or create that might bring you joy or meaning?

 EXPERIENTIAL – Connecting with Life: Finally, connecting with life through our experiences sets human beings apart from the other living creatures who inhabit our little green planet. We have the capacity to witness the beauty of nature, enjoy humour, revel in various forms of art, music, ideas, and share it all with the people we love. We have the capacity to fall in love and share our lives with others through meaningful, intimate relationships. Experiential sources of meaning come from connecting with ourselves, with others, and with life through its beauty – through our experiences.

I encourage you to consider which of these sources resonates most with you. What are the things that colour your life with meaning? We are all unique individuals with a story to tell. What is your story?