How to create meaning in life? It is indeed a great question for all of us, one not easy to answer. We feel this question more or less in our lives, but for every one of us it arises at least once during a lifetime. Even different authors from the field of existentialism differ in their opinions on this. Viktor Frankl thought that the meaning in life and certain situation is given in advance and we only have to discover it. Jean-Paul Sartre however, argues that the meaning of life is something we are to create ourselves.
Existentialist guidelines, like these ones, can seem a bit general and abstract. What does it mean exactly that the situation has a meaning given in advance? Or, how to create meaning by ourselves?
Meaning-making: existentialist ideas explained
Viktor Frankl said, and it is sort of a general existentialist idea, that the meaning can never be found directly, by directing ourselves towards our own being. It can be found through transcendence, through a focus on something or someone.
“By annunciation that the man is responsible and has to make potential sense of his life, I would like to emphasize that the real meaning of life can be discovered in the world, instead of within the man or his own psyche, as it was a closed system. I called this constitutive characteristic “self-transcendence of human existence.”
It denotes the fact that being a man always points to someone or something beside oneself – whether it is the meaning one has to fulfill or another human being one has to meet. What is called self-realization is not really the goal possible to attain, from the same reason that the more we hang onto it, the more it goes away. In other words, self-realization is possible only as a side-effect. (Frankl, 1985., pg. 133).
Possibility for this kind of transcendence is found in multiple forms, according to Frankl: we kind find meaning in relationships with other people, in enjoying of a certain value (for example, a nice picture), in creating of a certain piece of art or, if we are in the circumstances which are so dire that none of this is possible (as were Frankl’s in the concentration camp), within the change of our own attitude towards the situation.
Checking our existentialist guidelines
First, the relationship with people is one kind of meaning-making advocated by Frankl. People are social beings who need relationships not only psychologically but biologically. Babies are wired to need the care of their caregivers in order to turn into human beings. We need constant psychological and social support within our lives in order to thrive and feel mentally well.
However, relationships with people can during life become changeable and inconsistent. People may move away, relationships can break down. This is also linked to a life-phase one is in. While friendships are used in one way when we are in our twenties and we might go to College and have plenty of time to hang out with our friends, it might be a completely different thing when in our thirties and working or starting a family. Relationships also break down. People move away. And then there is the existential given we don’t like to think about, but is very important in the tradition of existentialism – people die. So according to all of this impermeability, the question is how “wise” it is in life to self-actualize only through relationships? This can be a process full of doubts for a human being.
Ideally, one would also need to have some other sort of self-realization in life. Some people seem to possess this kind of passion naturally. They grow up knowing they want to be architects, doctors, actors. They have the strength to work day and night on their passion and not leave the house or the office until the project is done.
But what if a person is not one of those people? What if one cannot find concrete activities like this which make him or her feel fulfilled in this manner? Or, what if haven’t yet detected a passion? In the literature of self-growth a term “the calling” is often mentioned, as something that comes naturally within one’s life. But what if one hasn’t had “the calling”?
Or, what if I tend to find only through relationships with people? Can it be enough or should there be some other kind of self-actualization, some bigger goal, some aim, some task I need to do, and as Sartre says, create it in life, or according to Frankl, discover it?
The philosopher Iddo Landau argues in his book “Finding meaning in imperfect lives” that we can live a meaningful life even without having certain goal we strive towards. We can live a life without some greater aim, if it is made of enough parts of satisfactory value. He thinks that things in life can be meaningful on their own – intrinsically meaningful, in other words. Consequently, there may not be some ultimate big goal for which one lives.
This can also be applied to the relationship domain. What about impermeability, changes? People in our life come and go, return, move away, sometimes go away for good. From this, two things can be inferred. The first one is that it might be good to find meanings in multiple relationships. And the second is that one cannot only be a person in a relationship. One should also be a doctor, a yoga teacher, a painter in his free time, a soccer player with his friends. Something else than being-in-one-relationship-which-creates-all-the-meaning.
Easier said than done, one could say. Of course. Finding meaning is a lifelong process, and also, unfortunately, a never-ending one. One can have one bigger meaning, but each new phase of life will require smaller new meanings. The good news is that the more we keep finding them, the more we get better at doing so.
This process might best be started with the answer to the next question: Which of the life-events, experiences, values or attitudes in my life have contributed mostly to the feelings of fulfillment?
This is the starting point of discovering of one’s own fulfillment. Whether we find it in some grandiose goal or little parts of the whole.