In Search of Meaning

A purpose in life helps us overcome even the worst setbacks and difficulties.

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Imagine that you belong to a group toward whom all too many people hold a negative bias. You are discriminated against at work and in public places, and police are prone to be more brutal to someone like you.

Now further imagine that your group cannot work anywhere and has to abandon their homes, possessions, and any and all assets. Finally, all of you are forced onto cattle cars and transported to death camps where most of you will be killed by a poisonous gas.

That first scenario, of course, resonates with the voices of Black Americans who are now sharing aloud the suffering they have borne for too many years. The second scenario, as well as the first, describes what happened to European Jews as Nazi Germany swept through that continent. One of the rare survivors of those death camps was Viktor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist. His parents, brother, and pregnant wife all perished there.

When he was sent to Auschwitz, among the four camps he survived, his overcoat had stitched into its lining the manuscript of a book he very much wanted to publish. The coat was taken from him the day he arrived, but the burning desire to one day publish that book stayed with Frankl over the four years of his incarceration.

The book Frankl sought to publish was Man’s Search for Meaning, which later became an international best seller and a moral compass for generations of readers. In it he argues that by finding a sense of meaning and purpose in life we can survive even the worst of hells—and he offers his own years in four camps and near death as evidence.

Frankl tells this story in a new, posthumous book just released, one based on lectures he gave in Vienna months after his liberation from a German labor camp. Those forgotten lectures, rediscovered, have just been published for the first time in English. The book’s title sums up his outlook: Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything.

Frankl’s thesis: that a purpose in life helps us overcome even the worst setbacks and difficulties.

A more current affirmation of Frankl’s notion comes from a study of more than 300 Midwestern men and women, aged 36 to 84, in which they were assessed regularly over many years.

Lab research at the University of Wisconsin found that those with a strong sense of purpose lived longer and were less likely to be depressed, and biomarkers showed their bodies were aging more slowly. What’s more, they were 2.4 times more likely to be free of dementia at a time in life when that becomes more common.

This protection against the ravages of aging, the study found, seems to hinge on the protective benefits of being able to reappraise negative life events in light of a deeper sense of purpose. People with a purpose-focused life were less likely to brood and ruminate about setbacks, losses, and failures, and quicker to recover their inner equilibrium. (It only took science about 70 years to confirm what Frankl had long ago contended.)

Intriguingly, a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that among African Americans, having a sense of purpose in life was associated with a better and faster recovery from traumatic events. And that wouldn’t surprise Frankl. The school of psychotherapy he founded, logotherapy, sees finding one’s sense of purpose as an antidote to emotional malaise. Quoting the famed German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Frankl puts it, “Whoever has a why to live can bear almost any how.”