What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him
Viktor Frankl ~ Man’s Search For Meaning
If I had to pick one book to take with me on a desert island, there is a clear winner. Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Many books claim to be life-changing but they rarely are. They fire us up and fill us with energy and enthusiasm, but as they can sometimes lack anything of real value to take away, they are soon forgotten after we’ve finished reading. This book, however, is the exception. Frankl actually had the manuscript prepared before the outbreak of World War 2, only to lose it on arrival at Auschwitz. Written in the aftermath of World War 2 and drawing on his personal experiences and observations, it’s powerful, moving and gives you plenty to reflect on.
This, however, is not a book review. I do believe, though, that this book should be read by everybody at some point in their lives. Viktor Frankl’s work is a timely reminder that we don’t have to continue living in this Freudian manner which can be so damaging, but that there is a better way.
According to Sigmund Freud, we live our lives according to the pleasure principle (German: Lustprinzip). What this means is that our natural tendency is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. This is the purpose that we attach to our lives. We want as much pleasure as possible, and as little pain, in order to satisfy all of our biological and psychological needs.
If you want to see Freud’s pleasure principle in action, just look around you. You can’t miss it. It’s in the quick-fix diet and exercise plans which are yours for 3 easy installments of £100. It’s in the seminars, books and training programmes which promise to make millionaires of us without any formal training or experience.
These quick fixes and shortcuts only gain any attention or popularity because people are desperate to believe in them. People would rather pay whatever it takes to skip the blood, sweat and tears and skip straight to the positive results. They want the good stuff (the pleasure) while avoiding the pain (hard work and consistent effort) as much as possible. So, with a horde of lazy, impatient, gullible pleasure seekers desperately hunting for a quick fix or a shortcut to success, there will always be a receptive audience for the well marketed but baseless diet, exercise or financial success plan.
Social media has only worsened the situation. Seeing pictures of people’s perfect lives fills us with envy. We want what they have and now. And when we do get it, we are never satisfied because we want more. We want it now and don’t want to wait. So, we turn to credit cards and loans in order to buy things which we don’t want or need, just so that we can experience some momentary pleasure. Life just becomes a vicious cycle of seeking pleasure, getting what we want and then seeking more. And when we don’t get what we want, we become downbeat and disheartened.
Living according to the Freudian pleasure principle is dangerous. It robs you of so much of life’s richness and beauty. First of all, pleasure is a short-lived sensation. We lose sight of what is important in our lives and chase things, experiences and people. We get what we want, we experience a high, and then this wears off and we need something new to chase. If we fall short of what we want, this can be very damaging to our confidence. So, life becomes an emotional rollercoaster.
Secondly, we miss out on all that life has to teach us. When we strive for something, work tirelessly for it and fight our way through all of the challenges, we learn an awful lot about who we are and what we are capable of. We learn what works and what doesn’t. We learn what we are good at, and what areas we need to work on. We learn about what we hold important. Plus, when we do achieve positive results after working hard and struggling through difficult times, the positive boost we receive is long lasting. We grow in confidence as well as experience and gain the courage to strive for more challenging goals. Life is all about experiences and personal and professional growth, but this is soon lost sight of when we choose to live according to the pleasure principle.
This is why Frankl’s work is more important now than ever. Instead of living as hedonistic pleasure seekers, we should instead focus on the determining the meaning of our lives.
- What is your purpose?
- What is your “why”?
- Why do you do what you do?
- What is the endpoint which you striving towards? What do you hope to chieve or become by the end of the process?
Theses are all variations of the same question, and it is a question which is being increasingly asked in business and personal development literature. That is not enough, though, as it is something that we should all consider. When you determine what you hold dear in life, and what it is that you are striving for, life becomes clearer. You have something to aim for, and you are prepared to endure any hardship in order to achieve it.
Having a purpose in life, and working towards it, is healthy not just for us as individuals but also for our friends and families and society too. We become more focused and less insecure. We stop becoming so materialistic. The sense of competition with, and judgement of, others stops. Instead of judging what others have and trying to outdo them, we realise that everyone is on their own individual journey and that we should help each other rather than putting each other down.
Having a meaning or purpose in life is also a celebration of our individuality. My meaning will be different to yours, because we are different people with different drives, wants, needs, priorities and values. You won’t find your meaning in a book, but through honest reflection instead. It’s a reminder to be yourself, focus on what is important in your life and stop compromising your values in order to fit in with certain groups.
A happy, successful and fulfilled life is one with meaning and a purpose. What is yours?
He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.