Finding Meaning of Life

Category: Psychology
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Many set out to find an over-arching, ubiquitous “meaning” of life, but this is the goal of a fool. In reality there is no one “meaning” of life for all humans to strive for and believe in because meaning is subjective to each person. What gives one person purpose may mean nothing to another person as life’s meaning is completely subjective and individual. The search for meaning is existential in nature; it rejects a universal “essence” of humans that precedes existence and challenges each man to create his own essence. Although some view existentialism as an atheistic philosophy, considering the search for meaning as existentialist does not preclude the religious from making a meaning for themselves, as serving God very well may give some people purpose. The distinction is they were not born with the sole purpose of serving God, but rather they made the choice that following their religion was what gave them meaning. Your purpose remains in your own hands, regardless of any circumstances, and this responsibility cannot be transferred.

Finding meaning in life is a journey that a man must undertake himself, as the answer is within his own world view rather than dictated to him by any outside source. However, the journey does not need to be completely lonely, as psychologists are often able to provide a starting point for their patients in the search for meaning by showing them what has helped others find their purpose. Psychologist Viktor Frankl, the creator of the psychology treatment style of logotherapy, proposed that humans find meaning in three ways; “(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” (Frankl 50). Although there is no one answer to the question of what the meaning of life is, it is my opinion that the best way to find purpose is by creating a meaning through your work and deeds. This work could be anything from your career to a personal project. Setting and pursuing goals in your work, even modifying those goals, gives you a purpose whether the goal is writing a book, opening your own business, becoming a CEO, or just going to the gym. As long as you set a goal that is challenging for you and only achievable through hard work and dedication, even a pursuing a goal that is seemingly small to others can reward you with meaning. Many people have achieved finding meaning in this fashion, including Frankl himself who discovered purpose in the despair of concentration camps through his rewriting of his manuscript.

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Before I proceed any further it is necessary to differentiate meaning from happiness. A large portion of the public thinks that the adjectives “happy” and “meaningful” are interchangeable when describing how one feels about his or her life but in reality, happiness and meaning are two different feelings that do not always co-exist. In a 2013 study led by Dr. Roy Baumeister researchers tested the correlations and differences between the factors that contribute to a “happy life” and a “meaningful life” through a survey of 397 paid adult participants. The findings of the research suggested that “happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs” while “meaningfulness was linked to doing things that express and reflect the self” (Baumeister, Vohs, Aaker & Garbinsky 515). This study also found that although achieving meaning can lead to happiness, happiness is not always a result of meaning. Another difference between the two is that happiness is circumstantial. A person is happy when his or her wants and needs are fulfilled in that specific moment, but this happiness is fleeting. Meaning, however, is permanent once it is found and does not change, no matter what situation a person finds himself in.

Viktor Frankl’s life is a perfect example of someone pursuing meaning and retaining purpose even in the midst of despair. In a powerful passage from his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes the experience during his time in the concentration camps of hearing another prisoner having a nightmare and deciding not to awake him, writing “no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us” (Frankl 17). Despite existing in these most desperate circumstances that were completely devoid of happiness, he was still able to find meaning through rewriting the manuscript that was confiscated from him in the sanitation room at Auschwitz (Frankl 47). By striving towards his meaning, Frankl was able to withstand the mental and physical stress of life in the concentration camp while those who did not feel like they had a purpose deteriorated quickly. Those prisoners that did not have a meaning to strive towards and may have been happy before they entered the camps, but happiness is momentary and cannot withstand the stresses of physical or mental discomfort, while meaning lasts a lifetime.

You don’t need to be a logotherapist in the dire situation that Frankl found himself in to create meaning through works and deeds, anyone who loves what they do and is willing to devote themselves to their work can do so as well. The process of striving towards a meaning that you create is called self-actualization. Self-actualization is a theory that was proliferated by psychologist Abraham H. Maslow, who defined it as “ongoing actualization of potentials, capacities and talents as fulfillment of a mission” (Maslow 24). Maslow’s definition implies that meaning can be achieved in the process of personal growth rather than just at the end point of the process, which is absolutely true. Growth is a state of tension between one’s current self and one’s ideal self, what one has accomplished and what one has not, and according to Frankl this tension is “an indispensable prerequisite of mental health,” and therefore meaning (Frankl 20). I would take it a step further to say that tension between where one currently is at and his goal and the growth the individual undergoes while pushing back at this tension is more meaningful than the actual completion of whatever work he was pursuing. The moment of achievement of the ultimate goal is more gratification than meaningfulness and this is why it is important to set goals that take you out of your comfort zone. Setting and achieving an easily attainable goal that requires little effort and devotion does not provide meaning as it is not the actualization of full potential that is necessary for self-actualization. The challenge of pushing back at inner tension allows a man to learn about himself and dealing with whatever adversity comes on the path to achieving his goal will make him a stronger and better man. Even if he eventually ends up choosing a different path to meaning than his original goal, the effort that he devoted on his previous work does not go to waste; it is still meaningful because of the character he gained in the struggle of the pursuit.

Adapting and changing goals that are accomplished or do not fit your current interests is another essential part of finding purpose in your work. If you lose your passion for whatever work you have pursued diligently, there is no fault in redirecting your efforts to a task that you think will be more meaningful to you because your meaning is not predetermined and lies in your own hands. College students across the globe face this issue of deciding what is meaningful to them when they are forced to decide what career they would like to pursue at the young age of 18. According to a nationally representative U.S. Department of Education survey of 25,000 students who started college in the 2011/2012 school year, 30% of students changed their major within three years of college and 10% changed their major more than once (“Beginning College Students”). I’m only just now finishing the first semester of my freshman year at Temple University and I have already watched many of my friends, both in my class and ahead of my class, struggle with the decision of whether or not to change their major. Currently, I’m a finance major and I myself am not quite sure what my end goal is as far the work that I will pursue, but I am not afraid of changing direction in the near or distant future if I feel that I will not be able to fulfill my highest potential in the field of financial services.

There has been research on how goal changing impacts meaning, including an article titled “Change You Can Believe In: Changes in Goal Setting During Emerging and Young Adulthood Predict Later Adult Well-Being” in which a research team detailed the findings of their survey on 416 participants’ goal-level changes between freshman year of college, senior year of college, and 13 years after senior year and the correlations with adult sense of purpose, life satisfaction, agency, environmental mastery, and generativity. The research team found that growth in occupational goal levels was positively correlated with purpose, agency, generativity, and environmental mastery (Hill, Jackson, Roberts, Lapsley, Bradenberger 128). This means that people who change the goals they had set in their work between the beginning of college and adulthood have a sense of purpose in their day-to-day life, pursue their goals with devotion, feel like they have autonomy in their lives, and desire to pass along knowledge to younger generations. The attributes that those who experienced goal-level growth display mirror the characteristics that Maslow described his self-actualizing patients exhibiting, such as “superior perception of reality, increased acceptance of self, of others and of nature, increased autonomy and increased identification with the human species” (Maslow 24). The correlation between the characteristics of those who experienced occupational goal growth and the characteristics of a person that is experiencing self-actualization show that the setting and adapting of work-related goals over young adulthood is linked to developing a meaningful life in adulthood.

It is important to note that while it may seem more opportune for a young person to change what meaning they are striving for, that does not prevent the middle-aged and even the elderly from seeking out new meaningful works and deeds. In fact, there have been multiple trends developing among people ages 50 and over regarding finding meaning later in life as the large baby boomer generation reaches retirement age. One way that older people can discover a new purpose is through going back to school, and they have been in the new millennium; the AARP proudly boasts that the number of graduate students ages 50 to 64 jumped by 20% from 625,000 to 750,000 between 2007 and 2011 (Chatzky). Striving to knowledge as meaning in old age and taking classes is an excellent way for an older person to make his life purposeful, and this opportunity to grow intellectually is especially significant for new retirees that felt their intellectual pursuits were stifled by either a job, raising a family, or both.

Another trend among older people is staying in the work force later in their life, as the median age of the labor force grew from 37.1 in 1992, to 39.8 in 2002, to 41.9 in 2012 and is projected to reach 42.6 in 2022, while age 65+ participation in the workforce has increased from 12% in 1990 to 18% in 2013, and participation for this age group is projected to hit 22% in 2022 (“Labor force projections to 2022”, Vogelsang, Schultz & Olson 328). However, there is a discrepancy between the reasons that these older people are working through retirement age. The less fortunate group is made up of those who need to work to save for retirement in the face of inadequate savings and rising health care costs, while those who are more fortunate do not need to worry about money and are free to pursue whatever jobs they would like. I will focus on the latter group that choses to make a career change as Dr. Eric Vogelsang, Dr. Kenneth Schultz, and Dr. Deborah Olson did in their article “Emotional Well-Being Following a Later Life Career Change.” They set out to correlate agency and resources with the emotional well-being measures happiness with career change, decrease in stress levels, and emotionally feeling like a new person (Vogelsang, Schultz & Olson 333). Emotionally feeling like a new person is the only measure of emotional well-being that is relevant to this paper (because it can be interpreted as an increase in meaning), as decreases in stress and increases in happiness are not indicative of meaningfulness. The researchers’ findings in their analysis of a survey of 337 people who successfully changed careers after the age of 45 suggested that agency element of intentionality in choosing the career change and an excess of financial and support resources were unsurprisingly positively correlated with career-oriented emotional well-being (Vogelsang, Schultz & Olson 340-341). The most important take-away from this study, in the context of finding meaning in work, is that intentionality in career change, taking one’s own purpose into his own hands, is a driving force in the meaningfulness that an older person experiences from later life career changes, and I would be comfortable extrapolating this importance of agency in meaningful career change from the older age group to the larger adult population, because agency is a necessary predecessor to finding purpose and a lack of control over one’s work would be existentially frustrating for any age group. In all, the ability of the older members of society to find meaning in a new work even towards the end of life exemplifies that it is never too late for you to find meaning in your work and deeds and that changing meaning goals that one strives for is a natural occurrence. It also shows that changing of goals in one’s work can be beneficial no matter how much time and effort was put in to the path that you originally thought would lead you to purpose and evolution of objective is necessary for self-actualization once meaning goals are achieved.

I chose to argue for finding meaning in work because I have witnessed firsthand the positive impacts that a fulfilling work or deed gives a person who is suffering. My mother was able to find meaning in all three ways that Frankl described, through her work as a teacher and artist, through the love of her family, and, unfortunately, through suffering from the ovarian cancer that took her life in 2014. Although my mother did not have a long life, I know for a fact that she lived a meaningful life and retained a purpose during the four years that she fought cancer certainly her family, but also through continuing to strive for purpose teach as a reading specialist at an elementary school until she physically could not return after the end of the 2013-2014 school year. She was also a gifted artist and was able to use her art as a purposeful work even in her sickness. The most impressive way that my mother found meaning in a deed while she had cancer was by beginning to work out after her diagnosis. My mother was the strongest person I ever knew, and I am certain that pursuing the works that were meaningful to her during her illness helped her to stay collected, positive, and driven even as her physical health disintegrated.

As I previously stated, I cannot dictate to you what is meaningful in life, nor can anyone else, but I believe that creating a meaning through work or deeds is an effective way to achieve self-actualization and purpose. This approach to meaning has clearly helped many people from different demographics as I demonstrated in my argument, from young adults, to the middle-aged, to seniors. Creating meaning in work can even help a person persevere in unbearable circumstances, such as those that Viktor Frankl suffered through during the Holocaust and those that face advanced stage cancer patients. In the end each man is responsible for his purpose and taking responsibility for his work goals is an excellent way to find meaning. The tension that one feels as he strives for a goal and the reflection on every failure and accomplishment that comes in the process of attempting to fulfill one’s potential is what spurs personal growth, self-actualization and therefore meaning. Furthermore, the changing of these work goals when the tension ceases is imperative to purpose in work because meaning cannot be achieved without an internal struggle between one’s current self and one’s ideal self.

Works Cited:

  1. Baumeister, Roy, et al. “Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life.” The , vol. 8:6, 2012, pp. 505–516., doi:10.2139/ssrn.2168436.
  2. “Beginning College Students Who Change Their Majors Within 3 Years of Enrollment.” National Center for Education Statistics, Dec. 2017,
  3. Chatzky, Jean. “Financial Aid for Seniors Going Back to School.” AARP, Aug. 2014,
  4. Frankl, Viktor Emil. Man’s Search for Meaning; an Introduction to Logotherapy. 4th ed., Beacon Press, 1970.
  5. Hill, Patrick L., et al. “Change You Can Believe In.” Social Psychological and Personality
  6. Science, vol. 2, no. 2, 2010, pp. 123–131., doi:10.1177/1948550610384510.
  7. Maslow, Abraham H. Toward A Psychology Of Being. Start Publishing, 2012.
  8. “Projected Changes in the Labor Force.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1 Dec. 2013,
  9. Vogelsang, Eric M., et al. “Emotional Well-Being Following a Later Life Career Change: The Roles of Agency and Resources.” The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, vol. 87, no. 4, 2018, pp. 327–346., doi:10.1177/0091415017745972.
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Finding Meaning of Life. (2021, Oct 19). Retrieved from