Man’s Motivation for Meaning | Psychology Today

When faced with a cancer diagnosis in 2009, I discovered the immense influence that assigning a meaning to it would have for my recovery and my ability to cope. I was completely accountable to frame my journey in a way that provided the greatest chance of survival.   

A few days after receiving the diagnosis, while having coffee with a friend, I proclaimed I can die, you know. Her response lit a spark and gave me a crystal-clear focus. Well, she said, you have a huge responsibility, now don’t you? The word echoed in my brain: R-E-S-P-O-N-S-B-I-L-I-T-Y.  At that moment I had a goal to be reached and an obstacle to overcome.  

I spent the summer of 1996 in Vienna. I was immediately struck by the Austrian city’s contribution to psychology with its three Viennese schools of psychotherapy, each named after its founder: Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler and Viktor Frankl. Individually they had a very different idea of what is our basic driving motivation.  Freud thought it was a will to pleasure, Adler, a will to power and Frankl, a will to meaning.  Of the three, meaning has the greatest grounding effect and provides a boundless sense of strength.  We are responsible for creating it. It’s under our control. It lasts. And in it pleasure, power and freedom abound.    

Water drops on window
Source: Public Domain Archive

The word meaning dates to 1300, derived from the word meninge, a sense; that which is intended to be expressed. It comes from the noun- mean, a sense of significance.

What value do we want to assign when life presents us with trials? The question is what do we want to derive or intend from the experience?  Normally we assign values a priority in our lives and deem them right or wrong, good or bad. The will to meaning is concerned with statements about values as facts and not judgments about the values themselves, a crucial difference.   

Our goal is to make sense of the situation and in so doing return to our power. Logotherapy, teaches there are no tragic aspects of life which could not be, by the stand one takes to them, changed into an accomplishment. Man is responsible for how to suffer. Thus, Logotherapy holds us answerable for how the experience is perceived by us. Reality is literally altered.    

Frankl refers to it not as a coping mechanism but a coping maxim. It’s a truth and a rule to be adopted by the one who bears the suffering. “This as it were, a coping mechanism, but a coping maxim I adopted, I espoused, at that moment,” says Frankl. It was a principle that needed to be embodied. In its application transcendence occurs and suffering is somehow neutralized. It is put in its proper place. Freedom results. 

Victor Frankl sees our ability to respond to life and to be responsible to life as a major factor in finding meaning and fulfillment. In fact, he viewed responsibility to be the “essence of existence.”  He believed that humans were not simply the product of heredity and environment but that they had the ability to make decisions and take responsibility for their own lives. Frankl states, “What counts is not what lurks in the depths, but what waits in the future, waits to be actualized by you….”

When my friend and I had lunch shortly after being diagnosed, it was a turning point. A fierce determination took hold. I was no longer the girl with cancer, I was the woman on a mission.  And that made all the difference. I was somehow transported back to my center. And I was freed.