By Robert Wheeler
It was the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl that popularized “purpose-in-life” (PIL) as a result of his experiences in Nazi prison camps during World War II. He noted that those prisoners that had a goal beyond daily existence were more able to endure the rigors of captivity and to survive. After the war, he related this to his medical practice and became famous for his report about the difficulty of over one-third of his patients as being caused by lacking a goal that gave them a sense of purpose for their life. To treat this, he developed Logotherapy that has been effective particularly for depression, anxiety, and alcoholism.
This need to have a goal beyond meeting immediate needs and that provides a sense of purpose in life seems to be innate, but can easily be subdued by the more pressing immediate needs of daily life such as food, comfort, and entertainment. When subdued, the longer-range need may ferment in suppressed recesses of the mind where it can cause feelings of dissatisfaction or bubble up to cause feelings of depression and anxiety. For early people in ancient history, it was such a conscious concern it became a social issue that accepted mystical explanations. These explanations were the foundation for religions that in various forms have dominated societies throughout known history and have stimulated the advance of civilization. For believers, religion fills this need for a long-range goal, something beyond the self; and, they even affect non-believers also because of their influence on society and culture.
Meaningful is defined as having meaning or purpose. So, even though going to work each morning is not reaching out for something bigger than meeting immediate needs, it is meaningful if it pursues a valued goal. For Dr. Frankl, it does not make much difference what the person’s goal is as long as the person has one and it is beyond meeting immediate needs. Research at St Louis University demonstrated that the nature of that goal is also important and is related to the person’s health, well-being, and performance. This is particularly important now because of the recent increase in dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, suicide., crime, and violence. The most effective goals involved something outside of the self that make a contribution, and involve a search for understanding. This has been supported by other researchers such as Martin Seligman and George Vaillant, and was related to the broader term, “meaning -in-life” (MIL) by Roy Baumeister.
There is now reputable support beyond belief and speculation that when a person’s daily activities are based on an externally oriented PIL, those activities are more meaningful . That, in turn, provides a satisfying sense of MIL. But, how many of us think about the meaning of what we are doing and and its relation to the purpose of our life? How much better we and our society would be if that did occur. How nice it would be if our media, politicians, and educators emphasized these things, instead of their emphasis on wealth, power, gratification, and consumerism. People would be more aware of their most basic innate need. Self-centered goals would give way to goals of seeking knowledge and contributing, and satisfaction with life would increase. Personal and social problems would decrease. Globally, terrorism and war would give way cooperation and sharing decreasing international conflict.