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SocietySpiegeloog 414: Rise

Rising Above the Sufferings

By October 18, 2021No Comments

If there is one thing we are sure about life, other than the fact that it ends at some point, it is that it’s filled with suffering. We are all looking for a way to overcome the obstacles, and Viktor Frankl thinks this lies in the meaning of life. 

If there is one thing we are sure about life, other than the fact that it ends at some point, it is that it’s filled with suffering. We are all looking for a way to overcome the obstacles, and Viktor Frankl thinks this lies in the meaning of life. 

Le Faux Miroir by René Magritte

Three years ago on a rare sunny August day in Brussels, I was out with my friends having coffee and talking about our future plans in life. I was already sure I wanted to get into psychological research, one friend was preparing her portfolio for the art academy she was applying to and the other was evaluating her options in sociology. We were more excited than anxious about what the future was holding for us. Right in the middle of these conversations, the group of friends at the next table turned to us, and without any greetings, one of them said ‘Have you girls ever felt lost in life? I am trying to make a point to my friend here.’. After initially processing this puzzling moment, I asked what her point was, and she replied by explaining how everyone would feel lost in life every now and then, it is completely fine to feel so, and we should just move on. I agreed by joking about how boring life would be if there were no such obstacles to jump over and everything was always just fine. I turned to the friend in question then and asked if she has something that she finds meaningful that makes her feel connected to life. She didn’t reply, probably because she wasn’t comfortable with being dragged into this conversation with complete strangers. So I went on to explain how I think there is always a tiny meaning in people’s lives, and that we wouldn’t be present here as people in the first place, if meaning wasn’t present with us. That meaning isn’t necessarily something so inspiring, but it is something that gives you the courage to battle life’s dark side. I think feeling lost is an indication that the current meaning isn’t doing enough anymore, life goes on and changes, so should your meaning and goals. The conversation didn’t go on much longer, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a long time. We are billions of people living different lives in this world as complete strangers to each other, yet we all wonder the same thing: What are we living for?

“It is meaning that makes people feel fulfilled in life, gives resilience and motivation to get through sufferings.”

Many philosophers and psychologists ponder the meaning of life, and one of the most influential people who put meaning central to human psychology is the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he talks about his experiences and observations from the Nazi concentration camps. According to Frankl, what kept people up at a place where there is no other feeling than hopelessness, was the search for meaning. ‘Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete’, he says. The existence of suffering is undeniable in life, and the way to get through these sufferings is to find the meaning in each one of them. This meaning of life he talks about is ever-changing, and it should constantly be searched for. Frankl claims this search for meaning to be the primary drive of human behavior. It is meaning that makes people feel fulfilled in life, gives resilience and motivation to get through sufferings. And lack of meaning is what brings people into existential despair. With this theory, he founded the third Viennese school of psychotherapy – logotherapy – which aims to help people find their own meaning in life. It encourages the client to find meaning in adversities and claims that finding this meaning will give them resilience. There are three proposed ways of doing this: ‘by creating a work or doing a deed, by experiencing something or encountering someone, or by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering’. Although the first and the third ones are obvious, I will shortly unfold the second one, why encountering someone, more specifically loving someone, helps us find the meaning of life according to Frankl. The nuance in this reason is that the meaning is not coming from another human being, but it is found through one. Loving someone is the closest we get to another person, and it is by this way we see the essential traits and potentials in someone. Seeing how much there is to a human being awakens the person that existence is meaningful and there is a lot to discover within oneself. Reaching the full potential becomes a purpose in life. 

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. ”

The importance of meaning in people’s resilience and well-being is shown in many studies throughout the years as well. Higher presence of meaning in life was associated with lower depression severity in veterans (Blackburn & Owens, 2014), as well as lower anxiety levels in people during COVID-19 (Tsibidaki, 2021). When it comes to the reason why meaning enhances resilience, there are multiple arguments. Firstly, meaning decreases the uncertainty and the distress that adversity brings (Hirsh et al., 2012). The human mind really hates it when circumstances are unexpected, and the future feels unpredictable. So uncertainty is one of the strongest triggers of anxiety and is associated with high noradrenaline release, which itself is associated with the fight or flight reaction. And having a meaning in life decreases this uncertainty by setting clear goals for the future. Having goals in life makes people plan more, consequently, there is less appraised difference between our actions and the predicted future. Secondly, it is proposed by both Viktor Frankl and Carl Jung that having a strong sense of meaning in life enables people to relativize the violation of their beliefs (about the world) and this makes such violations less aversive. ‘When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.’, says Frankl. And the ones who succeed in changing their perspective on a situation and find meaning in their suffering become much stronger in battling it. This even makes people ready to suffer, as they see a meaning in it. Lastly, it is also proposed that searching for meaning is effective because it keeps the mind busy and prevents people from falling into retrospective, recurrent negative thoughts. Therefore, not necessarily having a meaning, but just searching for it, is also something that helps people endure hardships. It was indeed shown by Ostafin and Proulx (2020) that people with a meaning in life experience less repetitive negative thinking. 

Everyone has a different answer to the question of meaning. For some, it already exists and is just waiting to be found. For others, like Sartre who said l’existence précède l’essence, meaning doesn’t exist but is to be established by the person himself. While some people define their meaning as something to be, others see it as something to do. When I was talking to that friend group about how to feel connected to life, we didn’t know about each other’s meaning of life, but having one was still the center of our conversation. No matter what someone’s meaning is, as long as it is meaningful to the people themselves, it will be that strong meaning of life Frankl and many other great thinkers talked about. It will be that meaning that makes people ‘rise above their sufferings’.<<

References

-Blackburn, L., & Owens, G. P. (2015). The effect of self efficacy and meaning in life on posttraumatic stress disorder and depression severity among veterans. Journal of clinical psychology71(3), 219-228.
-Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.
-Hirsh, J. B., Mar, R. A., & Peterson, J. B. (2012). Psychological entropy: A framework for understanding uncertainty-related anxiety. Psychological Review, 119(2), 304–320.
-Ostafin, B. D., & Proulx, T. (2020). Meaning in life and resilience to stressors. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping33(6), 603-622.
-Tsibidaki, A. (2021). Anxiety, meaning in life, self-efficacy and resilience in families with one or more members with special educational needs and disability during COVID-19 pandemic in Greece. Research in Developmental Disabilities109, 103830.

Three years ago on a rare sunny August day in Brussels, I was out with my friends having coffee and talking about our future plans in life. I was already sure I wanted to get into psychological research, one friend was preparing her portfolio for the art academy she was applying to and the other was evaluating her options in sociology. We were more excited than anxious about what the future was holding for us. Right in the middle of these conversations, the group of friends at the next table turned to us, and without any greetings, one of them said ‘Have you girls ever felt lost in life? I am trying to make a point to my friend here.’. After initially processing this puzzling moment, I asked what her point was, and she replied by explaining how everyone would feel lost in life every now and then, it is completely fine to feel so, and we should just move on. I agreed by joking about how boring life would be if there were no such obstacles to jump over and everything was always just fine. I turned to the friend in question then and asked if she has something that she finds meaningful that makes her feel connected to life. She didn’t reply, probably because she wasn’t comfortable with being dragged into this conversation with complete strangers. So I went on to explain how I think there is always a tiny meaning in people’s lives, and that we wouldn’t be present here as people in the first place, if meaning wasn’t present with us. That meaning isn’t necessarily something so inspiring, but it is something that gives you the courage to battle life’s dark side. I think feeling lost is an indication that the current meaning isn’t doing enough anymore, life goes on and changes, so should your meaning and goals. The conversation didn’t go on much longer, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a long time. We are billions of people living different lives in this world as complete strangers to each other, yet we all wonder the same thing: What are we living for?

“It is meaning that makes people feel fulfilled in life, gives resilience and motivation to get through sufferings.”

Many philosophers and psychologists ponder the meaning of life, and one of the most influential people who put meaning central to human psychology is the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he talks about his experiences and observations from the Nazi concentration camps. According to Frankl, what kept people up at a place where there is no other feeling than hopelessness, was the search for meaning. ‘Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete’, he says. The existence of suffering is undeniable in life, and the way to get through these sufferings is to find the meaning in each one of them. This meaning of life he talks about is ever-changing, and it should constantly be searched for. Frankl claims this search for meaning to be the primary drive of human behavior. It is meaning that makes people feel fulfilled in life, gives resilience and motivation to get through sufferings. And lack of meaning is what brings people into existential despair. With this theory, he founded the third Viennese school of psychotherapy – logotherapy – which aims to help people find their own meaning in life. It encourages the client to find meaning in adversities and claims that finding this meaning will give them resilience. There are three proposed ways of doing this: ‘by creating a work or doing a deed, by experiencing something or encountering someone, or by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering’. Although the first and the third ones are obvious, I will shortly unfold the second one, why encountering someone, more specifically loving someone, helps us find the meaning of life according to Frankl. The nuance in this reason is that the meaning is not coming from another human being, but it is found through one. Loving someone is the closest we get to another person, and it is by this way we see the essential traits and potentials in someone. Seeing how much there is to a human being awakens the person that existence is meaningful and there is a lot to discover within oneself. Reaching the full potential becomes a purpose in life. 

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. ”

The importance of meaning in people’s resilience and well-being is shown in many studies throughout the years as well. Higher presence of meaning in life was associated with lower depression severity in veterans (Blackburn & Owens, 2014), as well as lower anxiety levels in people during COVID-19 (Tsibidaki, 2021). When it comes to the reason why meaning enhances resilience, there are multiple arguments. Firstly, meaning decreases the uncertainty and the distress that adversity brings (Hirsh et al., 2012). The human mind really hates it when circumstances are unexpected, and the future feels unpredictable. So uncertainty is one of the strongest triggers of anxiety and is associated with high noradrenaline release, which itself is associated with the fight or flight reaction. And having a meaning in life decreases this uncertainty by setting clear goals for the future. Having goals in life makes people plan more, consequently, there is less appraised difference between our actions and the predicted future. Secondly, it is proposed by both Viktor Frankl and Carl Jung that having a strong sense of meaning in life enables people to relativize the violation of their beliefs (about the world) and this makes such violations less aversive. ‘When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.’, says Frankl. And the ones who succeed in changing their perspective on a situation and find meaning in their suffering become much stronger in battling it. This even makes people ready to suffer, as they see a meaning in it. Lastly, it is also proposed that searching for meaning is effective because it keeps the mind busy and prevents people from falling into retrospective, recurrent negative thoughts. Therefore, not necessarily having a meaning, but just searching for it, is also something that helps people endure hardships. It was indeed shown by Ostafin and Proulx (2020) that people with a meaning in life experience less repetitive negative thinking. 

Everyone has a different answer to the question of meaning. For some, it already exists and is just waiting to be found. For others, like Sartre who said l’existence précède l’essence, meaning doesn’t exist but is to be established by the person himself. While some people define their meaning as something to be, others see it as something to do. When I was talking to that friend group about how to feel connected to life, we didn’t know about each other’s meaning of life, but having one was still the center of our conversation. No matter what someone’s meaning is, as long as it is meaningful to the people themselves, it will be that strong meaning of life Frankl and many other great thinkers talked about. It will be that meaning that makes people ‘rise above their sufferings’.<<

References

-Blackburn, L., & Owens, G. P. (2015). The effect of self efficacy and meaning in life on posttraumatic stress disorder and depression severity among veterans. Journal of clinical psychology71(3), 219-228.
-Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning. Simon and Schuster.
-Hirsh, J. B., Mar, R. A., & Peterson, J. B. (2012). Psychological entropy: A framework for understanding uncertainty-related anxiety. Psychological Review, 119(2), 304–320.
-Ostafin, B. D., & Proulx, T. (2020). Meaning in life and resilience to stressors. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping33(6), 603-622.
-Tsibidaki, A. (2021). Anxiety, meaning in life, self-efficacy and resilience in families with one or more members with special educational needs and disability during COVID-19 pandemic in Greece. Research in Developmental Disabilities109, 103830.
Esna Mualla Gunay

Author Esna Mualla Gunay

Mualla (2000) is a third-year psychology student specialising in Brain and Cognition, interested in the intersection between cognitive and clinical psychology. She enjoys spending time in nature, reading and journaling.

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