People that are suffering can sometimes lose sight of the meaning and purpose of life. At times, they begin to question the meaning of it all and the reasons why they would choose to continue to struggle. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the meaning of life as it is up to the individual to decide. The good news is that there are endless amounts of individual missions, destinies, roles, and dreams that are possible. So what is the purpose of life?
The meaning and purpose of life explained:
These existential questions have existed since the beginning of time. Plato described humans (ie, “man”) as “a being in search of meaning.”
“There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” ―Anais Nin
A profound contributor to this conversation is Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in 1945. This book has inspired millions to shift their perspectives on life.
It is important to know some background on Frankl to appreciate his work. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who was a prisoner in four different Nazi concentration camps (including Auschwitz and Dachau) between 1942-1945. Outside of his sister, his entire family was murdered during the war, including his pregnant wife.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl
Although I recommend everyone read his lifechanging book, we will find the answers to our questions within us. Books and others’ perspectives can reframe our thinking and clarify our needs, passions, and life goals. But they cannot give us the answers to our purpose. The meaning and purpose of life are based on our perspective and can shift over time with growth and change.
We carry the answer to the meaning of life.
We have a chance to make a choice regardless of the circumstances we face. We can passively react to situations and allow them to sway or define our existence, or we can find purpose and meaning in our struggles. They become challenges to get through and not definitions of who we are.
From Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning:
…We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation–just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer–we are challenged to change ourselves…
Here is a Utube clip of Dr. Frankl delivering a speech about the search for meaning:
Without purpose and meaning, someone who is suffering will focus on the work that goes into living: managing stress, work-life balance, the daily grind that is required to keep up, and for what? To age and eventually die?
These thoughts miss the joy and purpose that can come with actively living life.
What is the purpose of life?
I know what makes my life have meaning, but this formula only applies to myself. I feel my purpose when I am engaged in the world around me: when I am discovering, creating, teaching, and helping to improve others’ lives.
A version of this article first appeared here.
Dr. Melissa Welby is a psychiatrist that participates in people’s process of discovery, empowerment, and search for satisfaction and happiness. She treats a variety of illnesses including depression, anxiety & panic attacks, adult ADHD (Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorders), bipolar disorder, OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and borderline personality disorder. She is also the current president of the Connecticut Psychiatric Association.She completed her Internship & Residency at Cambridge Hospital, affiliate of Harvard Medical School, 2000 to 2004. Dr. Melissa Welby is Board Certified in General Psychiatry by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, 2005 to present.