It was1942 and Austrian authorities were
rounding up and arresting Jews as part of their annihilation grand scheme. A young Jewish psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl and his wife,Tilly were among those who believed they would soon be among the missing. Viktor had been working on a book describing a
new theory of psychological well being, and the couple wanted to try and preserve his lengthy manuscript. Tilly sewed it into the lining of Viktor’s coat. He was wearing the coat when they were both sent to Auschwitz and he was
still hugging it to his body when the SS guards stripped him down and confiscated all of
his clothing. He never saw the
Over the next three years – first at Auschwitz and then later at
Dachau -Viktor’s wife, brother, mother and father died in the infamous gas ovens, and he resolved to recreate his text by writing notes on stolen scraps of paper
that he hid. In 1946, one year after the
Allies liberated all of the concentration camps, Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, was released
and became one of the most powerful and enduring works of the century.
The book describes Viktor’s perseverance in the face of
crushing labor, sadistic guards and too little food, so on one level it is a
survival narrative told from his personal perspective. But it’s much more than that to millions of readers
worldwide; it is a powerful guide to living a
meaningful life. In it, Frankl asserts
that “man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to
see a meaning in his life.” Even in the
bleakness and deprivation of a concentration camp Frankl and others managed to find meaning and purpose. The determination to survive, in order to be able to tell what happened in those camps, was a powerful motivator for Viktor and other survivors of the war.
I have recommended this book to each of the classes I have taught because Frankl’s wisdom is relevant today, in spite of the era of
abundance in which we are living. In
fact, according to a recent survey, 58% of Americans report that they often
think about the meaning and purpose of life.
Indeed, in most of the advanced world, there is a slow shift in values
away from materialism toward the quality of life. As a life coach, I can attest to the fact
that meaning has become a central aspect of our work and our lives.
Since you can’t buy a cookbook with a recipe for meaning,
where can you turn to begin the search for it? There are two primary ways – embracing spirituality
more fully and pursuing happiness more intentionally. To quote the Dalai Lama, “I believe the very
purpose of life is to seek happiness.
That is clear. Whether one believes
in this religion or that religion, we are all seeking something better in life.
…the very motion of our lives is towards happiness.”
Embracing spirituality more fully is evidenced by:
50% of American Medical Schools offer courses in
spirituality and health.
Many of the illnesses of modern life – stress,
heart disease, hypertension – can be eased by attending to the spirit.
· Medicine is more focused on treating patients as whole
human beings, and the trend will only grow as medicine becomes more individually tailored to each person.
The environmental movement that spawns more
green products, and builds green consciousness among consumers.
The proliferation of yoga studios, candle shops,
evangelical bookstores, and cosmetics that are good for the planet as well as
Pursuing happiness more intentionally is evidenced by:
- The movement toward positive psychology, life
satisfaction and well-being.
- Understanding that happiness depends partly on
biology – a fixed natural range of genes marked for happiness but in which we
can learn to reach the upper portions of our range.
- Engaging in work that is satisfying in which
people use their signature strengths (what you are good at) to find
gratification that means more than a paycheck.
- Knowing what your strengths are and putting them
to use in the service of something greater than you are – going beyond the self
- Being a good friend and having good friends to
see us through life’s challenges, its highs and lows.
- Exercising the spiritual superchargers of
gratitude, forgiveness and optimism.
- Looking beyond the pulpit for spiritual
experience and solace through prayer, meditation and intuition development.
As Viktor Frankl’s book continues to remind new generations, the ideal life is
not one driven by fear, selfishness and materialism, but it more closely
resembles walking a labyrinth where the purpose is the journey itself, not the
destination; where we summon the will to move happiness and spirituality into
the center of our lives.