The search for meaning



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The search for meaning

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalisation’ of instinctual drives.

Viktor Frankli

This chapter examines what is understood by the notion of search for meaning, which is regarded as a key developmental task for adolescents. It proposes a preliminary set of criteria for what constitutes healthy meaning. Taking a value stance on what sort of meaning young people need is a prerequisite for planning an education in meaning.

The phrase ‘search for meaning’ was popularised by Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s search for meaning (1964).ii As shown in the last two chapters, searching for meaning has long been a defining characteristic of the human person. But over the last fifty years it has become a more prominent issue for three reasons: first, a decline in the relevance of traditional sources of meaning like religion and family; second, a greater emphasis on individualism where people rely more on their own resources for constructing personal meaning; and third, that ‘progress’ and ‘development’ in Western technological societies have not always equated with increased happiness, and people are puzzled about the causes of personal and social unrest. Hence more time and angst is going into trying to make sense of life, whereas in the past more of the meaning people relied on was taken for granted.

Research and writings about youth have suggested that the search for meaning and identity is a more problematic developmental task for young people than it was formerly.iii But not enough attention has been given to what this search entails and why it is needed. More needs to be done in clarifying just what is understood by ‘meaning’ and how it functions psychologically.



4.1 What is the ‘search for meaning’?

What does it mean to ‘search’ for meaning? And why do people need to do this? Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl believed that looking for meaning was a fundamental human drive – essential to what it means to be human, something like a basic human instinct, as expressed in the quotation above. However, while the capacity to make meaning appears to be genetic, meaning itself does not come instinctively; it has to be absorbed and constructed from experience and community resources; and eventually, as one matures, it needs to be consciously chosen and articulated. To adapt St Anselm’s words (2.5), one could describe the search for meaning as ‘Life seeking understanding’.

Frankl believed that it was natural for people to articulate their personal meaning in belief statements, whether or not they were religious. Just how much individuals constructed their own personal statements of meaning, or the extent to which they adopted existing formulae from particular communities of meaning, would vary. Frankl proposed a central role for understanding and reason and he cautioned against exaggerated individualism in the search for meaning:
A human being is not one in pursuit of happiness, but rather in search of a reason to become happy.

The meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected.iv

Frankl stressed a genetic ‘will to meaning’ and its dimensions of rationality and commitment. This provides a basis for an education in meaning. However, it would be mistake to presume that all young people show an overt need for meaning, or an interest in searching for it. For some adolescents the search for meaning is a central concern; others may not want to give it much thought; while for others, the search for meaning may be a health hazard! For many, the pursuit of immediate happiness and satisfaction is more important than finding meaning. Some young people occupy each of these positions at different periods of their life. Nevertheless, the idea of promoting personal meaning is a good ideal to propose for personal development, and as such it can be a valuable educational goal.

The idea of a search for meaning suggests that

people consciously look for theories that give satisfying insight into life;

conscious effort is required for appropriating and developing meaning – it does not come automatically or easily;

there may be a felt deficit of meaning that motivates people to look for something more meaningful than currently held theories;

usually the individual is the one who ultimately decides for himself/herself what is meaningful;

the search may involve a conscious evaluation of available meanings;

meaning or a satisfying interpretation may come after the event – it can develop through attempts to understand what has happened.

It may be that searching for meaning is a symptom of something more fundamental. When things go wrong, whether this is a traumatic event or a gradual change, current meaning can be called into question. It may no longer provide a satisfactory explanation of life, or adequate motivation. If this is the case, then a better description of what is happening is ‘problems in life that prompt a review of personal meaning’.

If there is to be a search for meaning, the impression readily given is that the search is catalysed and driven by some sensed lack of meaning; there is angst about meaning. A dissonance between new experience and older meaning may prompt the individual to try to find a more satisfying explanation of new circumstances. In some cases, individuals may learn to live in a different way and only then detect the new meaning in what they are doing. In other words, it is not just a cognitive task of looking for new meaning and adopting it. It may entail experimenting with different ways of living and then putting the practice into theory.

An interesting empirical question emerging from this discussion is to discover what prompts change in personal meaning. What are the sorts of experiences that young people think have changed their meaning? Is it always triggered by difficulty or trauma? Or is the change slower? Do many seek to develop their personal meaning through reflection, study and reading?

For those who are depressed and without hope, the search for meaning may be the last crucial process in the maintenance of mental health. If they have some beliefs they feel are worth living for, this can make a difference. On the other hand, if they do not have any robust inner meaning, this can add to the depression and make the search for meaning a further health hazard; more thinking can be more depressing. In these circumstances, searching for meaning may be better postponed. Being helped to get on with life and involved in activities, putting aside negative thoughts, may be a more useful therapy, with the development of meaning from this experience coming into the picture at a later stage.



4.2.1 Individual and community frames of reference for meaning

Problems arise where people are relatively alone and too dependent on their own psychic resources for the construction of meaning. There is a need for a community frame of reference, and for community support, especially for the early stages of meaning development in children and adolescents.

One of the major cultural problems with individualism is that it may appear to young people to be one of the few things left for them to believe in. American psychologist Martin Seligman considered that

one necessary condition for meaning is the attachment to something larger than the self; and the larger that entity, the more meaning you can derive.

To the extent that it is now difficult for young people to take seriously their relationship to God, to care about their relationship to the country, or to be part of a large and abiding family, meaning in life will be very difficult to find. The self, to put it another way, is a very poor site for meaning.v

Young people can feel caught in a bind. The culture lauds individualism; the commercial world does everything it can to make individualism a marketable commodity. But excessive individualism can be the cause of a pathological aloneness; it can erode a sense of community, and it can put unnecessary pressure on young people to have to work out meaning and purpose by themselves.

While meaning ultimately needs to be appropriated by the individual, it may be expecting too much of the human condition to have children and adolescents construct meaning entirely by themselves. They need resources in meaning from the community. It is a question of balance.

4.2.2 Flight from meaning and the avoidance of meaning

This section looks at ways in which people avoid searching for meaning (3.2.2).

Reflection and interpretation are central to meaning. Those who invariably act on their immediate feelings may consciously avoid the reflection and interpretation that might acknowledge the implied meaning in their behaviour because it is questionable. While they may have interaction with others, and while they may nominally espouse causes (such as the environment and animal welfare), their frame of reference for values is self-centred. Everything is measured in terms of its convenience or advantage to individuals, who may devote much of their time to the sort of entertainment that distracts from reflection.

Television, now with extensive programming available through cable and satellite, offers enormous scope for entertainment at home; it provides unlimited opportunities for engaging the viewer’s attention and for time-wasting. Television may thus inhibit the sort of reflection that is important for the development of meaning. For some, excessive time spent absorbed in television soap operas, sitcoms, dramas and ‘reality’ programs can signal a life without much meaning – also evident in the hours spent flicking a remote control up and down the spectrum of available channels, searching for something that will attract and hold their attention. Such an addiction to television watching can help settle people into life at a superficial level. Much of the programming they watch shows little of the depth and complexity that characterise real life, while the so-called ‘reality’ programs pick up on a few issues that are inevitably distorted in the quest for entertainment ratings (see Chapter 15).



4.2.3 Maturity in the development of meaning

This section looks at some of the characteristics that might be expected of people with wise meaning that gives direction, purpose and energy to their living.

In 1980, James Fowler, a developmental psychologist in the United States with a special interest in Christian religious education, published his research in a book titled Stages of faith.vi It had a significant effect on thinking about spiritual development, and it complemented other theories of personal development that involved structural developmental stages (such as those of Piaget, Kohlberg, Erikson, and Kegan).

One of the focal points of Fowler’s theory was evident in the subtitle to his book: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. He explored the processes through which meaning was constructed across the life cycle. His developmental stages showed how children were dependent on parental figures for meaning; as they grew older, they were socialised into community meanings. He highlighted the ways in which individuals progressed from authority-dependent meaning to more autonomy. In the later stages of development, they did not need to defend the boundaries of their meaning so strongly, and they could be open to a wider range of new meanings without anxiety or threat to their own identity. They did not need to collapse the polarities and tensions within their meanings.

Fowler’s work is a useful resource for appraising maturity in meaning. Any such appraisal inevitably involves value judgments. Also, maturity needs to be assessed in both the content and the process of meaning-making. The extent to which personal meaning flows into action is an additional aspect of maturity; this thinking moves closer to the relationship between meaning and character or virtues.

While the notion of a self-appraisal of meaning can readily be recommended, the extent to which others and community agencies (like schools) might be engaged in the appraisal of personal meaning is difficult to determine, and it involves ethical questions. While in therapy and counselling people give privileged access to their personal meanings, their meaning needs protection in the public domain; here, the evaluation of meaning is more appropriately concerned with a general educational exploration of content and process in meaning-making, leaving individuals free to draw their own personal implications.




i1 V Frankl, from the Frankl/Logotherapy website, http://www.top-biography.com/9124-Victor%20Frankl/quotation.htm Accessed July 2001.

ii2 V Frankl 1964, Man's search for meaning.

iii3 For example, R Webber 2002, Young people and their quest for meaning; M Mason et al. 2006, The spirit of generation Y: Summary of the final report of a three year study.

iv4 Frankl/Logotherapy website, http://www.romus.co.nz/ezine/m_meaning.htm Accessed July 2001.

v5 R Eckersley 1997, Portraits of youth, p. 246.

vi6 JW Fowler 1980, Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning.



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