Meaning-Focused Therapy

Meaning centered counseling Lecture No 5

The Meaning of Life

Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D, C.Psych
Tyndale University College, Toronto, Ontario


Worldview represents our basic assumptions about the world, people or life in general.

It is based on our experiences, our culture and what we have learned from others.

It is foundational to how we perceive and how we live.

We cannot prove a worldview right or wrong, but we can evaluate its impact on one’s life – whether it is constructive or destructive.

The fundamental existential question: Does human life have ultimate meaning or ultimate absurdity?

The many observations lead one to an atheistic and materialistic worldview – we are nothing but the product of the blind evolution processes, and there is no God, no ultimate meaning.

But the same observations can also lead to a theistic worldview that God has a grand design and ultimate purpose for the universe.

“Ultimate meaning presupposes an order in which we as individuals have a part, even if it is an infinitesimal. The order may be called God, life, nature, or – a term become widely acceptable – the ecosystem.” (Fabry, 1994, p.34)

Every question about meaning of life is tied up to the question of ultimate meaning.

When we say Yes to God and Yes to life, everything about our lives changes.

We believe that ultimate meaning exists even though we cannot comprehend it.

Affirmation of meaning

What led to Frankl to affirm that meaning can be discovered in all situations?

  • The grandiose order of the universe.
  • The grand design of everything.
  • The proof lies in the fulfillment that comes from the affirmation and the search.
  • Responsibility implies obligation to the demands of ultimate meaning and specific meanings.
  • Questioning or challenging the meaning of life can only be found in humans.
  • The problem of meaning becomes urgent for adolescents “What kind of meaning does life have?
  • The questioning of the meaning of life continues to dog us in adulthood – it represents a spiritual or existential crisis. • “The ultimate meaning of man’s life is not a matter of his intellectual cognition, but rather of his existential commitment…Man takes a stand and makes a choice” (Frankl, 1985, p.84).
  • “Ultimate meaning remains a basic assumption that can be tested only in daily living” (Fabry, 1994, p.64)
  • Meaning of life must be lived in the presence of misery, insecurity, and suffering • “Historical existence is about meaning and purpose – behavior is based on the past and guided towards the future” (Text, p.27).
  • We need the spiritual fiber to develop a world-view affirmative towards life. Without such an affirmation people are “left morally unarmed and unarmored, prey to the full terror inherent in the concept of fate” (p.29-30).

Why is it not possible to express a “phony” affirmation of life? Why is it that “people are psychologically incapable of making up counterfeit arguments in favor of life, or arguments for their continuing to live, when thoughts of suicide are surging up within them”? (Text, p.30-31)

“It is self-evident that belief in a super-meaning – whether as a metaphysical concept or in the religious sense of Providence – is of the foremost psychotherapeutic and psychohygenic importance. As a genuine faith springing from inner strength, such a belief adds immeasurably to human vitality. To such a faith there is, ultimately, nothing that is meaningless” (p.33).

We try to enter into our clients’ value or belief systems and discover areas where they might find meanings that are right for them.

Three levels of meaning

  1. Ultimate meaning — supra meaning or super meaning — beyond our human comprehension
  2. The meaning of life — each person has a special purpose to fulfill, each person is unique and endowed with dignity; each life has specific meaning contents.
  3. Meaning of the moment — Every unrepeatable moment offers a specific meaning potential. To respond to these meaning potentials is to live a meaningful life.

We cannot separate meanings of the moment from the meanings of the whole. True meanings are those which are related to the higher meanings.

Thus, the need for double-visioning in working with clients, regardless of the presenting problem.

The three values of meaning

Values are universal meanings based on millions of people experiencing similar situations.

Creative values – what we give to the world, realized in creative actions. Not arbitrary actions, but only those related to higher meanings.

Experiential values – what we experience from the world, receptive to the full meaning of each moment. “The greatness of a life can be measured by the greatness of a moment” (Text, p.44)

Attitudinal values – what stance we take towards the limiting factors of life. How we respond to suffering and death represents the highest value. Thus, the most impoverished existence can offer the greatest opportunity of realizing values.

The three fundamental assumptions for logotherapy.

  1. Freedom of will
  2. The will to meaning
  3. Meaning of life

All three assumptions are interrelated. They are like a three-legged stool. Without any one of these three components, logotherapy would collapse.

Meanings are discovered rather than created, because they are based on the above three fundamental principles.

Thus, we can discover meaning by being responsible to the demand quality of life by seeking the unique meanings of each situation and of own life.

By affirming the meaning of life, we would persist in our quest for meaning, even when we continually encounter difficulties and failures.

Freedom of will and responsible choices

Humans have the capacity of free choice in spite of limitations and restrictions.

We have the freedom to choose how to respond to each given situation, how to respond to future potentials.

Freedom of will gives us the core human dignity. We can rise above biological and environmental forces.

“Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress” (1985, p.86) as the Nazi concentration camps.

We have the freedom and responsibility to make meaningful choices each day each moment by seeing the larger picture and following our conscience rather than impulse and instinct.

Do not let our ego, emotion or the devil mess up our mind. Always go through the PURE model to make sure that we are doing the right thing.

Do not let anything take control of your life and take you away from your life goal.

Freedom to say No to God and to God’s boundary results in banishment.
Freedom to say Yes to God and to God’s calling results in fulfilling and abundant life.

Adam and Eve’s choice
Frankl’s choice
McCain’s choice

Consciousness of responsibility

There is a “demand quality of life” in every situation and in life overall.

We are called to live with authenticity to fulfill our vocation of destiny, our unique meaning, and life offers opportunities to find meaning in every situation.

“Logotherapy…seeks to bring to awareness the spiritual realities. As existential analysis, it is particularly concerned with making men conscious of their responsibility – since being responsible is one of the essential grounds of human existence.” (Text, p.25)

Response-ability — the ability to respond to the external mandate of “should” and the inner conviction of “ought”

We need to be conscious of both our freedom and the demand quality of life.

Frankl quotes a famous passage by Hillel: “If I don’t do it, who will do it? If I don’t do it now, when shall I do it? And if I do it for myself, what am I?” (Fabry, 1994, 38-39)

“We are free if we see ourselves as part of an order and response-able to it. We are unfree if we reject any order. True freedom is consent to productive activity, a free decision for someone or something, performing a self-chosen task. Only then is freedom a positive value, a ‘freedom to.’ Freedom not used responsibly only widens the existential vacuum” (Fabry, p.114).

Will to meaning — Meaning seeking

Finding meaning is the primary motivation for living.
Everyone must discover the true meaning of each person’s life through interaction with others, not solely through introspection.

Man’s search for meaning is guided by values and conscience, which is both intuitive and creative.

“Frankl defines conscience as an intuitive capacity to find out, to ‘sniff out’ the unique meaning gestalt inherent in a situation, ‘what is meant in a specific situation.” (Fabry, 1994, p.65)

Meaningful living is not based on homeostasis but noodynamics, “Noodynamics leave us the freedom to choose between fulfilling and declining that meaning that awaits us (Frankl, 1975, p.88).

The emptiness and despair that people feel and their quest for meaning demonstrate the existence of the will to meaning.

Both ultimate meaning and the meaning of the moment place a demand on us.
There is a demand quality of life – which demands response-ability and meaning seeking.

There are many triggers of the will to meaning:

  • Challenging a person with a potential meaning to fulfill
  • Confronting a life crisis – every crisis is a new opportunity to find new elements of meaning in that situation
  • Confronting one’s suicidal thoughts
  • The delusion and emptiness after achieving success “Is this all there is?”

Frankl (1967) likens the quest for meaning to Israelites following the “cloud” in the biblical story of Exodus.

In order to realize our values or fulfill our meaning potentials, we need to reach beyond ourselves – self-transcendence. Human existence always points at something beyond itself – a meaning to fulfill.

It has to be based on authenticity and congruency of values. Meaning of the moment has to be consistent with who you are and what life goals you are pursuing with commitment.

Meaning vs. happiness

The whole meaning of life is pleasure, because all human activity is governed by the striving for happiness….”Pleasure is not the goal of our aspirations, but the consequence of attaining them” (p.35)

Helen Keller “Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”

Life and death

Death cancels the meaning of life, when the purpose of life is based on pleasure or happiness.

It does not make much difference whether you enjoy the best meal of your life just before execution.

Death makes everything meaningless, if you are seeking happiness.

Unforgettable things to do before you die.

1000 places to go before you die

Death cannot cancel a life that is lived meaningfully; it can only eliminate potentially meaningful tasks

As we get older, potential meaningful tasks decrease but realized meaningful tasks increase

“Each deed in its own monument” (Frankl, 1986, p.20). Each meaningful act is stored for all eternity.