Positive Living Newsletter

Creating Meaning Through Tragedy

Luke Gregory Kocan, M.S.
Carlow University

When tragedy hits, people often find themselves feeling confused, lost, and without hope.  Whether it is failure in school or work, financial issues, or death, counselors often witness how clients handle the worst that life throws at them.  When one faces their most difficult trials, how does one foster a sense of rebirth and renewal?  The answer is by reestablishing a sense of meaning.

Viktor Frankl, founder of logotherapy, identified a strong relationship between “meaninglessness” and criminal behaviors, addictions, and depression.  When tragedy hits, people often lose their sense of meaning and thus turn to fill that void with hedonistic pleasures, power, materialism, hatred, boredom, or neurotic obsessions and compulsions.  How  can one best help people avoid falling into this trap?  Frankl (2010) stated, “What man [sic] actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” (Para. 7).  To avoid tragedy bringing about the worst in people, Frankl believed that one must establish a goal.  Goals helps one anchor themselves during times when they feel truly listless.  Moreover, goals can provide a path forward out of their present feeling of hopelessness.

What are some ways that one may create meaning or a goal?  Research has shown that people may establish it through creative pursuits, servicing others, contradictory experiences, commitment to a decision, spiritual connection, perceiving meaningless tasks through a meaningful lens, creating, and chasing goals, and maintaining an unconditional attitude of strength (Bushkin et al., 2021).  With this knowledge, counselors can coach clients through the most difficult circumstances.  A goal, or a sense of meaning, can be the most effective cure in times of hardship and tragedy.

In addition, Frankl wrote that individuals must adopt tragic optimism, which is optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential.  He went on to say that tragic optimism allows for: turning suffering into a human achievement; deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action (Rossi, 2021).  Frankl provides the world with a framework in which optimism is always an option, yet grounded in hard truths.  This means that counselors must help individuals with reframing challenges as opportunities and by educating on how mistakes may lead to new insight and inner change, so that people can discover strength in the face of situations that are beyond their control.

Frankl believed that suffering was innate to the human experience, something that intimately connects us all.  The ways we all deal with tragedy and hardship differ; some prosper while others do not.  Through the creation of a goal and tragic optimism, people may endure the most tragic circumstances in life and come out stronger than before.


Bushkin, H., van Niekerk, R., & Stroud, L. (2021). Searching for meaning in chaos: Viktor Frankl’s story. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 17(3), 233–242. https://doi.org/10.5964/ejop.5439

Frankl, V. F. (2010) Happiness and meaning: The bottom line. Pursuit of Happiness. https://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/viktor-frankl/

Rossi, H. L. (2021, April 30). How to find optimism and hope in the darkest of places. Guideposts. https://guideposts.org/positive-living/health-and-wellness/life-advice/managing-life-changes/how-to-find-optimism-and-hope-in-the-darkest-of-places/