Positive Living Newsletter

In One’s Darkest Hour: The Connection Between Duty and Meaning in Life

Luke Kocan

As suicide rates rise in the United States, questions abound as to how therapists can adapt to an increasingly challenging and complex world (Marshall, 2024). Viktor Frankl’s (2020) work, Yes to Life, has much to offer today’s clinician. Taking us on a journey of postwar Europe, Frankl suggests that his clients had become “spiritually bombed out” (p. 23). By this term Frankl meant that, much like the prewar period, his clients had an “end-of-the-world” sense of fatalism, brought on by the atomic bomb and cold war tensions. The modern age continues to be a time of great uncertainty and skepticism, exacting much stress on humanity. We can learn from Frankl who insisted that his clients can still say “yes” to life, in spite of everything!

Frankl describes an encounter with a male client after the war who was reflecting on his brush with death–a planned suicide. The man had decided to take a taxi to a remote place where he would end his life. As the taxi made its way out of town, the man fretted about the fare to such an extent that he instructed the driver to bring him home. While recounting the story to Dr. Frankl, he laughed at the absurdity of worrying about money while planning his own demise. We are told how life is often duty with intermixtures of pleasure–the sort of pleasure that often arises out of spontaneous action.

For Frankl, happiness must never be a goal but, rather, an outcome of pursuing a meaningful life. Said another way, happiness results from fulfilling the responsibilities that life foists upon us. In Yes to Life, Frankl remarks how this is captured perfectly in a phrase coined by Kierkegaard that “the door to happiness always opens outwards,” meaning that that pushing the door to happiness actually closes it–stop pushing and the door will open on its own (cited in Frankl, 2020, p. 32). How may psychotherapists use this knowledge to help their clients? Consider reorienting a simple question, from What can I expect from life? to “What does life expect of me? This question, however, has become an ever increasingly difficult question to answer as Americans and others in the West report growing rates of job-hopping, lack of fulfillment, and loss of faith. (Castrillon, 2023).

One of the most critical factors for an individual’s mental health in our contemporary world is a sense of duty. Without it, one is more likely to lack a sense of meaning or spirituality. Each person’s connection to a sense of duty will differ but once pursued there is great potential for living a rich, joyful, and meaningful life. But we must act! As Johann Wolfgang Goethe once said, “Either we change our fate, if possible, or we willingly accept it, if necessary” (as cited in Frankl, 2020, p. 39).

Psychotherapists are then left to present their clients who lack a sense of duty with a choice: to resign themselves to life’s circumstances or to reevaluate how difficulties enable them to obtain greater fulfillment in life. We can encourage our clients to reflect on their key duties in life and then make the necessary changes in their daily habits.  Thus, if we want to have an impact on today’s “spiritually bombed out” individuals, we must help them access an important source of meaning–duty.


Castrillon, C. (2023, September 3). Why job hopping is going to continue for the foreseeable future. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinecastrillon/2023/09/03/why-job-hopping-is-going-to-continue-for-the-foreseeable-future/?sh=16f6789531a7

Frankl, V. E. (2020) Yes to life: In spite of everything. Beacon Press.

Marshall, L. (2024, February 15). Suicide rates in the US are on the rise: New study offers surprising reasons why. CU Boulder. Today.https://www.colorado.edu/today/2024/02/15/suicide-rates-us-are-rise-new-study-offers-surprising-reasons-why#:~:text=After%20a%20long%2C%20steady%20decline.