Just a reminder: You Are Free
There are always choices to make and the only thing you need is to be aware of this fact
In this article, I will write the lessons I got from the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp) that through his experiences and from a psychotherapeutic point of view explains how everyone can find a meaning or purpose in life and gives advice about how to achieve this. This book was recommended to me by my friend Vincent Aubry.
This article is part of a bigger one where I try to define some rules to guide my life and actions. What I am really trying is to define my own Philosophy of life. You can check the rest of the articles here:
Bring Clarity into Your Own Existence
Without your own personal philosophy, you will end up living without direction Last October I quit my job at IBM as a…
To summarise a bit why I am doing this (you can skip this part if you read the intro from the main article), for the previous 2 years, I had been working and studying full time. I had been also traveling and joining every event and activity there was like crazy. I think I had the famous feeling of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), or maybe I was just trying to find some meaning and no matter how many things I did, at the end of the day, I didn’t feel accomplished nor really truly happy. I wanted to do everything at the same time and this was starting to burn me out. I became very anxious, nervous and stressed… and I knew I had to put a stop to this lifestyle. So as soon as I finished the master I decided to also quit my job and go for a gap year in search of purpose and meaning.
But first, why do we need to have "meaning"? what does “meaning” or “purpose” even mean?
We need to have “meaning” or "purpose" because we all want to be happy but happiness cannot be pursued. Every person must have a reason to “be happy.” Once the reason is found you will become happy automatically. This reason is what we call meaning or purpose.
A person’s main concern in life is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. The problem is that this meaning of life differs from person to person, from day to day and from hour to hour. And here are the bad news, no one can tell you what is your purpose, you need to find it yourself, and that’s why it is so difficult and people prefer to avoid making themselves this kind of questions.
How do you know if you already have meaning in life?
There is something very important that I took time to realise. It is the fact that every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. People do not simply exist but always decide what their existence will be and what they will become in the next moment.
You can always choose your attitude in any given set of circumstances because happiness, as well as suffering are both relatives. There are always choices to make and it’s this spiritual freedom that makes life meaningful and purposeful.
To have meaning or purpose is to become aware of what can be done about a given situation.
Why I found difficult to find meaning?
One reason is that this meaning is unique and specific to each person and in order to find this meaning significant and satisfying it has to be fulfilled by each person individually. I felt pretty lost trying to find meaning in my life, maybe because I didn't have guidance or clear instructions to follow, or maybe because I was looking for a huge unique meaning that would work for all my life. The truth is that, as I said before, this meaning can change from day to day and from hour to hour, because at any new circumstance that life brings, you have a specific new opportunity to implement your meaning.
In the book, I found also another reason that makes sense to me. We can only live by looking at the future, by setting some life goals that we try to accomplish. I think the problem resides when we live in a state of 'provisional existence', meaning that we don't prioritise ourselves and our happiness in our daily activities, but rather we postpone them for later. For example, I love dogs but I cannot adopt one yet because I don't have a house of my own or because I travel a lot. In my mind I am always thinking, once I get a home I'll get a dog, or once I settle down… But why I am postponing this? I could always go to volunteer to a doghouse, can't I? It's because I see my current life state as provisional and I am waiting for a moment it might never come.
We must stop thinking that our current life, that this very moment, is provisional. We must stop for the "right" moment to arrive because we are not free from the conditions life give to us, but we are free to take a stand towards these condition at every single moment.
How can we find purpose?
According to Viktor Frankl, the author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning, there are three main ways to find meaning in life.
- 1 — Creating a work or by doing a deed. We need to feel that we are good at something. Dancing, painting, teaching… whatever. We all can find a purpose in life by training our inherent talents and experiencing flow. In my case, I always try to do side projects that make me feel accomplished and also make me feel useful. For example, during this gap year, I wrote the book Tradivegan or the website What to Eat In.
- 2 — Experiencing something or encountering someone. We need to feel a sense of intimacy or connection with at least one other person. We feel good when we are kind and generous to others. We also feel good when we trust others and our trust is reciprocated. Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. In my case, I try to always keep in daily contact with my family. I also travel as much as I can because exploring and experiencing the world always makes me feel alive.
- 3 — Turning a personal tragedy into a triumph, into human achievements. There are 3 main reasons we suffer, because of pain, guilt or death. Every person has potential to use pain (turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment, you know how it goes, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger), guilt (deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better) and death (deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action). For example, I broke my knee ligament one week before my trip to China. Instead of cancelling de trip I decided to go and I managed to visit the Wall of China while limping. Although it was uncomfortable and sometimes painful, this is one of my personal stories that I am more proud of and it made the whole trip a lot more special.
So what is my purpose? did I end up finding it?
The truth is I am not really sure. I have been able to define what are the main motors/motivators in my life: learning, experiencing new things and feeling connected with my loved ones.
I have managed to get some peace of mind by keeping these general goals in mind, while realising at any moment I can find new meanings, and by changing my general attitude towards life (by taking actions, stop waiting for the 'right' moment, prioritising happiness…).
In a way, I was already doing actions to keep learning or connected with my loved ones, but I now I can make some sense of why I was doing all of that. I will continue traveling, learning, meeting, experiencing… but now I want to take it slow, prioritising my self-wellbeing. By going slow I mean maybe taking 2 months in releasing a side-project instead of 1, or maybe stop chain-traveling (one trip after the other, like a domino, without going through home between travels). This way I hope I will get the time to reflect on my experiences and learnings and to assimilate all the good and great things I have done and all of the good and great future things I still can do :)
I know I said that happiness cannot be pursued because you must have a reason to “be happy”. However, I took this course in Coursera — A Life of Happiness and Fulfillment, which was recommended by my friend Maria Navas. It helps you to find out what things makes you happy and unhappy from a scientific point of view. It's a set of actions that you can use to boost your happiness while you try to figure out your meaning.
I have also written a short article with lessons I got from this course, if you would like to also read it, click here:
This article is part of a bigger one where I try to define some rules to guide my life and actions. What I am really trying is to define my own Philosophy of Life. You can check the rest of the article here: