The Will to Meaning

will to meaningThis is Frankl’s second fundamental assumption and concept of man that has important lessons for people in business and projects by helping them understand where their true and primary motivation lies and the personal power that can be derived from such motivation as man is a being encountering other beings and reaching out for meanings to fulfill. “Man is always reaching out for a meaning, always setting out on his search for a meaning; in other words, what I call the ‘Will to meaning’ is even to be regarded as mans ‘primary concern’ (Frankl, 2004, p. Xv)[i].

The will to meaning is the search for meaning in life and livelihood that is a central motivating force, independent of gender, age and other demographic factors.

The search for meaning is a distinct psychological factor that is not reducible to or derivable from other motivations or variables (Frankl, 2011, p. 175)[ii]. This search for meaning and purpose can be frustrated resulting in a feeling of meaninglessness that can result in a certain type of neurosis that logotherapy calls noogenic neurosis the origin of which is a spiritual problem, a moral conflict or the existential vacuum (Frankl, 1967, p. 70)[iii] .

Many difficult decisions chosen to be ignored or not given the attention they deserve in a business or project environment may stem from a noogenic neurosis but not recognized as such due to ignorance of the phenomenon.

The existential vacuum is a condition that results from a frustrated will to meaning where one is existentially frustrated, that if it leads to a noogenic neurosis is characterized by the loss of interest and by the lack of initiative where patients begin to doubt that life has any meaning (Frankl, 1967, p. 29)[iv]. Arthur Schopenhauer said “that mankind appeared to be doomed eternally to vacillate between the two extremes of want and boredom” and that today Frankl says, we have “arrived at the latter extreme” (Frankl, 1978, p. 95)[v]. This sense of futility, emptiness and meaninglessness is the frustration of the will to meaning whose main symptoms are boredom the incapacity to take an interest and apathy the incapacity to take the initiative (Frankl, 1978, p. 95)[vi]Apathy-1-of-1-1080x675

This will to meaning is so strong a predictor of the presence of mental health problems that in their research overview D. Rosenberg and R. Green conclude that “findings indicate the usefulness of the purpose in life test for discriminating psychiatric patients from normals in a population” (Frankl, 2011, p. 176)[vii].

Not withstanding that, it had been overlooked or forgotten that if a person finds a meaning to their life they are prepared to suffer, to offer sacrifices and in some cases willing to give their life for the cause that means so much to them “Give my rifle to my brother, my love to my mother and tell them I am dying for the cause”[viii] [1].

Contra wise, if there is a lack of meaning or a sense of extreme frustration in the search for a meaning, one is inclined to take one’s life “and he is prepared to do so, even if all his needs, to all appearances have been satisfied” (Frankl, 1978, p. 20)[ix] as was the case for the business man who took his life in 2013 and whose wife “is said to have accused Zurich’s management of driving her husband “into a corner” and that Mr Ackermann’s “tough management style” had put Mr Wauthier under insufferable pressure”[2].

The message for people in business and projects is that the will to meaning is mans primary motivation not self-actualisation, the will to power or the will to pleasure, each of which are derivatives of the will to meaning.

One’s identity as a senior executive, leader, project manager is formed from such a philosophy and in terms of identity, man should not, cannot, struggle for identity in a direct way: he rather finds identity to the extent that he commits himself to something beyond himself, to a cause greater than himself. As Karl Jaspers said “What man is he ultimately becomes through the cause which he has made his own” (Frankl, 1967, p.20)[x]Jaspers2

While self actualization is a good thing man can only actualize himself to the extent to which he fulfils meaning, then self actualization occurs spontaneously. It is missed if made a target in itself as are other conditions that cannot be demanded, commanded or ordered such as hope, love, humour, with the reason being they cannot be established at will (Frankl, 1978, p.75)[xi].

Abraham-MaslowAbraham Maslow the American psychologist who created the hierarchy of needs agreed with Frankl on this statement as his own contention was that “hunting peaks is a little like hunting happiness” and the “business of self actualization” can best be carried out “via a commitment to an important job” (Frankl, 1970, p. 38&39)[xii].

Frankl’s early intuitions of a ‘rest state’ or balancing principle matured in to a conviction that challenged those that taught mans ultimate destination and primary intention is to develop his potentialities, to express himself. If this was the case then we would exist to simply lessen the tension that exists between who we are and who we out to become.

Between the actual state and the ideal one we have to materialize, between being and meaning. In other words, self expression takes precedence over self-transcendence as we are told not to strive for ideals or values as they are merely a means of self expression. The tension between being and meaning is inherent in being human and therefore indispensable for mental well being (Frankl, 1967, p.21)[xiii].

Logotherapy takes a different stand to balance and does not spare its patients a confrontation with the specific meaning they have to carry out and that we have to help them find.

GoetheThe belief in each person having the potential, the spark within them to strive and create that healthy tension is best described by Goethe[3] who said profoundly “If we take man as he is we make him worse: if we take him as he ought to be, we help him become it” (Frankl, 1967, p. 23)[xiv].

This has important implications for people in projects as they volunteer for more involvement in teams, tasks and activities.

The problem today is as much about people seeking too little tension as creating too much tension and perhaps not knowing that the meaning they seek is inherent in the tension they need to continue striving.

Logotherapy does not spare a person the confrontation with the specific meaning which has to be carried out and the tension that goes with the search in order for them to find such meaning (Frankl, 1967, p.22)[xv].

This opens up the potential to discuss healthy tension, workload and stress in the workplace. How much anxiety is born from not taking enough responsibility? When an architect wants to strengthen a collapsing arch he increases the load.

[1] IRA volunteer Con Looney was shot during the battle for Killorglin on the 27th September 1922. He was not conscripted or paid to take up arms but the ideal state for Irish people to be free from foreign domination meant so much to him, that as he died he mentioned the cause.

[2] In mans search for meaning Frankl says “it goes without saying that not each and every case of depression is to be traced back to a feeling of meaninglessness, nor does suicide – in which depression sometimes eventuates – always result from an existential vacuum. But even if each and every case of suicide had not been undertaken out of a feeling of meaninglessness it may well be that an individual’s impulse to take his life would have been overcome had he been aware of some meaning and purpose worth living for. If thus a strong meaning orientation plays a decisive role in the prevention of suicide, what about intervention in cases where there is suicide risk? As a young Doctor I spent four years in Austria’s largest state hospital where I was in charge of the pavilion in which severely depressed patients were accommodated – most of them having been admitted after a suicide attempt. I once calculate that I must have explored twelve thousand patients during these four years. What accumulated was quite a store of experience from which I still draw whenever I am confronted with someone who is prone to suicide. I explain to such a person that patients have repeatedly told me how happy they were that the suicide attempt had not been successful; weeks, months, years later they told me it turned out that there was a solution, to their problem, an answer to their question, a meaning to their life. “Even if things only take such a good turn in one of a thousand cases” my explanation continues, “who can guarantee that in your case it will not happen one day, sooner or later? But in the first place, you have to live to see the day on which it may happen, so you have to survive in order to see that day dawn and from now on the responsibility for survival does not leave you” (Frankl, 2004, p. 143/4).


[3] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832) was a German writer and statesman. His body of work includes epic and lyric poetry written in a variety of metres and styles; prose and verse dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; literary and aesthetic criticism; treatises on botany, anatomy and colour.

[i] Frankl, Viktor. On the Theory and Therapy of Mental Disorders. UK, Brunner-Routledge, 2004

[ii] Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. USA, Random Hoise Group, 2011.

[iii] Frankl, Viktor. Psychotherapy & Existentialism. USA, Penguin Books, 1967

[iv] Frankl, Viktor. Psychotherapy & Existentialism. USA, Penguin Books, 1967

[v] Frankl, Viktor. The Unheard Cry for Meaning.USA, Simon & Schuster, 1978

[vi] Frankl, Viktor. The Unheard Cry for Meaning.USA, Simon & Schuster, 1978

[vii] Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. USA, Random Hoise Group, 2011.

[viii] Horgan, Tim. Dying For the Cause. Ireland, Mercier Press, 2015.

[ix] Frankl, Viktor. The Unheard Cry for Meaning.USA, Simon & Schuster, 1978

[x] Frankl, Viktor. Psychotherapy & Existentialism. USA, Penguin Books, 1967

[xi] Frankl, Viktor. The Unheard Cry for Meaning.USA, Simon & Schuster, 1978

[xii] Frankl, Viktor. The Will to Meaning. USA, Penguin Books, 1970 & Maslow, Abraham. Eupsychian Management: A journal, R. Irwin, Homewood, Illinois, 1965.

[xiii] Frankl, Viktor. Psychotherapy & Existentialism. USA, Penguin Books, 1967

[xiv] Frankl, Viktor. Psychotherapy & Existentialism. USA, Penguin Books, 1967

[xv] Frankl, Viktor. Psychotherapy & Existentialism. USA, Penguin Books, 1967