Lost your way? How to find your purpose in life
Reading time: 5 mins
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Very occasionally during a lull in the battle I reflect upon the nature of work, social interaction and what it means to live a deliberate life. I fear that our increasingly digital and integrated lives are leading us through a fog of misdirection where most of us are ignorant of the on-going competition for our attention. I am concerned about how we spend our time because for the first time we now have data that reveals the nature of the toll that is being exacted on us by online and cognitive manipulation.
The data is in and we should be concerned
According to Jonathon Haidt, the Harvard social psychologist, the impact of these prevailing forces on mental health is concerning particularly amongst the young. Women and young girls are predominantly affected with 1 in 5 girls in the US between the ages of 12-17 having suffered at least one major depressive episode in the last year alone. 
Mental health statistics in the US and UK tell the same awful story: kids born after 1994 – now known as “iGen” or “Gen-Z” – are suffering from much higher rates of anxiety disorders and depression than did the previous generation (millennials), born between 1982 and 1994.
Even more tragically, we also see this trend in the rate of teenage suicide, which is rising for both sexes in the US and the UK. The suicide rate is up 34% for teenage boys in the US (in 2016, compared with the average rate from 2006-2010). For girls, it is up an astonishing 82%. In the UK, the corresponding increase for teenage boys through to 2017 is 17%, while the increase for girls is 46%. Nobody knows for certain why recent years have seen so much more of a change for girls than boys, but the leading explanation is the arrival of smartphones and social media. Added to which we should not forget that the leading cause of all deaths for men aged 45 and below in the western world is suicide, though the explanatory causes in this case are arguably more complex. So it seems that digital-led disruption of our personal lives coupled with the general digitisation of our economy is having at best a catalysing effect on our sense of well being and at worst it is a primary driver of the type of dystopian vision that Huxley and Orwell both feared.
So how can we bring balance and direction in a world of distraction?
Victor Frankl's seminal work ‘Man's Search for Meaning’ helps to provide a level of context around these concerns and the wider challenges we all face in life; that is how to live a life of meaning and purpose. I suspect that for a lot of people this isn’t yet a question they are even asking themselves however as we can see above the data is starting to reveal an issue.
Frankls testimony provides a vivid account of an individual's experience as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. Despite the harrowing reading the book ultimately reveals an uplifting message around love, hope, responsibility, inner freedom, and the beauty to be found in both nature and art as means that help one endure and overcome harrowing experiences.
I admit that for 99.9% of us we will barely get so much as a glimpse into what it really means to suffer and nor would I wish that anyone suffers needlessly yet that doesn’t stop us from extracting those same lessons and applying them to our own lives.
For those who haven’t yet read this powerful book I’ll provide some context around Frankls journey. In 1945, within months of his liberation from a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, Viktor Frankl sat down to write a book. He was forty years old. Before the war he worked as a successful psychologist in Vienna. He wrote the manuscript in nine successive days. Although the book tells the story of the unfathomable horrors and suffering he endured as a prisoner at Auschwitz, Dachau and other camps, the primary purpose of the text is to explore the source of his will to survive. His book, titled Man’s Search for Meaning, went on to sell over 10 million copies in 24 languages.
Some see life as a never-ending quest for pleasure. Others believe life is about the accumulation of power and money. Frankl sees life as primarily a quest for meaning.
As humans we often look to the margins, those extreme situations that test the fibre of human character. Viktor Frankl survived at the ultimate margin. He concludes that the ultimate test for all of us is to find meaning in our lives. And it is within the power of everyone to find meaning, regardless of your health, wealth or circumstances – no matter how miserable or dire.
Five lessons that we can apply right now
So let’s look at the top 5 lessons that Frankl teaches us in his book and consider how we can apply them to our own lives:
1. We always retain the ability to choose our attitude.
Frankl was a keen observer of human behavior and thought. One of Frankl’s most profound observations was this:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts, comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.“
Frankl and his fellow prisoners had everything stripped from them. Their families, friends, jobs, health, possessions, even their names and the hair on their bodies; but there was one thing that remained truly their own. It is what Stoic philosophers refer to as our inner discourse or guiding principle. Namely, we get to choose how to react to any given thought, emotion or set of circumstances.
2. There will be suffering – it’s how we react to that suffering that counts
Frankl claims that one finds meaning in life through three ways. Through work, especially when that work is both creative in nature and aligned with a purpose greater than ourselves. Through love, which often manifests itself in the service of others. And through suffering, which is fundamental to the human experience. It is this third category that was put to the ultimate test through Frankl’s experience in the concentration camp.
3. The power of purpose
Frankl observed that those prisoners who survived, who found a way to endure, always had a greater purpose that carried them onward through difficult conditions. For some it was a child who was sheltered away in some distant country and who was waiting for them upon liberation. For others it was a spouse or family member. For others it was an unfinished task or creative work that required their unique contribution.
Frankl and his friends were constantly on watch for fellow prisoners who lost their purpose for life. While working in a camp hospital, Frankl noticed the death rate spiked the week between Christmas and New Year’s in 1944. He attributed the dramatic increase to the number of prisoners who were naively holding out hope for liberation before Christmas. As the end of the year drew closer and it became clear that their situation was unchanged, they lost courage and hope. This in turn impacted their power of resistance and their ability to survive.
Frankl refers several times to the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
I suspect that one of the issues that arises from a distracted mind is a lack of clarity around the why of our lives. This then becomes of vital importance to understand if we are to rediscover our natural direction in life.
4. The true test of our character is revealed in how we act
Frankl comes to the conclusion that there is no general answer to the meaning of life. Each person must answer the question for themselves. We find our own unique meaning based on our circumstances, our relationships and our experiences. Life is essentially testing us, and the answer is revealed in how we respond.
“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
Therefore, the meaning of life is revealed daily and hourly, and specifically in our choice to take the right action and to perform our duties and responsibilities.
5. Human kindness can be found in the most surprising places
One would assume that the camp guards and camp commander were, as a whole, terrible people. However, Frankl occasionally experienced startling moments of human kindness from guards. Frankl recalls a time when a guard, at great risk to himself, secretly gave him a piece of bread. “It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at the time. It was the human “something” that this man gave to me – the word and look which accompanied the gift.” At the same time, the senior prison warden, who was a prisoner himself, beat other prisoners at the slightest opportunity.
Frankl claims there are really only two types of people; decent human beings and indecent human beings. Both can be found everywhere. They penetrate every group and every society.
Finding meaning in our lives
Finding and cultivating meaning in our daily lives is critical if we want to achieve what Socrates calls “a life well-lived.” Frankl’s insights teach us that, not only is there value in our search for meaning, but it is the duty of each and every one of us to find that meaning for ourselves and pursue it.
Social media and digital living is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it has and will continue to transform our lives in immeasurably better ways. From increased knowledge sharing and interconnection to the creation of new and innovative ways to live. However the flip side to that coin is represented in the wholesale rise of anxiety and depression, especially amongst the young, outrage culture and echo chamber-like filter bubbles. We must ask ourselves serious questions about how we interact with our devices and each other in our social media driven landscape; this situation isn't going away and the incentive structure by which these companies operate is designed to maximise our attention as digital currency. As with all paradigm shifting innovations the consequences herald great possibilities but also and often come with hidden or misunderstood risks. If we are to navigate these new seas with care then we would do well to listen to those who have gone before us.