Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who was interned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. He experienced the tortures and depravities first-hand, and he was a keen observer of everything around him. He recorded his experiences in his book, Man's Search for Meaning, which is now in its third edition and has sold over two million copies.
That evening, as the prisoners lay in their huts, the lights went out. For many, this seemed to be the last straw. As they lay there in total darkness, his Senior Block Warden asked Frankl to give them a talk to lift their spirits up. God knows, Frankl wrote, he was in no shape to cheer up anyone else. But he knew he had to say something. He began by noting that the real reason people were dying all around them was not their poor living conditions, horrible as they were, but giving up hope. Even in this Europe in the sixth winter of the Second World War, he continued, everyone could find some reason for hope. He frankly admitted that he estimated his own chances of survival at about one in twenty. Friends, family, careers, could all be restored, and one could suddenly be transferred to a camp with unusually good working conditions, for this was the luck of the prisoner.
When the lights came on again, it was obvious that he had struck a responsive chord. People were limping towards him to shake his hand. Later, when he was liberated from the camp and re-opened his private practice, Frankl realized that in everyday life as well as in a concentration camp, when people gave up hope they were much more ready to die before their time. Instead of seeking pleasure, as Freud would have it, or power, as Adler maintained, Frankl asserted that the most powerful motivating force in humans is the need to find meaning in life.
In my clinical practice, as well as in the lives of others people I have known, I have seen evidence of the unhappiness and despair which results when the main source of meaning in one's existence has been lost, or when it has never been found in the first place. But meaning need never remain lost,, even though it may appear to be. In the conclusion of the motion picture, Titanic, when her idyllic first love had been destroyed by the death of her lover when the ship sank, the heroine re-appeared as an old woman with children and grandchildren, and observed, "the heart of a woman is as deep as the ocean itself."
Robert Louis Stevenson said, "The world is so full of such a number of things, I am sure we should all be as happy as kings." Stephen Hawking, who was only expected to five a short time after he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in his youth, is still busy lecturing to large audiences about the Cosmos in his seventies, even though his illness has progressed to the point that he can no longer sit up in his wheelchair and must use a special device in order to speak. His life is proof that meaningfulness is the ultimate remedy for anxiety and depression -- or as he put it,, "Look at the stars, not at your feet.!"