The Purpose Driven Life

Viktor Frankl was trained as a psychiatrist in Vienna in the early 1930s, during the peak of Freud’s influence. He internalized the great man’s theories, writing at one point that “all spiritual creations turn out to be mere sublimations of the libido.” The human mind, powered by its id engine, wanted primal things. Mostly, it just wanted sex.

Unfortunately, Frankl didn’t find this therapeutic framework very useful. While working as a doctor in the so-called “suicide pavilion” at the Steinhof hospital – he treated more than 1200 at-risk women over four years - Frankl began to question his training. The pleasure principle, he came to believe, was not the main motive of existence; the despair of these women was about more than a thwarted id.

So what were these women missing? Why were they suicidal? Frankl’s simple answer was that their depression was caused by a lack of meaning. The noun is deliberately vague, for there is no universal fix; every person’s meaning will be different. For some people, it was another person to care for, or a lasting relationship. For others, it was an artistic skill, or a religious belief, or an unwritten novel. But the point was that meaning was at the center of things, for “life can be pulled by goals as surely as it can be pushed by drives.” What we craved wasn’t happiness for its own sake, Frankl said, but something to be happy about.

And so, inspired by this insight, Frankl began developing his own school of psychotherapy, which he called logotherapy. (Logos is Greek for meaning; therapeuo means “to heal or make whole.” Logotherapy, then, literally translates as “healing through meaning.”)  As a clinician, Frankl’s goal was not the elimination of pain or worry. Rather, it was showing patients how to locate a sense of purpose in their lives. As Nietzsche put it, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Frankl wanted to help people find their why.

Logotherapy now survives primarily as a work of literature, closely associated with Frankl’s best-selling Holocaust memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning. Amid the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau, Frankl explored the practical utility of logotherapy. In the book he explains, again and again, how a sense of meaning helped his fellow prisoners survive in such a hellish place. He describes two men on the verge of suicide. Both of the inmates used the same argument: “They had nothing more to expect from life,” so they might as well stop living in pain. Frankl, however, used his therapeutic training to convince the men that “life was still expecting something from them.” For one man, that meant thinking about his adored child, waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other man, it was his scientific research, which he wanted to finish after the war. Because these prisoners remembered that their life still had meaning, they were able to resist the temptation of suicide. 

I was thinking of Frankl while reading a new paper in Psychological Science by Patrick Hill and Nicholas Turiano. The research explores one of Frankl’s essential themes: the link between finding a purpose in life and staying alive. The new study picks up where several recent longitudinal studies have left off. While prior research has found a consistent relationship between a sense of purpose and “diminished mortality risk” in older adults, this new paper looks at the association across the entire lifespan. Hill and Turiano assessed life purpose with three questions, asking their 6163 subjects to say, on a scale from 1 to 7, how strongly they disagreed or agreed with the following statements:

  1. Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.
  2. I live life one day at a time and don’t really think about the future.
  3. I sometimes feel as if I’ve done all there is to do in life.

Then the scientists waited. For 14 years. After counting up the number of deaths in their sample (569 people), the scientists looked to see if there was any relationship between the people who died and their sense of purpose in life.

Frankl would not be surprised by the results, as the scientists found that purpose was significantly correlated with reduced mortality. (For every standard deviation increase in life purpose, the risk of dying during the study period decreased by 15 percent. That’s roughly equivalent to the reduction in mortality that comes from a engaging in a modest amount of exercise.) This statistical relationship held even after Hill and Turiano corrected for other markers of psychological well-being, such as having a positive disposition. Meaning still mattered. A sense of purpose – regardless of what the purpose was – kept us from death. “These findings suggest the importance of establishing a direction for life as early as possible,” write the scientists.

Of course, these correlations cannot reveal their cause. One hypothesis, which is currently being explored by Hill and Turiano, is that people with a sense of purpose are also more likely to engage in healthier behaviors, if only because they have a reason to eat their kale and go the gym. (Nihilism leads to hedonism.) But that’s only a guess. Frankl himself remained metaphysical to the end.  The closest he ever got to a testable explanation was to insist that man was wired for “self-transcendence,” which Frankl defined as being in a relationship with “someone or something other than oneself.” While Freud stressed the inherent selfishness of man, Frankl believed that we needed a purpose as surely as we needed sex and water and food. We are material machines driven by immaterial desires.

Frankl, Viktor E. Man's Search for Meaning. Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Haddon Klingberg, Jr. When Life Calls Out To Us: The love and lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl. Random House, 2012.

Hill, Patrick L., and Nicholas A. Turiano. "Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood." Psychological Science (2014): 0956797614531799.