“…to find and to fulfill meaning is the basic motivation in human beings”

“…the desire to find a meaning … to go on to fulfill it.”

Viktor Frankl

What does Viktor Frankl mean by “a meaning” within a situation. What is to be found in a situation that could be referred to as “a meaning”. I think it may refer to finding a way to engage with a situation that is meaningful to the individual. For Frankl the “will to meaning” was inherent in human beings and accounted for all human motivation. In The Hopeful Mindset meaning is one of the survival needs that humans seek to meet according to their values and I agree that it plays a foundational role in human motivation. As far as I know, however, Frankl never made a direct connection between searching for meaning and the role of needs in doing so.

When such a connection is made it becomes apparent that what makes engagement in a situation meaningful is when individuals see a way to engage with a situation in a manner that makes it possible for them to meet one or more of their needs. Meeting needs is how we survive. The need for finding meaning (the will to meaning) is what motivates us to meet each of those needs. Human needs include:

Physical needs – warmth, food, water

Safety and Security needs – protection of life sustaining resources

Belonging need – support from others

Self-esteem need – importance within one’s group

Need to Understand – seeing how things work, seeing connections

Purpose need – personally meaningful goals

Meaning is relative to the goals and purposes one sees as being necessary to meet in order to survive and/or thrive. The means of achieving these personally meaningful goals will depend on what one believes will be effective in terms of achieving those goals (as described in The Hopeful Mindset).

A meaning, then, is an insight into a situation that provides a way of engaging in the situation such that one or more goals related to meeting one’s needs may be achieved either directly or indirectly.

In biological terms the ultimate goal is to survive. Although this may seem a purely utilitarian purpose the efforts necessary to achieve it (attempts to meet the various survival needs) provide us with an infinite array of human experiences. According to nature the purpose of a life form may be to survive but in order to do that a life experienced as a human being must continually search for and engage in personally meaningful ways within the situations one encounters.

In general this process results in achievements that are meaningful to each unique individual. In this way each person contributes something personal and potentially precious to the vast tapestry of human culture. Of course some personal “contributions” may turn out not to be to the benefit of humankind in general but, just as in biological natural selection, social or cultural evolution will hopefully favour the more fruitful contributions on offer.

Whether or not personal contributions are helpful or harmful to humanity and the the world will ultimately depend on each contributing individual’s values*.

*How values arise out of an individual’s worldview is discussed in The Hopeful Mindset.