Do you ever feel lost in your professional life, or bored to death by a soul destroying repetitive job requiring little creativity? At moments like these, a person is forced to face the question of how they are contributing to society, how they are helping people or making a difference, and ultimately, if there is a purpose to their work. The meaning one brings to this suffering can mean the difference between well-being and despair.
Human beings are unique creatures because we require a conscious sense of purpose that goes beyond our individual selves. The key word is conscious. Although animals and insects serve purposes beyond themselves (e.g. ants serving the colony), these purposes are rooted in instincts. A worker-ant does not consciously reflect on its position, or consider changing occupations if plagued by an existential crises – the role is built into the organism. On the other hand, human beings are psychologically equipped with the capacity for reflection. This capacity to consider our role within society may seem liberating, but leaves us psychologically vulnerable if we find ourselves not filling a meaningful role.
The psychologist Victor Frankl states that humans are driven by the necessity to seek meaning in their lives by committing to a cause or purpose outside themselves. If an individual is unable to find a meaningful commitment, the suffering they experience leads to despair. If they are able to find a meaningful commitment, any suffering they experience will be met with resilience and the strength to preserver toward their goals. Frankl is a living example of this philosophy since he survived two concentration camps in Nazi Germany through his commitment to the goal of rewriting and publishing his book that was nearly finished before being taken away when he entered the camp. His book can be found here: Mans Search for Meaning.
Since this drive to find meaning is essential for human beings, according to Frankl, a lack of meaning leaves an “existential vacuum” whereby one is susceptible to a state of despair. In order to avoid this form of suffering, human beings do one of the following things: 1) conform to others and seek simple fleeting pleasures, or 2) demonstrate superiority over others. Both of these routes lead to unconscious suffering since they repress the existential vacuum produced by the lack of meaning. In other words, rather than feeling the pain, it is replaced by the temporary pleasure of stimulants, depressants, or the feeling of superiority. Working toward a meaningful goal is replaced by drugs, alcohol, excessive television-watching, internet games, or on the other hand, an obsession focused on success or acquiring power over others.
Since ‘meaning’ can only be found in our social environment, it is important that we strive to create rich social environments that allow individuals to come together to carry out a meaningful common cause. This might be a commitment to a goal as lofty as social justice, or as specific as being a good parent or having fulfilling work. In a world obsessed with individual pursuits of domination or fleeting pleasure we often find ourselves walking the line between these two. The individual alone cannot be blamed for using these methods to escape the feeling of suffering; our modern social environment is far from perfect. The rich meaning derived from a commitment to social goals can only be found through community. Fostering the sense of community, or the life in common pursuit of collective ends, is the main goal of sociology.