Unpacking the Meaning of Work


Consider a simple yet profound question: What does your work mean to you? Is it merely a task to be completed, or does it resonate with a deeper purpose in your life?

Viktor Frankl, a prominent Austrian psychiatrist and philosopher, grappled with these very questions, evolving them into a broader exploration of life’s meaning. Drawing from his harrowing experiences in Nazi concentration camps, he developed logotherapy—a form of psychotherapy that centres around the search for meaning and purpose. Through logotherapy, Frankl illuminated the idea that life’s essence can be found not just in joyous moments but also in love, work, and our attitude towards inevitable suffering. This pioneering approach underscores personal responsibility and has offered countless individuals a renewed perspective on fulfilment, even in the face of daunting challenges.

In this piece, we delve into the intricacies of Frankl’s teachings, exploring the symbiotic relationship he identified between work and our quest for meaning.

A Holistic Approach to Life and Work

In his seminal work, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ Viktor Frankl delved deeply into the multifaceted nature of human existence. He eloquently described the myriad pathways through which individuals uncover meaning. For Frankl, while work or ‘doing’ is undoubtedly a significant avenue for deriving meaning, it isn’t the only one. He emphasised the value of love, relationships, and our responses to inevitable suffering. Through this lens, he offered a panoramic view of life, advocating for a holistic perspective where meaning is not strictly tethered to our work but is intricately woven through all our experiences and interactions.

Progressing in his exploration, Frankl sounded a note of caution about the perils of letting work become an all-consuming end in itself. He drew attention to the risks of burnout and existential exhaustion when one’s sense of purpose is confined solely to one’s occupation or the relentless chase for wealth. To Frankl, an overemphasis on materialistic achievements could inadvertently lead individuals into what he termed an ‘existential vacuum’ – a state where life seems starkly devoid of purpose. He argued that in our quest for success, we must continually seek a deeper, more intrinsic purpose. Otherwise, we risk being blinded by life’s profound significance and richness beyond material gains.

Delving deeper into the realm of employment, Frankl confronted the psychological and existential challenges of unemployment. He noted that without the inherent structure and purpose provided by work, many individuals grapple with a profound sense of meaninglessness. This emotional and existential void often manifests in a diminishing sense of significance towards time, leading to dwindling motivation to engage wholeheartedly with the world. The ‘existential vacuum’ emerges again, casting its shadow and enveloping individuals in feelings of purposelessness.

Yet, Frankl’s observations were not merely confined to the challenges. He beautifully illuminated the resilience and fortitude of certain individuals, even in the face of unemployment. He showcased how, instead of linking paid work directly with purpose, some found profound meaning in alternative avenues such as volunteer work, creative arts, education, and community participation.

Frankl firmly believed that the essence of life’s meaning often lies outside the traditional realms of employment. To drive home this perspective, he recounted poignant stories, such as that of a desolate young man who unearthed profound purpose and reaffirmed his belief in his intrinsic value by preventing a distressed girl from taking her life. Such acts, as illustrated by Frankl, highlight the boundless potential for a meaningful existence, often discovered in genuine moments of human connection.

Work as an Avenue for Meaning and Identity

Viktor Frankl’s discourse on work transcended the common notions of duty and obligation. For him, work was more than a mere means to an end; it was a potent avenue to unearth meaning and articulate one’s identity. Frankl posited that when individuals align their work with their intrinsic identity—encompassing all its nuances and dimensions—they move beyond merely working to make a living. Instead, they find themselves working with a purpose.

This profound idea stems from his unwavering belief that our work provides us with a unique opportunity. Through it, we can harness our individual strengths and talents, channelling them to create a meaningful and lasting impact on the world around us.

In line with modern philosophical thought, which views work as a primary canvas for self-expression and self-realisation, Frankl also recognised its significance. He believed that work could serve as a pure channel, finely tuned to our unique skills, passions, and aspirations. This deep sense of accomplishment and fulfilment from one’s chosen profession, he asserted, is invaluable. However, Frankl also emphasised the importance of seeing the broader picture. While careers undeniably play a significant role in our lives, they are but a single facet in our ongoing quest for meaning.

Frankl reminds us that while our careers are integral to our lives, the quest for meaning isn’t imprisoned within their boundaries. He believed the core of true meaning emerges from our deep relationships, our natural capacity for empathy, and our virtues. These treasures of life, he asserted, can be manifested both within the confines of our workplace and beyond.

The True Measure of Meaning Through Work

For Viktor Frankl, our professional lives brim with potential for fulfilment. Yet, fulfilment wasn’t solely defined by accolades. Instead, it was about aligning our work with our deepest values and desires. It wasn’t just the milestones that mattered but how they resonated with our core beliefs.

Frankl’s logotherapy reshapes our perception of work, emphasising that even mundane tasks can hold significance when approached with intent. With the right mindset, every job becomes a step in our journey for meaning.

In Frankl’s writings, he weaves together tales of profound significance—a young man’s transformative act of kindness, a narrative not strictly tethered to work’s traditional realm. Yet, these stories anchor a timeless truth: In every endeavour, whether grand or humble, lies the potential for unparalleled meaning. Here, work isn’t just about designated roles—it becomes an evocative stage where profound moments play out. Beyond job titles and tasks, the depth, sincerity, and fervour we infuse into each act truly capture the essence of meaningful work.

Finding Fulfilment in Every Facet

Viktor Frankl’s profound insights into the human pursuit of meaning provide a distinctive lens through which we can evaluate both our daily tasks and life’s most pivotal moments. Through his exploration—whether addressing the ordinariness of daily life or the extremities of crisis—Frankl illuminated the profound interconnectedness of work and personal identity. He posited that our professions, while significant, are fragments of a vast tapestry that constitute human existence.

Navigating the journey of life requires continual adjustments to our perceptions of success and meaning. While our careers and professional achievements are significant, true fulfilment goes beyond these confines. It’s woven into our human experiences, the bonds we nurture, the challenges we face, and the joys we hold dear.

Frankl’s pioneering work in logotherapy urges us to approach life with intention and purpose. He beckons us to see the value in every moment, task, and human connection. As we delve into our careers and strive for success, aligning not just with outward accomplishments but with the very essence of who we are is vital.