Finding Meaning in Life when you’re Feeling Depressed


sad man

Years ago I read a fascinating book by Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist and World War II survivor of the Holocaust entitled, Man’s Search for Meaning. It was an incredibly moving autobiography of his experiences as a prisoner of war and his well-considered thoughts on the meaning of life.

How did people survive?

During and after his time as a prisoner, Frankl became interested in how it was that any of them survived for any length of time when they were so inadequately fed and clothed as well as made to live and work in extremely arduous conditions. He watched as some people quickly died and others continued to live against all odds. Frankl asked, why?


It seems understandable for someone living in those kinds of conditions to become bitter and vengeful, or to do anything and everything to survive—including working for the Nazis against other Jews. Although Frankl did interact with people like this, his philosophy was different:


“Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”


He firmly believed that no matter what happens to a person, s/he has freedom of choice to create something positive out of it—or not.

Finding Meaning in Life

An example in his book really stood out for me. One evening Frankl was standing inside his squalid quarters. He was starving to death, wearing ill-fitting shoes with holes in them, and bitterly cold. He noticed a knot of wood had come out of a wall plank to the outside. Frankl noticed light coming out of it and went over to explore. As he looked out the hole his breath was taken away by the most beautiful sunset. Despite all that he and others were enduring, he knew there was still beauty and goodness in the world. For that moment he understood there was still meaning in his life. He wrote:


“For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”


Frankl knew he was powerless to change the conditions he was living in and the hardships he had to endure. He also knew that whether he lived or was sent to the gas chambers was completely out of his hands. Instead of letting these realities destroy him, he chose to change himself by looking for what good he could find in others and how he could change his attitude for the better. He wisely said:


When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”


What about you?

Most of us don’t have to endure physical and emotional torture to the extent Frankl and other Jews did. But sometimes our circumstances or our lives can leave us feeling depressed. At times we may even feel like life is meaningless.


Suppose you decided to do something different. What would you do?


What would you do to try to feel better, even in the smallest of ways?


Suppose you paid attention to times in your day when you were feeling even a little bit better, what difference would it make in how your day goes?