by Marta Oko-Riebau, MA

Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is one of my favorite books of all time. The title itself describes a state that many of us are just too familiar with. It is a state of dissatisfaction, emptiness, a void that is there even though seemingly all of our needs are satisfied. Life is not hard – it is not presenting you with any challenges, you have a good job, your relationship works well, and you even attempt to include some entertainment into your schedule by socializing with your friends, traveling, or picking up a hobby. But something is still missing. Seemingly everything is fine and the lightness associated to the lack of problems should feel good. But it doesn’t, and it feels like something very important is missing. Viktor Frankl summarized this state of unbearable lightness in a simple statement, “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”

Attaching Some Weight to Our Existence
At first glance it may seem crazy to complain about lightness in one’s life. After all, there are so many people who suffer in the world and who would give everything they own for a moment of such lightness.  The problem with lightness, though, is that it is not linear in relationship to life satisfaction – in other words, the lack of problems does not guarantee happiness. There is a level of comfort and peace we all seek in our lives, but for many people, a complete lack of challenges is as dangerous as an overwhelming amount of challenges. Constantly living in a state of survival can be as detrimental as living in a state of meaningless restfulness and comfort. Tomas, the main character of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” lived in such a state of comfortable emptiness most of his life. To fill that emptiness he continuously (and unsuccessfully) gets involved in new affairs with different women. His life changes drastically when he meets a woman who fills the existential void. That void is filled up with love, but also suffering, pain, jealousy, and sacrifices. Even though it seems like a high price to pay to get rid of the intolerable lightness of his being, it fills his life with meaning that is priceless. Why is having meaning in life that important? Why would we want to get rid of our comfortable existential lightless on behalf of some meaning that obviously can cost us a lot? Again, to quote Viktor Frankl, who focused his work on meaning, the answer is simple, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

Successful ≠ Meaningful
I think that the reason we don’t often times think about the meaning of our life is because meaning does not seem like a basic need. When we look at Maslow’s pyramid of needs, the most important needs that we have to satisfy in order to survive are at the bottom of the pyramid, and they include physiological needs (such as food, water, sleep, sex), and safety and security needs. Meaning is usually attached to higher needs that we often neglect, because they are not necessary for survival. Meaning can come with love and belonging (like in Tomas’ case), achievement, passion, creativity, morality, or a sense of mission. Meaning gives the “why” to our existence, whereas lower level needs do not. If we only focus on satisfying our lower needs we are not living a meaningful life, even though it may seem like a successful life in our society. An example of this would be making good money to be able to afford nice things, or staying fit to be able to attract others and satisfy our drives

Individualized Nature of Meaning
It all may sound good in theory, but for those of you who may suspect you lack meaning in life, the question may be, “How do I find meaning?” As with all important issues in life, there is no simple answer. According to Frankl, there are three main ways in which people find meaning in life:

  • Creating a work or doing a deed
  • Experiencing something or encountering someone
  • Facing a fate one cannot change and rising above oneself by turning tragedy into a triumph

These categories are very broad and they cover most of the things that bring meaning to people’s lives. Some examples include raising a child, cherishing a relationship, creating works of art (e.g. writing, painting, cooking, singing), committing to a cause, helping others, etc. The last category, facing a fate that one cannot change, may seem very challenging, because meaning in life is often times associated with suffering. Frankl, himself a survivor of a concentration camp, turned his immense suffering into a mission of Hope and Meaning. To many people, suffering is too high a price to pay for meaning. However, suffering as a way of finding meaning does not apply to people who actively seek it, but rather to people who were faced with a serious challenge and were able to grow because of it. 

In summary, meaning is the response to the unbearable lightness of being. It is what attaches valuable weight to our existence. Meaning is highly individualized and it takes many forms: different things bring meaning to different people.  The final thought on meaning comes from Frankl’s work: “The meaning of life is to give life meaning.”

All quotes come from Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Marta Oko-Riebau, MA is a therapist at Maria Droste Counseling Center.