Jung and Frankl on the Meaning of Life

March 17, 2014

Carl Jung and Viktor Frankl on the Meaning of Life

by Karen Fernandes

It is widely agreed among psychologists that a sense of meaning and ‘purpose’ is critical to a healthy psyche. Without a framework to give our lives purpose, we can find ourselves falling into an existential depression (often itself the catalyst for a mid-life crisis) or drifting aimlessly with no sense of direction and no interest anything life has to offer.

Unfortunately, applying meaning to a seemingly random and chaotic universe is not easy for us, and many of the big concepts are really beyond any chance of human comprehension. We don’t know where we came from (even though we might have beliefs on the matter), we don’t know why we were put here – we don’t even know if there will be any lasting consequences of our actions on Earth. As far as we’re aware we came from nothing and will return there when it’s over.

So where then does this crucial sense of purpose come from? How does it form in a healthy mind? How does someone decide what they believe and how they should spend their time in light of so little information and so much mystery? These are questions that many thinkers have attempted to answer with mixed results. Here we are going to examine the views of two key contributors: Carl Jung and Viktor Frankl, which demonstrate how this process of finding meaning fits into the complex puzzle of the human mind.

Jung’s Theories of Individuation

Individuation is a widely used term that essentially describes the psychological process of becoming ‘an individual’. Often this transformation is said to occur during the adolescent years and early-adulthood; when a young person will ‘try out’ different personalities and ways of life to see which fit them best. Most of us can remember a ‘gothic’ or ‘preppy’ phase in adolescence (probably while cringing) and will likely have moved between friendship groups and ideals as we gradually started to learn about ourselves and develop a concrete identity (parents of teenagers will likely be all-too familiar with this period of development). If all goes well though, the individual should come out of the process with a stable personality (even if their beliefs and interests change) and a sense of ‘who they are’ and what their role is in society.

Jung’s description of individuation however places this process a little later in life – often occurring during the latter half of life. He describes it as an experience during which the conscious and unconscious mind become integrated into a single well-functioning whole and views it as a critical part of our emotional journeys.

While Jung believed this process of individuation was an important and necessary one, it is nevertheless also described as a difficult and trying time as well. Though Jung himself never explicitly used the phrase, many have suggested that the mid-life crisis might be born out of this process – and intuitively many of us might have noticed how much more ‘at peace’ many people seem to be once they’ve passed middle age.

The Unconscious and Our Beliefs

It is through this process according to Jung, that the construct of the ‘self’ eventually emerges (after many trials during our earlier years). But how does this differ from the ‘self’ that we experience prior to individuation?

As mentioned, Jung believes that the phase ends once the unconscious has been accepted and integrated into the individual’s psyche. Of course we all know about the unconscious mind from Freud’s writing: it is comprised of the thoughts and feelings that our ego keeps from us, because they are too shocking, because they are too trivial, or because they are potentially damaging.

Jung also believed in another aspect of the unconscious though called the ‘collective unconscious’. This he describes as a well of ‘inherited’ knowledge that we share with everyone else on Earth (some of Jung’s writing alludes to a metaphysical origin of this connection, though many followers of his theories reject this element). It is from the collective unconscious that Jung believes ‘archetypes’ are born as well as the commonalities between folklore and legends in different cultures.

So by assimilating these aspects and parts of ourselves – the hidden corners of our mind and our psychological inheritance – Jung believes that we can achieve individuation and ultimately achieve a sense of peace and acceptance, and hopefully a sense of meaning that we can take with us too.

Parallels With Viktor Frankl and Logotherapy

Those who have studied any psychology will know that Jung’s ideas originally came from Freud’s early theories. It was Freud who invented the psychodynamic approach to psychology and who originally came up with the concepts of the unconscious and the ego and initially Jung was a student of his. As their relationship matured however, Freud and Jung had a falling out based on their differing ideas. Jung believed that Freud’s views focused too much on sex and on the early stages of development, while Freud was put off by some of Jung’s more esoteric beliefs. Whereas Freud believed that all motivation was driven by the libido, Jung credited the human psyche with more complexity: individuation is one example of how Jungian and Freudian approaches differ.

Likewise, Viktor Frankl was also a thinker who developed and progressed the ideas of Freud (as well as those of another contemporary and source of inspiration, Alfred Adler) and who also took some of the emphasis away from sexual impulses. Like Jung before him, Viktor believed that the search for meaning was one of the important driving forces in the human psyche and in fact placed it right at the centre of his theories.

It is from this idea that ‘logotherapy‘ was born – an approach to psychology that puts the search for meaning as the primary and most important drive in human psychology. The famous book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning‘ describes this idea in detail and also draws heavily on his own experiences during the Holocaust – when it was his quest for meaning helped him to survive such trying times. The term comes from the Latin ‘logos’ which translates as ‘meaning’ and is also the route of ‘logic’ and various ‘ologies’.

To Frankl, we exist in an ‘existential vacuum’ and require a sense of meaning (not necessarily religious) in order to cope and develop the human spirit, from which much of our behaviour (the joining of clubs, subscribing to religions, expression through clothing etc.) is derived. When this search for purpose is blocked, psychological problems occur.

Like Jung, Frankl also believed that this process makes progress as we develop and mature – and even defines maturity as a clear comprehension and acceptance of one’s purpose in life. The two theories can easily be reconciled into one description – with the individual spending their life trying out different roles in a quest for meaning, before eventually accepting themselves in their entirety and accomplishing a sense of calm via the process of individuation.

Other Theories

Of course these are both just theories, and there is currently no single widely accepted theory of ‘man’s quest for meaning’ among the scientific community. However, it is generally widely accepted today that this is an important universal drive, and there are many more theories from other psychologists and philosophers that reflect this view.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

One key example is Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’. This is an often-referenced list of human drives that are arranged hierarchically. At the bottom are our basic survival needs such as ‘shelter’ and ‘food’, while at the top are the elements of ‘self-actualisation’ (essentially analogous to individuation) which include things like morality, creativity, spontaneity and acceptance of facts. Jung and Frankl’s theories could almost be described as a gradual ascent to the top of this hierarchy with individuation serving as the critical point when actualisation is accomplished.

Likewise you can also see these theories reflected in the ideas of literary theorist ‘Joseph Campbell’ whose book ‘Hero With a Thousand Faces’ describes how every story regardless of culture or author really expresses the same journey. This ‘universal story’ involves a protagonist leaving their home on a quest for meaning and acceptance, encountering many Jungian archetypes along the way, before eventually returning home having grown into a fully actualised individual.


According to Jung, to Frankl and many other great thinkers, we are all on a ‘hero’s journey’. At the end of that journey lies self-acceptance, meaning and actualisation – but the adventure is just as important as the destination…


Image Credits: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stuckincustoms/2416357594/, http://www.flickr.com/photos/jariceiii/6797806427