Psychology of Meaning:
Meaning as a Primary Motive
What are we striving for? What is our most important motivation?
Theses are some of the most important questions we could ask. It is important
to gain an understanding of possible primary motives in psychology.
Frankl (1992) suggested that the search for meaning is a primary
motivation. This idea may be convincing for two reasons. First, for
something to be a primary motive it should be fairly general. In other words,
the primary motive should reflect a number of specific motives. Finding
meaning in life may reflect specific motives, such as the desire to express
creativity, be authentic, and have a purpose in life (see Bell, 2007). (1)
Second, for something to be a primary motive it should explain behaviors in
many situations, including behaviors in difficult and unpleasant situations.
Although behaviors in situations that are pleasant can be explained in many
ways, it is more difficult to explain why we would persist at something in
situations that are unpleasant with few external rewards. For example, we may
persist at a task even though we are experiencing failure and difficulty.
Moreover, we may keep a job even though the pay is low and the job is very
stressful . Some theories of motivation (e.g., based on incentives) may not be
able to adequately explain these behaviors. In contrast, these behaviors may
make sense if we consider that finding meaning in life is a primary motivation.
Some jobs and tasks may be highly meaningful even if they are significantly
unpleasant, difficult, or have few external rewards. For example, a job as an
executive director may not be high paying and may be very stressful.
However, it may be highly meaningful because of the potential to make a
lasting contribution to society. Moreover, a writer may persist at writing
articles and books even though he or she has received many rejections.
Writing may be very meaningful because it is challening and fosters
1. My book, Finding Meaning, (3rd edition) has information on seven
possible sources of finding meaning in life.
Bell, B. (2007). Finding meaning (3rd edition). Portland, Oregon: Blue Fox
Frankl, V. E. (1992). Man's search for meaning: An introduction to
logotheraphy (4th edition). Boston: Beacon Press.