Volunteering: A Path to Discover Meaning

If you’ve followed us at all, you know that we believe volunteering is transformative.  The simple act of helping others brings powerful benefits to one’s overall wellbeing.  Every now and then, we like to get a bit philosophical and ask why this is so.  Today’s post is a reflection on this question.


Our ‘Search for Meaning’

For this, we turn to a spiritual authority on the topic of the meaning of life – holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl.  Frankl published Man’s Search for Meaning in 1959 not so much as an account of his trials in the concentration camps, but rather as a reflection on the sources of strength needed to survive such an experience.  Frankl observed that those who held on to some purpose for living outside of Auschwitz were much more likely to see their way through, whereas those who had given up all hope for a future were the first to die.  As brutal as it was, Auschwitz re-affirmed one Frankl’s key ideas:  the striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in human beings.  More important than Freud’s core principal maximizing pleasure or Adler’s tenet of gaining power, meaning is what determines human flourishing more than anything else.

Frankl thought that there are three primary ways that human beings can find meaning in life.  As I highlight them below, I will suggest that volunteering as a practice is a way of live into all three.  Further, if Frankl is right that humans are fundamentally wired for meaning, then volunteering is a radically life enhancing practice.


Meaning in life is found in three ways

Creating a work or doing a deed 

How volunteering embodies the first way is fairly obvious.  Put simply, to become aware of what can be done about a given situation, and then to work toward addressing that need provides the doer with a sense of meaning.  Building houses for the under-privileged, tutoring at-risk youth, serving on the board of a nonprofit who needs your skillset, stocking the shelves at local food bank, etc. – these are all ‘works’ that address real problems that affect human beings and consequently provide meaning for the doer.

By encountering another human being

Martin Buber, another Jewish thinker and a kindred spirit to Frankl, deepens and expands Frankl’s ideas in his understanding of genuine encounter.  For Buber, human beings flourish as they live into their capacity to relate to others as persons and not objects.  Buber recognized that there is a way of relating that uses others as tools and conveniences for particular personal agendas and the impatient scratching of itches.  Practically speaking, society needs baristas to make coffee and cashiers to ring up groceries, but for Buber, merely regarding another for the role she plays is not where meaning is found.  Buber believed the human beings are capable of relating to others with deep curiosity, empathy and respect; it is this manner of relating that is vitally enriching to human beings.

Volunteering as a practice provides an opportunity for this more meaningful relating.  Certainly it’s true that if we are too attached to our plans to bring to change or the need for certain results, we run a great risk of turning people into objects and missing the discovery of meaning.  However, if we show up with no other intervening purpose but to behold respectfully the ones we are serving and to help where we can, there is a greater likelihood of making a tender connection.  And as we have noted elsewhere, it is this connection that makes volunteering so enriching to the volunteer.

By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

Frankl could never be accused of having a romantic view of suffering.  Understanding something of its depths and horrors, he thought that if the cause of suffering can be removed, it should be.  So while suffering has no meaning in and of itself, how we respond to it does.  Forces beyond our control can take away everything we hold dear except one thing: our freedom to choose how we will respond.  He writes, [a person] “may remain brave, dignified and unselfish, or in the bitter fight for self-preservation, he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.”[i]  Frankl concedes that doing the former is often very difficult, but the few that are able stand out as proof that human beings are capable of rising above their outer circumstances.

In principle, there is something powerfully nourishing about choosing to serve others when you are the one needing serving.  As such, volunteering is one of many possible ways that we can give tangible expression to being brave, dignified and unselfish in the face of loss.  When we suffer, we are tempted to turn in on ourselves and listen to our minds’ messages of defeat, which often makes things worse.  Volunteering has a way of disrupting our internal ruminations and drawing our attention toward something larger than ourselves, which provides a measure of comfort and relief.  In this way, volunteering can be a deliberate attempt to hold on to freedom and marshal the best of the human spirit.

Frankl’s three ways can be reflected upon with regard to many other aspects of one’s life (job, relationships, etc.), but if you are looking for a way to intentionally pursue meaning, volunteering is a great place to start. If you stick with it and find the right fit, you’ll be surprised at how your life changes.


About the Author:

Brent Croxton is a Program Developer for RealizedWorth, a leading employee volunteering and CSR consulting firm. Brent provides training and hands-on involvement in the design and implementation of outstanding and sustainable employee volunteer programs for businesses interested in leveraging their CSR engagement and differentiating their corporate culture. Find out more about Realized Worth at www.realizedworth.com
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[i] Frankl, Viktor. (1959). Man’s Search for Meaning.  Boston:  Beacon Press. p. x.

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