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Discovering Meaning Through the Lens of Gratitude

Experience life as a gift.

Key points

  • No expression or act of gratitude, no matter how small, is ever wasted.
  • There is a symbiotic relationship between gratitude and meaning.
  • Gratitude comes in many forms.
John Hain/Pixabay
Source: John Hain/Pixabay

Because life naturally has its ups and downs, joys and sorrows, good times and not-so-good times, it is not always easy to be thankful for what comes our way. Having an appreciative mindset in the face of life’s many formidable challenges may seem counterintuitive, if not impossible, for many people. Finding meaning during such trying times can be especially difficult as well. Importantly, the world-renowned psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl, M.D., Ph.D., taught us that there is a “seed of meaning” in every moment of our lives.1

I am convinced that, in the final analysis, there is no situation that does not contain within it the seed of a meaning.” –Viktor E. Frankl2

Dr. Frankl also famously espoused that the search for meaning is the primary intrinsic motivation of human beings, which is both a key attribute of our innate humanness and a unique quality that distinguishes us from other living entities. It is against this characterization of the human condition that “gratitude,” both as a concept and in practice, becomes a useful lens through which the path to meaning can be viewed and brought into sharper focus, no matter what our personal circumstances may be.

Gratitude, in short, is fundamental to finding meaning in life, work, and society. Among other things, it provides a beacon for guiding the search for meaning as well as is an important driver for discovering the “seeds” of meaning, as Frankl wisely advised us, that lay along our life path.

Much like author Lewis Carroll’s fictional character Alice who was able to find light at the end of the rabbit hole by looking through the looking glass, everyone can find meaning by looking through the lens of gratitude. Realizing this meaning potential, however, requires the conscious exercise of both free will and intentionality. Gratitude, in this meaning-centric context, can be viewed as consisting of three dimensions: choice, virtue, and spirit. Each of these dimensions, moreover, influences and guides the human quest for meaning in ways that have deep philosophical and psychological roots.

Gratitude as Choice

Simply put, gratitude can be understood as the human capacity to make choices. In this connection, choice can be exercised in three ways: in our attitude (i.e., mindset), in our expression (i.e., verbal and nonverbal cues), and in our behavior (i.e., actions).

Insofar as choice of attitude is concerned, Frankl famously espoused that “Everything can be taken from a man, but…the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”3 In our book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, the title of which is instructive on this very issue, there is a short passage that, although it cannot be attributed to Frankl directly (and its original source remains anonymous), certainly is consistent with and reaffirms his essential teachings:

Between stimulus and response, there is space.
In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our happiness.
4 (Emphasis added)

It is interesting to note that the life lessons in these three lines can be traced to the ancient Greek philosophers. Epictetus, for example, has been quoted as espousing the view that “It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” When answering life’s call, gratitude can be conceptualized and practiced as a choice in the three ways mentioned earlier.

In other words, gratitude is not simply a manifestation of the freedom to choose our attitude, it is also embedded in the way we choose to express it and, importantly, in how we choose to behave in response to life’s challenges and opportunities. It should go without saying that only through our actions are we able to demonstrate that we truly mean what we feel, what we think, and what we say.

Gratitude as Virtue

Perhaps former U.S. president John F. Kennedy articulated this notion best when he proclaimed, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”5 Gratitude, therefore, can be understood not only as the capacity to make choices but also the capacity to forge a way of living consistent with what the ancient Greek philosophers referred to as the “good life” or what I call the meaningful life.

Aristotle, for example, believed that the good life is one of virtue and morality, one where people strive to be kind and ethical in their actions. He proposed that “virtue consists more in doing good than in receiving it, and more in doing fine actions than in refraining from disgraceful ones.”6 It is against this philosophical backdrop that “gratitude as virtue” takes shape, relates to the guiding beliefs we have that form our character, and becomes a way of living with meaning. Indeed, according to the Roman statesman and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”

Gratitude as Spirit

Gratitude, in its ultimate form, can be described and understood as a manifestation of self-transcendence—that is, as the unique human capacity to extend beyond oneself. This is one of the core principles of Frankl’s System of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis and frames the basis of what he referred to as “ultimate meaning.”7

The capacity to extend beyond oneself, according to Dr. Frankl, is one of our unique traits as human beings and is the essence of our humanness. Being human basically means focusing on and relating to someone or something other than oneself. Recognizing the abstract nature of self-transcendence, Frankl used the human eye as an analogy.8 Like the healthy human eye, we also have the potential to experience self-transcendence. And it is through this self-transcendent experience—of extending beyond ourselves—that we are able to enter the spiritual realm of meaning.

This unique aspect of our humanness, however, is also a matter of choice. What we learn from Frankl’s life and work is that we all have the opportunity to realize this potentiality. In other words, we can choose to focus on ourselves and, in some way, be selfish, or we can extend beyond ourselves in service to others. The potential to do either is always within us, but Frankl believed that only by extending beyond ourselves will we experience ultimate meaning. In the final analysis, it is by looking through the lens of gratitude as spirit that the path to meaning and the good life, the meaningful life, comes into our view.


*Based on a lecture delivered online for the VIII International Congress of Logotherapy, organized by the Croatian Association of Logotherapy—LOGOS and Croatian Center for Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, Stubičke Toplice, Croatia, May 14, 2023.

1. Pattakos, A. and Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl's Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd ed. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, p. 209.

2. Frankl, V.E. (1997). Recollections: An Autobiography. New York: Plenum, p. 4.

3. Frankl, V. E. (1992). Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, 4th ed. Boston: Beacon Press, p. 75.

4. Pattakos, A. and Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl's Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd ed. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, p. x.

5. John F. Kennedy, “Proclamation 3560—Thanksgiving Day, 1963,” November 5, 1963.….

6. Pattakos, A. and Dundon, E. (2015). The OPA! Way: Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life & Work. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, p. 112.

7. Pattakos, A. and Dundon, E. (2017). Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl's Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, 3rd ed. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Chapter 9.

8. For an explanation of this analogy, see: Haddon Klingberg, Jr. (2001). When Life Calls Out to Us: The Love and Lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl. New York: Doubleday, p. 289.

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