Meaning as a Primary Motive

By Brad Bell

What are we striving for?  What is our most important motivation?  These 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 challenging and fosters self-expression.


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 Communications.
Frankl, V. E. (1992). Man’s search for meaning:   An introduction to
 (4th edition).  Boston:  Beacon Press.