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Service as a pathway to meaning in life


 

SUMMARY: How does one find meaning in life? This question motivated the work of Dr. Viktor Frankl, a neurologist and psychiatrist who developed the groundbreaking concept of logotherapy, the pursuit of meaning in one's life. Dr. Bill Evans of the Psychology Department has made it his life's work to answer the questions posed by Frankl.


By: Brett Seekford '16
Creative Services

Conference in Austria

How does one find meaning in life? This question motivated the work of Dr. Viktor Frankl, a neurologist and psychiatrist who developed the groundbreaking concept of logotherapy, the pursuit of meaning in one’s life. Frankl’s time in an Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust led him to develop tools for finding purpose despite the horrors of his imprisonment. His contributions to the field of psychology continue to be studied today, and logotherapy provides an avenue through which many researchers study the human experience.

Dr. Bill Evans of the Psychology Department has made it his life’s work to answer the questions posed by Frankl, building on the tenants of logotherapy. Evans’ years as a Boy Scout helped him see the value of service, which led to an exploration of the spiritual benefits of service learning during his graduate education.

Since coming to JMU in 1994, Evans has continued to work in this area. Most significantly, he gathered a team of graduate and undergraduate students for a three-year project questioning what kind of service contributes to a person’s sense of purpose. Last month, their findings were presented at a conference sponsored by the University of Vienna.

To conduct their research, Evans and his students compiled a set of questions which they sent out to JMU students in the form of an electronic survey. They received responses which indicated students found meaning from their service regardless of whether it was performed voluntarily, involuntarily, or collectively with a campus group or class. These findings supported Frankl’s concept of logotherapy.

Through his connections as a board member of the Viktor Frankl Institute, Evans was able to submit their research for a presentation at the 3rd International Congress on Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. Once their work was accepted, Evans invited his students to accompany him abroad. Several students went to Austria with Evans to take part in the conference from September 22-25.

Cassidy Gonzalez (’16, ’19), a graduate student in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, started working with Evans during her junior year as an undergraduate. Interested in the connection between altruism and self-worth in the student population, she became involved with this research. Her responsibilities included developing survey questions and revising scholarly publications.

She travelled with Evans and the group to Austria, presenting their research and answering several questions after they finished. “The audience seemed very interested in our results,” Gonzalez said. “Along with the research, this conference helped me see how impactful service can be on a larger level, and I’d like to study the best methods for implementation of service components in the classroom going forward.”

Katie Sergent (’16), on the other hand, just joined the project this semester as an undergraduate student. Connected with Evans through her advisor, Sergent hoped to gain research experience as she prepares to pursue an advanced degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She had to catch up on the studies performed, but she quickly became acquainted with the work and participated as a co-presenter at the conference.

“Being selfless to a degree helps you better understand your purpose in life,” Sergent said. “By helping people in the future with their mental health issues, I think I can find purpose in my life and career. My planned career is a lot like a form of service learning.”

The conference gathered 500 people from roughly 40 different countries. “I think this work is transportable to the world,” Evans said. “It’s relevant to all other countries. It shows service work worldwide and on a university level is worthwhile and meaningful.”

“Part of our mission at JMU is to help students lead meaningful lives,” Evans said. “We’re one of the top universities in the country getting students engaged with the community. Our study is a validation of the goals JMU hopes to achieve.”

Published: Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2018

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