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Unread January 31st, 2005, 06:04 PM
Isobel Collins Isobel Collins is offline
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Default 'What Life Could Mean to You' a review.

‘What Life Could Mean to You’

by Alfred Adler (1931).

‘What Life Could Mean to You’, reads like a contemporary psychological text. The majority of Adler’s ideas and theories are either used or at least considered relevant today.

The book encompasses a number of levels or domains for Adler’s analysis. These can be seen throughout each chapter where we are given examples of broad social (even planetary) levels, of intra-personal levels (that which is going on inside the individual between mind and body) and of inter-personal levels depicting the inseparableness of interactions between individuals and the rest of society. By the very fact that the levels are so intertwined we are clearly shown Adler’s understanding for the complexities of human life.

The book begins rather amusingly on the broad social/planetary level with one of the underlying curiosities of human kind condensed to ‘The Meaning of Life’. Here, Adler concentrates life into three main tasks and attributes the meaning we find in our lives to the self-measurement of our ability toward these tasks. In brief the tasks concern first our ability to live and be useful upon the planet earth, second our ability to co-operate and have fruitful relationships with other humans and thirdly, our ability to co-operate as two sexes in love, marriage and family life from equal positions of worth. According to Adler the three tasks of life can only be accomplished where a firm foundation of social interest has been developed.

Adler is very positive about human kind, though as we move further into the book he shows through numerous examples how we come to form obstacles and restrictions to our life tasks during childhood. Adler believed that we all begin our lives with feelings of inferiority. Through our interactive experiences with others we strive to overcome these and form coping strategies for life, which Adler called life-styles. A life-style aims to achieve feelings of superiority for the individual. Adler’s concept of superiority jars somewhat with our use of the word today, which depicts a selfishness contradicting his notions of co-operation and equality. However, for Adler superiority is not putting yourself above or ahead of others, but ultimately finding your place in the world and feeling a sense of belonging there. In contrast to Freud’s sexual and instinctual drive theory, Adler argued our strivings for superiority to be the fundamental drive for mankind. In order to achieve life fulfilment, Adler said that we must learn the skills of co-operation in all areas of life. His theory of social interest supports this and by its nature is woven into the very fabric of human life.

In the latter part of the book Adler takes us through the areas of adolescence, crime, work, friendships and love and examines the negative repercussions of mistaken life-styles and what happens when there exists a lack of social interest.
Here he explores a variety of techniques such as the analysis and exploration of early memories, dreams and birth orders, for revealing particular areas of experience that have created these faults.

Personally I can identify strongly with Adler’s concept of life-style, it’s formation in childhood and how it goes on to permeate all aspects of our life. When I was a child my older sister was very ill with pneumonia and our mother was distracted from me by my sisters care and attention. As daughter number two, I began to be “mummy’s little helper” in order that some sort of praise and attention should come my way. I also felt that I was a better and nicer person when being of help and I suppose Adler might have argued that here were sown the seeds of my social interest. I have now become a mother myself and mostly enjoy the work of motherhood. I have always felt rewarded by work that involves helping others and now aim to cement this part of my personality, my life-style in working as a counsellor. To me however, my initial reason for this behaviour now seems rather selfish – to gain attention and praise. Adler does not seem to identify the positives that appear to stem from these somewhat negative beginnings, though does recognise the abilities of humans to develop healthier variations of life-style.

Overall, ‘What Life Could Mean to You’ communicates a message of positive encouragement. Adler empowers the reader with an insightful depth to personal responsibility. He does however come across as viewing the world in rather simplistic terms that appears to contradict his obvious understanding of human complexities and differences. This may occur because he wants to show by clear examples and because of the books contemporary nature it is easy to forget how times have changed since it was formulated and written and yet we can still appreciate the relevance of Adler’s ideas and theories today. Developing from his work and other advocators of individual psychology a plethora of psychological approaches and theories have emerged, including those of humanistic focus, experientialism and existentialism. If mankind’s awareness of him and herself, others and concern for the planet we live upon continues to grow these co-operative ways of looking at ourselves, our lives and our ‘meaning of life’ are valuable if we wish to develop as a successful and happy race. Adler has demonstrated through this book just what life could mean to us as long as we remain open minded to our choices throughout life.


ADLER, A., (1931), What Life Could Mean to You, One World Publications Ltd. Oxford, England.

SAPSFORD, R. (2001), Issues in Social Psychology, (Chap 2, Domains of Analysis), The Open University, Milton Keynes.
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