Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Summary

This book changed my life. In it, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl reflects on his experience in the camps and discusses logotherapy, a school of thought contending that humans are motivated by the search for meaning, not power or pleasure. Frankl shows us that no matter what happens in our lives, we have the ability to choose our response and find meaning in our suffering.

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Key Takeaways

You have a choice

“…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

If there is one takeaway from Viktor Frankl’s work, it’s that you have a choice to respond to anything that happens to you in life. Your life is not determined by the things that happen to you; it’s determined by how you respond to those things.

Viktor teaches this principle by telling the story of how he survived and endured unimaginable tragedies during the Holocaust and came out on the other end with an impressive mental fortitude and ability to find meaning in his experiences. This principle has guided me through adversity in my own life.

Suffering

“Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”

“In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

Meaning can transform suffering. In attributing meaning to your suffering, you loosen its grip on your mind and body. You start to see that while the suffering is unpleasant, it has a purpose that makes this unpleasantness worth bearing.

Take responsibility

“Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

If you have a problem in your life, it’s your responsibility to find the answer to that problem or a suitable path forward.

Existential frustration

“Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease. It may well be that interpreting the first in terms of the latter motivates a doctor to bury his patient’s existential despair under a heap of tranquilizing drugs. It is his task, rather, to pilot the patient through his existential crises of growth and development.”

For many people, including myself, it’s difficult to find meaning in this world. This difficulty in finding meaning creates existential distress. But our solution to this existential problem is too often to pump people with drugs that numb the mind or have serious side effects. Drugs won’t cure existential concerns, but a meaningful path of growth might.

Tension in mental health

“Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.”

The tension between who you are today and who you want to become can create stability in your life. The gap is something that motivates you to do things that will help close the gap. And the pursuit of closing the gap brings meaning to your life.

Paradoxical intention

“In other words, the hyper-intention to fall asleep, arising from the anticipatory anxiety of not being able to do so, must be replaced by the paradoxical intention not to fall asleep, which soon will be followed by sleep.”

If you have trouble sleeping, it’s likely that your troubles will be worsened by your anxiety about your inability to sleep. In trying too hard to sleep, you’ll make it more difficult to sleep. But if instead, you decide that you will not sleep, you’ll find that leaning into your sleep problem actually helps you sleep with greater ease. This is paradoxical intention at work.

Three avenues to meaning

“As logotherapy teaches, there are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or by doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love…Most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself.”

You need to find meaning in your life, and there are three ways to do so: through work, through love, and through personal growth.

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