Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Man’s Search for Meaning Summary
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl describes his experience in Nazi concentration camps during World War II to discuss how we can all find meaning even in the face of unimaginable tragedy and suffering.
After discussing his personal story, Frankl introduces logotherapy, his school of psychotherapy contending that human existence is motivated by the search for meaning.
Man’s Search for Meaning is a must-read that will change your life. Above all else, Viktor Frankl shows us how we can choose our destiny and create meaning in everyday life.
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Part 1: Experiences in a Concentration camp
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. He observed that the people who survived the concentration camps did not allow their terrible suffering to rob them of their inner freedom.
Instead, they chose not to submit to the viciousness of their external circumstances and all the suffering that came from their environment. They preserved a spiritual freedom by reserving hope for something beyond their current lives, whether that was to reconnect with a loved one or in Viktor Frankl’s case, to share his psychological observations with the world.
“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.
Multiple paths to purpose
Most people live with two options — an active life of achievement and a passive life of enjoyment. An active life is about striving to realize inner or outer values through creative work. A passive life involves fulfillment via the experience of beauty, art, or nature.
But in the context of the Holocaust, men like Frankl were robbed of both the choice for active and passive modes of fulfillment. That did not mean their lives were devoid of deeper meaning. Instead, their meaning could be found in preserving an attitude that found meaning in suffering, even before they managed to be liberated prisoners.
When someone becomes unemployed, they often suffer from their provisional existence, a temporary deviation from the more well-defined path of an employed individual. This provisional existence can change one’s relationship to time, making days feel longer and filled with less meaning than the busy days of employment. But an unemployed man knows that such a provisional existence does not have to last. He can find a way back to employment.
The prisoners in concentration camps similarly had a provisional existence, however, there was a key difference. They did not if or when their lives would return to normal. There was no guarantee that they would survive or be able to return to their old lives, regardless of what they did with their time. This created a unique type of uncertainty, slowing the passage of time and leaving one with the option of hoping for a past that may never return or finding meaning in the suffering of the present and horrid reality.
“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.”
In the concentration camps, a person could no longer ask lofty questions about the meaning of life. Such inquiries would lead to existential despair. Life in the camps required a shift in one’s attitude toward life. That shift involved dropping any expectations about what life had to offer and instead orienting oneself toward thinking about what life expected from you.
While terribly unfair, men had to confront the reality of their responsibility to find answers to the awful worlds in which they lived. They had to find a way forward, even if that simply meant getting through the day and holding on to some idea about the meaning that can be found in surviving another day.
In modern life, the situation is not so grim. We have problems, dreams, and unanswered questions. And it is our your responsibility to find the answer to those problems, regardless of how unfair or unjust they may be.
Part 2: Logotherapy In A Nutshell
What is logotherapy?
Logotherapy is a future-focused therapeutical approach that focuses on finding meaning in one’s life. It is primarily concerned with creating meaning in the future and is therefore less retrospective and less introspective than other forms of psychoanalysis.
Logotherapy encourages a person to find the unique and specific form of meaning that only he can pursue and that fulfills the desire for significance in his life.
“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.”
The challenge of finding meaning in life can create existential frustration. Left unresolved, this existential frustration can result in neuroses stemming from existential problems, rather than from conflicts between drives and instincts.
While many doctors and psychologists attempt to solve these existential neuroses with pharmacological solutions, the truth is that drugs cannot solve existential concerns. Only solving the problem of helping a person find meaning in their lives can cure the existential despair that will wreak havoc on a person if left unattended.
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.
Many people take the approach of trying to eliminate the tension in life in hopes that they will find some sort of soothing equilibrium. But the pursuit of a tensionless state of existence is a fool’s errand. It is when we are striving and working toward a freely chosen and worthwhile goal that we feel that our life means something.
The existential vacuum
There is a private and personal form of nihilism (the belief that life has no meaning) that plagues and drives neuroses for people today.
Two changes in recent human history have led to more people experiencing existential distress. The first is that the prosperity of the modern era no longer requires man to simply follow his basic animal instincts to survive. Instead, man has choices in life that extend beyond the simple instincts built in his DNA. The second change is the decline in tradition. There is no uniform path for any person. We live in a world of near-infinite choices.
These changes have led to many people living in an existential vacuum. The existential vacuum manifests when people are unclear about what they want, and instead of figuring that out, they opt to do what other people do (conformism) or what other people wish them to do (totalitarianism).
Neither path will help the person cure this existential distress, which manifests in boredom, changes in libido, anxiety, and many other physical and emotional symptoms that plague the majority of modern people.
What is the meaning of life?
There is no general answer to the meaning of life. The meaning of life differs from person to person and from day to day. Finding meaning in life is about answering the question of how to find meaning in a given moment. Only an individual can answer that question for his own life. And it is his responsibility — no one else’s — to figure out that answer.
A useful way to live
“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
Essence of existence
A logotherapist helps a person widen and broaden his understanding of the world so that he can see and appreciate the full spectrum of potential meaning. The therapist helps the person see that he is responsible for finding and actualizing the meaning in his life. And that meaning is not found within the depths of his own psyche, but rather in the world around him.
3 ways to find meaning
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.”
There are 3 ways to find meaning in a given moment of life:
- By creating a work or doing a deed: You can find meaning in the process of achieving or accomplishing something that you deem worthy.
- By experiencing something or encountering someone: You can experience goodness, truth, beauty, nature, culture, or love for another human being.
- By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering: You can find meaning in the process of transforming a personal tragedy into a triumph. This is the process of post-traumatic growth that can help you emerge even stronger in the face of tragedy.
Anticipatory anxiety and 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.”
Anticipatory anxiety is the anxiety that something will happen in the future. For example, a public speaker may fear that they will sweat and embarrass themselves on stage. And in many cases, this fear increases the chances that the event will come to pass.
Paradoxical intention as the antidote to anticipatory anxiety.
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 (paradoxical intention), you may find that you ease right into sleep. You’ve short-circuited the problem by avoiding the anxiety that you will not fall asleep and replacing it with the idea that you will not sleep. Paradoxically, this ends up allowing you to fall asleep more freely.
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