Man's search for meaning

“Man’s search for meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl

The past week, I’ve found time to read two books: “Man’s search for meaning” and “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”. Both of them had themes centered around life, its meaning and happiness. Of course, they were completely different from one another, but, I found that they complemented each other fairly well. In fact, I learned about one of the books through the other.

Although I liked both, I found “Man’s search for meaning” more compelling. It was written in 1946 by Viktor Frankl, a jewish neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust. The rest of the post will be devoted to this particular book. I might write a review of the second one later this week.

“Man’s search for meaning” – 1st part

The book is divided in two. The first section details Frankl’s own experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. He describes the events that happened, his thoughts and also tries to come up with an explanation as to why certain prisoners managed to cope with life at the camp while others couldn’t. Contrarily to Freud who believed that pleasure is man’s main drive in life, Frankl claimed that instead, it is to find meaning. According to the latter, the prisoners who had a purpose also tended to survive longer. For Frankl, the hope of one day re-writing his unpublished book on Logotherapy, that had been taken away from him when entering the camp, was enough to bring a sense of meaning to his life. Additionally, the hope of seeing his wife again kept him sane through the horrors of the camp. 

“…when in a camp in Bavaria I fell ill with typhus fever, I jotted down on little scraps of paper many notes intended to enable me to rewrite the manuscript, should I live to the day of liberation. I am sure that this reconstruction of my lost manuscript in the dark barracks of a Bavarian concentration camp assisted me in overcoming the danger of cardiovascular collapse.”

Logotherapy – 2nd part

The second section revolves around Frankl’s personal theory called Logotherapy. The theory is a summary of what Frankl tried to demonstrate in the first part of the book: finding meaning in life is our primary driving force.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” is a relevant quote by Nietzsche that Frankl refers to on several instances in the book. The three “whys” that come up are:

  • Work
  • Love
  • Dignity in suffering

The aspect that I found particularly interesting was how one can find meaning and purpose in suffering. Of course, Frankl doesn’t advocate for suffering. It is in no way necessary to suffer to find meaning in life. However, in situations where suffering is unavoidable, Frankl believes that choosing to suffer bravely can become one’s purpose. Here are two quotes from the book that I find relevant:

“Most men in the concentration camps believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.”

“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.”


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