In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl recalls his harrowing experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz, Dachau and other Nazi concentration camps.
Despite the atrocities described, the central message in this book is one of hope. Frankl discusses the importance of finding meaning in one’s life, no matter the circumstance. He quotes Nietzsche in saying, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
The book is divided into two sections. In the first half, Frankl focuses on his personal experiences; he describes the horrifying conditions in the camps and how these were reflected in the mind of the average prisoner. In the second, he outlines the practice of Logotherapy – a psychotherapeutic approach he founded following his release.
As the Library Journal wrote, “[Man’s Search for Meaning is] an inspiring document of an amazing man who was able to garner some good from an experience so abysmally bad.” It is truly a must-read.
During his three years in concentration camps, Frankl was subject to, in his own words, soul-destroying mental conflict. He recounts how “the sufferers, the dying and the dead, became such commonplace sights to him after a few weeks of camp life that they could not move him anymore.”
He observed as many of his fellow prisoners, following a loss of faith, would spiral into mental and physical decay. “Once lost, the will to live seldom returned,” he notes.
A particularly devastating example is described when an inmate died the day after he was told he would be liberated, in an earlier prophetic dream. Frankl writes, “to all outward appearances, he had died of typhus.”
However, in the face of these horrific circumstances, Frankl also notes examples of heroic behaviour; for example, the equally famished inmate giving away his last piece of bread. With this, he writes that man is ultimately self-determining and “the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.”
This passage highlights an incredibly empowering lesson which, in essence, is that our attitude is a choice. Certainly, it is not always easy to change – in the circumstances described, it is simply unimaginable – but Man’s Search for Meaning provides a moving testimony to this fact.
Frankl argues that the search for meaning is the primary motivational force in one’s life and therefore the driving force behind his therapeutic practice.
Thus, unlike other forms of psychotherapy, Logotherapy is described as less retrospective and less introspective. Instead, the approach is focused on the patient’s future.
Frankl describes mental health as being centred in “what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.” He notes that, in our modern culture, these parameters have become increasingly blurred, resulting in ‘the existential vacuum’ – simply, a sense of meaninglessness and boredom in one’s life.
To address this, he notes the importance of a more extrospective search, rather than within one’s own psyche. He writes, “the more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”
According to Frankl, there are three distinct ways to find meaning in life. These are through:
1. Creations and actions
Through an active life, one can find meaning through achievement and accomplishment. Essentially, this approach involves having measurable goals to work towards and embarking on a journey to see them through.
2. Experiences and connections
Secondly, one may find meaning through the experiences life has to offer – for example in nature and in culture; in truth and in beauty; or simply, in the friendships and connections made along the way.
3. Attitude towards suffering
Lastly, there is an ability to find meaning through unavoidable suffering. In such a scenario, Frankl suggests there lies an opportunity for man to grow spiritually beyond himself as a true test of inner strength. He notes, “life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable.”
According to Frankl, ‘tragic optimism’ is the ability to remain positive despite life’s ‘tragic triad’ of pain, guilt and death. He proposes three powerful mental frames:
Man’s Search for Meaning is a profoundly inspiring memoir. Overall, the text teaches us how to better deal with our own trials and tribulations, from a man who, very likely, endured far worse.
In one instance, Frankl writes, “The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent”
In another, he reiterates the need to take complete ownership over one’s own life, “No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny. No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response.”
The views expressed in the book have been described as some of the most important contributions in the field of Psychotherapy since the days of Freud, Adler and Jung.