How To Find A Meaning in Life- Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning

“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.”

A test consisting of 7,948 students at forty-eight colleges, was conducted by social scientists from Johns Hopkins University. They asked the students what they considered as the most important thing at that point in their lives. 16 percent checked ‘making a lot of money’ while 78 percent checked ‘finding a purpose and meaning to my life.’ Similarly, Frankl also observed that 60 percent of his American students showed a degree of inner emptiness i.e. existential vacuum –a sense of meaninglessness-.

When I sought to read ten biographies this year, I had nowhere to begin except Becoming by Michelle Obama. I was only able to get through the first chapter of the book before I put it down. In the meantime, I went to google and noted down ten of the the most recommended biographies in about thirty or so websites. Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is in the top three of this list. Click here if you want to see the autobiography book recommendations list.

The book essentially talks about our common desire to live a meaningful life and finding a why to our how i.e. a man who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. Here is a statement that set me straight on how I choose to spend my time: Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.

In his appeal, you might assume there is little to nothing you have in common with a man who was practically a slave at a Nazi concentration camp, but upon reading the book, you realize that Victor Frankl goes beyond just sharing his experiences at these camps. He highlights our shared human experience of wanting to find meaning in our lives and the collective existential vacuum crisis presently at hand.

Frankl says, “I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book an achievement and accomplishment on my part but rather an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.”

Man’s Search For Meaning is a book that has combined Frank’s own personal stories and experiences from working as a psychologist to being held captive in the concentration camps of Auschwitz for three years. From watching his father die by his side in these inhumane places to –upon holding the hope of seeing his wife if he survives the holocaust- survives it, only to find out that she, together with his unborn child, mother, and brother have all passed on from starvation, disease or gassing. The first section of the book consists of his own experiences in the torture chambers and his observations about a prisoner’s psyche as he goes through the motions of imprisonment, apathy and depersonalization from society after release.

We were at work in a trench. The dawn was grey around us; grey was the sky above; grey the snow in the pale light of dawn; grey the rags in which my fellow prisoners were clad, and grey their faces. I was again conversing silently with my wife, or perhaps I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.

“Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire…The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” This is the fuel that saw him survive the concentration camps.

He wanted to see his wife again –for love- “I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved,” – and he also wanted to be able to publish his logotherapy manuscript –dedication to something you love-. Those are the two ways to find a meaning to life. The third he says is, by the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering.  

Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances- to add a deeper meaning to his life.

The first 90% of people he was transported with to these camps were dead in the first few hours after arrival. The fact that he survived for three years in four concentration camps was a combination of his will to meaning, luck, inborn optimism, ability to find humor (another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation) even in degrading situations, brief moments of solitude, realization of inner freedom and a resolve not to commit suicide. “Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.”

“The thought of suicide was entertained by nearly everyone, if only for a brief time. It was born of the hopelessness of the situation, the constant danger of death looming over us daily and hourly, and the closeness of the deaths suffered by many of the others.”

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He maintains that life remains potentially meaningful under any given circumstances, even the most miserable kind you can think of and the same is seen even from examples of people like Marcus Aurelius -who was able to write Meditations during the Antonine plague. “Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil?” Even at the worst of times, we all have an inner freedom to choose our attitudes in any given situation. Frankl writes of the men and women in the camps who, even as they were starving, would give out their pieces of bread to another famished person. He cites examples of kindness he encountered coming from the very set of people that was simultaneously producing sadistic beings exceptionally good at the act of human torture.

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.”…After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.

Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to a situation. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” You cannot control what happens to you in life but you can always control what you feel and do about what happens to you. You might not have freedom from the conditions in your life but you have the freedom to take a stand towards the conditions.

“The majority of prisoners suffered from a kind of inferiority complex. We all had once been or had fancied ourselves to be ‘somebody.’ Now we were treated like complete nonentities. (The consciousness of one’s inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things, and cannot be shaken by camp life. But how many free men, let alone prisoners, possess it?) Without consciously thinking about it, the average prisoner felt himself utterly degraded.”

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

Victor Frankl survived despite all odds because he had a reason to live. He believed that there was a meaning to his suffering. He found the meaning and worked on it throughout his life until he died at 92. Twenty-nine universities awarded him honorary degrees and the American Psychiatric Association honored him with the Oskar Pfister Award, among twenty other awards he has won on his contribution to spirituality and psychiatry. He is also credited with the establishment of logotherapy as a psychiatric technique.

According to Frankl, we can summarize finding meaning through:

  1. Creating a work or doing a deed e.g. he held on to the hope that he would one day publish his manuscript. I interpret his meaning of life, which you can find in the fourth last paragraph of the post to be an honest to God good deed.
  2. Experiencing something (such as goodness, truth and beauty—by experiencing nature and culture) or, (encountering someone by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness—by loving him.)
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering – 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.

If you are interested in this article, you might also like The existential Vacuum and The Science of Well-Being

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.

Want to know about Frankl’s own meaning of life? Read on.

Frankl’s main aim was to humanize psychiatry, appeal to that humanity inside each man. He founded logotherapy, a method of treating in psychology that focuses on helping one find the meaning of their human existence and resolve their emotional conflicts through existential analysis. In the book, he goes further still to differentiate logotherapy from the usual psychotherapy and says;

“Logotherapy, in comparison with psychoanalysis, is a method less retrospective and less introspective. Logotherapy focuses rather on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future. (Logotherapy, indeed, is a meaning-centered psychotherapy.) At the same time, logotherapy defocuses all the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms which play such a great role in the development of neuroses. Thus, the typical self-centeredness of the neurotic is broken up instead of being continually fostered and reinforced.” He argues that to make a man aware of the meaning of his life can in fact go a long way in enabling one to overcome his or her neurosis.  He presented logotherapy more scientifically and more widely in his book Ärztliche Seelsorge: Grundlagen der Logotherapie und Existenzanalyse (The Doctor and the Soul) in the year 1945. 

Logotherapy in a nutshell:

1. Freedom of will

2. Will to meaning

3. Meaning of life

Under the second part of the book, which is where he gives us deeper insight into logotherapy, he also goes further and by explaining existential frustration, Sunday neurosis, noögenic Neuroses, the essence of existence, the meaning of life, love and suffering, life’s transitory quality, and what he calls the psychiatric credo.

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes—within the limits of endowment and environment—he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Other works go hand in hand in supporting Frankl’s work including Paul Thagard’s The Brain and The Meaning of Life by answering questions like: Why is life worth living? What makes actions right or wrong? What is reality and how do we know it? One can also review the philosophy of Bhagavad-Gita (Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada1978) that talks about how one can lift oneself from misery and agony by understanding one’s meaning of life on earth in a conversation between Lord Krishna and Arjuna. Alongside Man’s Search For Meaning, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse is also considered as one of the most spiritual works of the twentieth century. Keep in mind that spirituality does not necessarily denote religion.

There is also a section on tragic optimism that will appeal to any reader wishing to apply the principles of logotherapy in their own lives. The idea of tragic optimism is best seen in his own words where he states, “Let us first ask ourselves what should be understood by “a tragic optimism.” In brief it means that one is, and remains, optimistic in spite of the “tragic triad,” … a triad which consists of … (1) pain; (2) guilt; and (3) death. This … raises the question, How is it possible to say yes to life in spite of all that?  How … can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects? After all, “saying yes to life in spite of everything,” …presupposes that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable. And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive. In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation. … hence the reason I speak of a tragic optimism … an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.”

However limited, he insists, man always has a residue of freedom in him be he psychotic, neurotic or otherwise. In the book, he references other existential forerunners, quotes from humanistic and psychoanalytic schools, and excellent figurative examples. It’s amazing to find a book that not only challenges but expands your thinking much more than you had previously imagined a book to do. I do not exaggerate the least bit when I say this; for some, this book might very well alter the course of their lives. Millions have attested to that and continue to live as proof of the life-influencing power of literature. Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that should undoubtedly be re-read every few years.  

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Most people understand that to find a meaning in life, one must suffer. We suffer as a society at large because of the nihilism we have contended with i.e. life has no meaning. To be a nihilist requires a certain level of cynicism. The best way to explain a cynic would be to quote the American satirist H.L. Mencken who once wrote, “A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.”

Cynics have a predilection toward depression which is characterized by an existential dread present in people who fear their lives have no meaning. Hence, we should immunize ourselves against nihilism rather than inoculate ourselves with cynicism that only acts as a defense mechanism against our own nihilistic ways.

In no way does one have to suffer to discover the true meaning of their life. In present society, suffering is regarded as degrading as opposed to ennobling. Every situation, no matter how horrible, can be turned into a triumph because of human beings potential to find meaning in their suffering. However, suffering is not a prerequisite to happiness. Life never ceases to have a meaning because even suffering ceases to be so the moment it finds a meaning.

In no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering— provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political. To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.

Edith Weisskopf-Joelson, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia, contended, in her article on logotherapy, that “our current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.” We feel unhappy about feeling unhappy because we are unhappy and, as it stands, the single greatest cause of that unhappiness is existential dread.

One time during a lecture, Frankl was asked what the meaning of his life was. This was years after being released from camp. He wrote his answer on a piece of paper and asked the students around to take a guess. After some silence, one student said, “the meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning of theirs.” “That was it exactly,” Frankl said. “Those are the very words I had written.”

So, what then is the meaning of life? For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.

“Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. “Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique.”

He gives the example of posing the following question to a chess master: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There is no best move in the world in chess. The winner is determined purely by the situation of the game at that present moment -same to life’s meaning which maintains to be subjective.

Leave salvation of the soul to religion and healing of the soul to living out a meaningful life. Next on My Victor Frankl’s reading list is Yes To Life.

“It is what we make of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one man from another.”

-Nelson Mandela

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14 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ve read this book and it’s one of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read. I would recommend it to anyone because it really changed my outlook on life. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. KENDI KARIMI says:

      Same. I read an ebook version now my aim is to get a physical copy and reread it again.

      Thank you for reading. 🤗

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read this yet, but will. Frankl has something to teach that feels universal and at the core of what it is to be human. Thanks for your in-depth insights into the book. Happy Reading. ❤

    Like

  3. I read this book many years ago. It remains in my list of life changing books, that I think of often. Thank you for sharing. 📖💗

    Liked by 2 people

    1. KENDI KARIMI says:

      I was also greatly inspired by it. Thank you Michele. I appreciate it. 🤗

      Like

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