Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Book Summary

What is the meaning of life? To answer that, late Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl recounted his experiences as a prisoner of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. His conclusion? It’s up to us to define life’s purpose for ourselves.

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Notes and Quotes

Foreword by Harold S. Kushner

“Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.”

Preface to the 1992 Edition

Mans Search For Meaning Summary

Frankl never intended for this book to make him famous. In fact, he wanted to publish it anonymously when it was first released.

“Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product is one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run – in the long run, I say! – success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”

What Frankl tells students about the pursuit of success.

Experiences in a Concentration Camp

The book tries to answer one question: “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average person?”

“I had intended to write this book anonymously, using my prison number only. But when the manuscript was completed, I saw that as an anonymous publication it would lose half its value, and that I must have the courage to state my convictions openly.”

Three Phases of an Inmate’s Mental Reactions to Camp Life

  • The period following his admission.
    • Shock is the symptom that characterizes the first phase.
  • The period when he is well entrenched in camp routine.
    • This was characterized by a numb reaction to the horror that happened in front of them.
    • “Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care any more, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions, and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings.”
  • The period following his release and liberation.
    • “Psychologically, what was happening to the liberated prisoners could be called ‘depersonalization.’ Everything appeared unreal, unlikely, as in a dream. We could not believe it was true.”

Delusion of Reprieve: A psychiatric condition in which a condemned person, “immediately before his execution, gets the illusion that he might be reprieved at the very last minute.”

Most Jews brought to concentration camps were executed upon arrival.

  • “Those who were sent to the left were marched straight to the crematorium. This building, as I was told by someone who worked there, had the word ‘bath’ written over its doors in several European languages. On entering, each prisoner was handed a piece of soap, and then – but mercifully I do not need to describe the events which followed.”

Despite the horrible conditions, prisoners managed to adapt. The ones who survived were able to endure a lot (horrible sleeping conditions and working conditions, etc.)

Suicide was commonly considered by prisoners. A typical way to do this was by running into the electrical barbed-wire fence.

Death by malnutrition was frequent.

  • “This body here, my body is really a corpse already. What has become of me?”

Frankl discovered a truth, “a final wisdom by so many thinkers” while in the concentration camp.

  • “The truth – that life is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.”
  • “Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: 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 contemplation of his beloved.”
  • “Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.”
    • He didn’t know if his wife was alive, but he didn’t need to know. What mattered was “the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved.”

“Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.”

“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

At one point, prisoners in the camp where Frankl was resorted to cannabilism.

As their time at the camp came to an end and the battlefront of the war came to them:

  • “Many weeks later we found out that even in those last hours fate had toyed with us few remaining prisoners. We found out just how uncertain human decisions are, especially in matters of life and death.”
  • He noted that prisoners from another camp who thought they were being shuttled to freedom were actually transported then locked in huts and burned to death.

Frankl notes that situation and environment aren’t the only factors that influence a person’s behavior:

  • “The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige or spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
  • “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 the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

For life to have meaning, then there must be meaning in suffering.

  • “Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life can not be complete.”
    • “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up god cross, gives him simple opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”
      • Frankl notes that only a few prisoners were able to do this, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or unattainable for everyone. Those few people who took the challenge are “sufficient proof that man’s inner strength may raise him above his outward fate.”

“A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found his self occupied with retrospective thoughts.”

  • Frankl notes that he did point out the benefits of looking back in the past to help make dealing the horrors of the present more manageable. “But I’m robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist.”

Frankl points out that people had two choices:

  • Turn their lives of daily survival at the camps into “inner triumph”
  • “Ignore the challenge and simply vegetate”
    • Most people did this.

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

“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”

The death rate in the weeks between Christmas 1944 and New Year’s 1945 increased in the camp. One doctor’s opinion was that this was because people lost hope when they weren’t released on those dates.

  • “As the time drew near and there was no encouraging news, the prisoners lost courage and disappointment overcame them.”
  • “We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.
    • Needed to stop asking about the meaning of life but rather answer the question themselves on a daily and hourly basis. “Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct.
    • “Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”
      • Everyone’s lives are different so there’s no one sweeping general definition of what life is supposed to mean.
        • “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.”
          • Some situations require action to shape what happens next, other times it need contemplation first.

“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he hears his burden.”

“Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a while it would be easy to condemn.”

Four reasons why Nazi camp soldiers allowed such horrible behavior:

  • There were sadists who took things to the extreme.
  • These sadists were selected to do the hard work that required zero empathy toward to the prisoners
  • Over the years, the feelings of the guards had been dulled by the exposure to the horrors of the Concentration camps.
    • “These morally and mentally hardened men at least refused to take active part in sadistic measures. But they did not prevent others from carrying them out.”
  • There were some guards who took pity on the prisoners, but they always weren’t in the most influential positions.

After release, some prisoners used their bad experiences as a way to justify doing things that weren’t always right.

  • “Only slowly could these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.”

Two other experiences that could damage the freed prisoner: “bitterness and disillusionment when he returned to his former life.”

  • Bitterness from others not being as excited about his survival as he thought or anticipated.
  • Disillusionment from the reality that life after the camp did not have the people or experiences he was hoping for.

Logotherapy in a Nutshell

“Logotherapy focuses rather on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future.”

  • “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.”

In logotherapy, Frankl tries to help patients confront and reorient toward the meaning of their lives.

Why he uses the term logotherapy

  • Logos is the Greek word which denotes “meaning”.
  • “According to logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.”

The term existential can be used in three ways:

  • To refer to existence itself ie the human mode of being
  • Meaning of existence
  • The striving to find concrete meaning in personal existence.

Existential frustration also result in neuroses, in the case of logotherapy, we call them noögenic neuroses.

  • “Noögenic neuroses do not emerge from conflicts between drives and instincts but rather from existential problems.”

Frankl believes it’s a misconception that good mental hygiene is the state of being at equilibrium or homeostasis – “a tensionless state”.

  • “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”
    • Man needs “noö-dynamics: the existential dynamics in a polar field of tension where one pole is represented by a meaning that is to be fulfilled and the other pole by the man who has to fulfill it.”
    • “So if therapists wish to foster patients’ mental health, they should not be afraid to create a sound amount of tension through a reorientation toward the meaning of one’s life.”

The Existential Vacuum

  • Widespread phenomenon of the 20th century.
  • Has become a reality because “man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which animal’s behavior is imbedded and by which it is secured.”
    • Humans must now make choices because long time traditions have started to diminish due to expanding freedom.
      • People then face a dilemma. They either conform to what the rest of society is doing or do what someone else tells them to do (totalitarianism).
  • “Manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom.”
    • The modern person has more time than ever because of advances in technology. The extra time leads to boredom, which leaves people feeling restless about life.
    • “And these problems are growing increasingly crucial, for progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in the leisure hours available to the average worker.
    • “The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time.”

The Meaning of Life

  • Differs from person to person and time to time.
    • 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.”
    • There’s no absolute right or wrong answer to this.
      • “One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”
  • “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”
    • To figure out the meaning of life then is to answer that question personally for yourself. It’s your responsibility to define what meaning you want out of your life.

The Essence of Existence

  • A “categorical imperative of logotherapy:” “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!”
  • “I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.”
  • “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.”
    • You shouldn’t aim for self-actualization because the more you strive for it, the more you’ll miss the mark.
    • Self actualization is just a byproduct of going through the process of defining what a meaningful life is for you.
  • Possible to discover the meaning of life, according to logotherapy, in three different ways:
    • By creating a work or doing a deed.
    • By experiencing something or encountering someone.
    • By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

The Meaning of Love

  • To love is “the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality.”
  • Allows you to become fully aware of “the very essence of another human being”.
  • Love allows us to see the essential traits in another person as well as the potential that another human has.
    • “By making him aware of what can be of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
  • Sex is a way of expressing love.

The Meaning of Suffering

  • “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.”
  • Transform tragedy into triumph.
  • “When we are no longer able to change a situation…we are challenged to change ourselves.”
  • “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
  • Basic tenet of logotherapy: “man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.”
  • Suffering though is no way necessary to find meaning.

“For, in the past, nothing is irretrievably lost but everything irrevocably stored.”

  • Man always faces the choices of ascribing meaning to present moments in his life. Which moments will be consequential versus inconsequential?
    • “At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence.”

Anticipatory anxiety: the fear of an event is actually scarier than the reality of it.

  • Can be observed in cases of sexual neurosis.
  • “The more a man tries to demonstrate his sexual potency or a woman her ability to experience orgasm, in he less they are able to succeed. Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.”

“Logotherapy based its technique called ‘paradoxical intention’ on the twofold fact that fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that hyperintention makes impossible what one wishes.”

  • Kind of like owning that which you are afraid rather than trying to hide it.
  • Try to do the opposite of what you are trying to accomplish.
  • Frankl notes that paradoxical intention not a panacea and it’s only a short term therapeutic device.

Pan-determinism: “the view of man which disregards his capacity to take a stand toward any conditions whatsoever.”

  • Frankl argues against this idea. It’s basically the concept of free will.
    • “Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.”
  • Freedom though is “only part of the story and half of the truth.”
    • “In fact freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”

The Case for Tragic Optimism

Tragic optimism: “one is, and remains, optimistic in spite of the ‘tragic triad’.

  • The triad consists of these aspects of human existence
    • Pain
    • Guilt
    • Death
  • The point of this chapter to find out how it’s possible to say yes to life in spite of all those three things.
  • How can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects?
  • “In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation.”
  • Human potential at its best always allows for:
    • Turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment.
    • Deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better.
    • Deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.
  • Optimism can’t be commanded or ordered. Can’t force this.
    • Can’t force faith, hope, and love.
  • “To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. one must have a reason to ‘be happy.’ Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically.
    • “As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.”

“The truth is that man does not live by welfare alone.”

Frankl uses the analogy of a film to define meaning.

  • You can’t fully make sense of a movie unless you’ve watched the whole thing. Same can be said about the meaning of your life.

Three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life:

  • First is by creating a work or by doing a deed.
  • Second is by experiencing something or encountering someone – in other words, encountering meaning through love.
  • Third is by turning tragedy to triumph.
    • Finding pride in suffering if it happens.
    • In the US, there’s a sense of being “unhappy, but also ashamed of being unhappy.”
    • Changing your attitude regarding what happens to you.

Regarding death – every moment in your life is fleeting. They’re impermanent. Therefore why not make the most of each moment you have?

“In the last, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary everything is irrevocably stores and treasured.”

“It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past – the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized – and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.”

Why you shouldn’t pity old people.

Afterword by William J. Winslade

Frankl had an opportunity to flee Austria before the Nazis took over. But he instead decided to stay for the sake of his aging parents, who didn’t have the same opportunity.

  • “September 1942, Frankl and his family were arrested and deported. Frankl spent the next three years at four different concentration camps…”

Before he was detained, he was already working on the ideas that became the book “Man’s Search For Meaning.”

“His survival was a combined result of his will to life, his instinct for self-preservation, some generous acts of human decency, and shrewdness; of course, it also depended on blind luck, such as where he happened to be imprisoned, the whims of the guards, and arbitrary decisions about where to line up and who to trust or believe.”

  • Also relied constantly upon uniquely human capacities such as “inborn optimism, humor, psychological detachment, brief moments of solitude, inner freedom, and a steely resolve not to give up or commit suicide.”
  • Also focused on living for the future and the strength of his loving thoughts for his wife.
  • Found meaning in glimpses of beauty in nature and art.
  • No matter what happened, “he retained the freedom to choose how to respond to his suffering.”

“He sees freedom and responsibility as two sides of the same coin.”

To achieve personal meaning, a person “must transcend subjective pleasures by doing something that ‘points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself…by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love.’”

“Meaning is possible in spite of suffering” and “to suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.”

Viktor Frankl

How we interpret life is a lot about attitude.

  • “A positive attitude enables a person to endure suffering and disappointment as well as enhance enjoyment and satisfaction. A negative attitude intensifies pain and deepens disappointments; it undermines and diminishes pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction; it may even lead to depression or physical illness.”

After his release from the concentration camps, Frankl came back to a life without any of his loved ones (including his wife) who had all died. He chose to continue his career as a psychiatrist in Austria, which was unusual considering many Jews emigrated elsewhere.

  • Why?
    • “Frankl felt an intense connection to Vienna, especially to psychiatric patients who needed his help in the postwar period. He also believed strongly in reconciliation rather than revenge…

Frankl renounced the idea of collective guilt. “I do not forget any good deed done to me, and I do not carry a grudge for a bad one.”

Do We Live Provisionally? No: Each or Us Is Called Upon!

Living a provisional life is one in which you don’t actualize your potential because you’re just sitting back, letting life happen to you.

  • “He constantly waits for something, without doing his part to make it happen. He becomes fatalistic. Instead of acting from the consciousness of a responsibility, he has the point of view that he should let things go…and let other people do as they please…
  • “He changes from a human subject into a mere object – an object of circumstances, of current conditions, of the moment in history. But he overlooks the fact that in history nothing has already been done – rather, everything is to be done.
    • “He overlooks the extent to which current conditions depend on him, the fact that they are creatively shapeable; he forgets that he bears a share of the responsibility.”

Why has fatalism become a common condition?

  • Too much has been demanded and asked of recent generations – gone through two world wars, inflation, economic crises, unemployment, etc. “What should this generation still believe, in order to be able to rebuild! It believes in nothing any more – it waits.”
    • Therefore it’s understandable why people are fatalistic, but still unjustifiable to behave in such a way.

“Times of transition are difficult times, times of crisis. But in these times of crisis, with their woes, a new time is already being born. It is precisely in such times that every individual is burdened with an unprecedented, heavy but glorious responsibility: it depends on every individual what comes forth out of this time.”

No one has the right to wait until the dust settles. “As soon as we try to shape the provisional, it is no longer provisional! Whether it is the provisional in the big things or the small things – each of us has to reshape our own ‘provisional’ life into a definitive one.”

In Memoriam

“Certainly, there is also the personal guilt of a man who ‘did nothing’ but who neglected to do such things out of fear for himself or out of trembling trepidation for his relatives. But whosoever would reproach such a man for being a ‘coward’ should first provide proof that he himself, in the same situation, would have been a hero.”

Frankl, from a commemorative speech he gave for deceased colleagues of the Society of Doctors in Vienna.

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