Man’s search for meaning is a short book by Viktor E. Frankl, divided into two parts. The first part describes Frankl’s experiences and psychological observations in the concentration camp Auschwitz , where he lived for several years during world war 2. The second part descibes his own psychological school, which he calls logotherapy.
Frankl, an austrian jew who worked as an psychologist in Vienna, was deported in 1942. His brother, mother and wife all died in concentration camps. Frankl himself survived under the most grueling living conditions and during his 3 years of imprisonment had to face hunger, sickness, cold, fear of death and exhausting physical work in different camps, including Auschwitz.
During this time he saw many of the other inmates die and started recocgnizing psychological patterns that could make the difference between life and death.
He noticed that people could endure the horrible daily camp life better if they told themselves that up until a certain point in the future, this would all have an end. They would hope that they would be freed by christmas, by the end of the year, until their birthday etc. And this gave them strength to surive to see that day. Should however this envisioned date pass without any hope that the war might end soon, Frankl noticed that people would fall into a depression and just give up.
Once they were in that state, nothing could get them out of it. They would refuse to get up in the morning, no matter how much the guards threatened and kicked them. Instead, they would smoke their last cigarette and accept their fate. After this point, people usually died within 48 hours.
Frankl noticed that finding a meaning in his life, no matter how difficult it might be at that moment, is the most important thing that keeps people alive. He quotes Nietzsche who said “He who has a why to live can bear with almost how“.
Therefore Frankl tried to focus on the things he still wanted to accomplish after the war whenever he felt like giving up. He would think of the books he wanted to publish (he had a completed manuscript in his belongings that were taken from him when he arrived in Auschwitz); He started thinking of entire speeches while he was working in the freezing cold outside, with swollen legs and often without shoes. He began seeing his experiences from a kind of meta-state, as an observer, and pictured himself giving lectures about his camp life, while standing in a warm classroom full of students.
With this ‘trick’, Frankl managed to change his attitude towards everything he had to go through. He started seeing all these horrible experiences as a chance to grow as a person and as something that even would be ‘useful’ in his later life. He found a meaning for himself in all the cruelties he had to go through. This helped him to endure what made others lose faith. And in the end he turned out to be right, since without his time in Auschwitz, Man’s search for meaning would have never been written.
Around his concentration camp experiences, Viktor Frankl built a psychological school which he called ‘Logotherapy’. Logos is Greek for meaning and this is the key aspect of this psychotherapeutical approach.
It can be summarized in these three main principles:
- Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
- Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
- We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.
If our entire existence revolves around finding meaning to our lives, then the important question is: How do we find meaning?
Frankl names three different ways to find meaning:
- by creating a work or doing a deed
- by experiencing something or encountering someone
- and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering
He furthermore emphazises 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”.
This is a great thing to keep in mind from Man’s search for meaning: There might be horrible circumstances that we can do nothing about. We might experience unavoidable suffering. But we can always choose the attitude with which we face these circumstances and just by doing so, we can find meaning in what we have to go through.