For a collection of the best quotes from Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, read it here.
The author of this book, Viktor Frankl, was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Before he was arrested and sent to a concentration camp, the US embassy gave him a Visa; instead of fleeing, he chose to stay in soon-to-be Nazi-occupied Austria, knowing that he would end up in a concentration camp.
Frankl felt obligated to stay so he can take care of his aging parents, as he was the only one given a US visa. But of course, Frankl and his family were eventually arrested and sent to separate concentration camps.
During his three years of imprisonment in various concentration camps and death camps, Victor Frankl was subject to the most extremes of human suffering.
Frankl, along with some six million Jews, was starved, froze, and worked to exhaustion every day for years. Not to mention the fact that almost every single one of them was separated from their loved ones.
And yet somehow, amidst all the suffering, Frankl and many others who were in his position, was able to find meaning in such misery and endure the cruel conditions for long enough to survive the Holocaust.
Viktor Frankl would later go on to write one of the most important and influential books of all time: “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
The book chronicles Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps and his observations of the mental states of other prisoners from the perspective of a neurologist and psychiatrist.
In this book summary, let’s take a look at some of the most important ideas to come from this masterpiece of a book.
Nevertheless, say Yes to life.
“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.” – Viktor Frankl
No matter how bad the situation you are in, there is always a choice…
You can choose to be subject to basic human instincts, anger, hatred, despair, etc. Or you can choose to change your attitude and see it as an opportunity for meaning.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”
After he was liberated from the death camps, Frankl started practicing Logotherapy as a psychiatrist. One day, an elderly doctor came to Frankl with severe depression. The doctor could not overcome the loss of his wife, who had died two years ago.
Frankl asked the doctor, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have to survive you?”
“Oh, for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” The doctor replied.
Frankl then explained, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering – to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.”
The doctor said nothing, shook Frankl’s hand, and calmly left his office.
Frankl had simply helped the doctor to see that he had a choice in how he could have reacted to the death of his beloved wife. Frankl himself most likely went through the same process when he learned of the death of his wife after his liberation.
The point is, it is not up to you what happens to you in life, but you do have control over how you react to events, and that is what matters.
Sometimes, merely seeing things from a different perspective is the difference between suffering and gratitude.
This can apply to anything in life, let’s imagine you were mistakenly giving a hot chocolate instead of coffee, your instinctive reaction might be to blame the person who took your order and allow this to put you in a bad mood.
But instead, you can be grateful that you got the wrong order because you have built up a tolerance and became desensitized to caffeine. You can see this as an opportunity to not have coffee for a day and regain some sensitivity.
Maybe you’re on a fast and can’t drink hot chocolate at all, well, you could see this as an opportunity for a random act of kindness and give it to a homeless person.
For another demonstration of this point, look no further than the original title of this book: “trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager.” Which translates to, “Nevertheless saying ‘Yes’ to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp.”
Nevertheless, say Yes to life.
Find Meaning in Suffering
“Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.” – Viktor Frankl
To elaborate upon the last point, one can always find meaning in suffering. You see, suffering is an inevitable part of life; without it, there would be no pleasure or happiness.
When a psychiatrist survives the Holocaust to tell us that all suffering has a meaning, only a fool would not listen.
“In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” – Viktor Frankl
But how does one find meaning in the inevitable suffering in life?
When Frankl was a prisoner in a concentration camp, there was a specific case of two other prisoners who were contemplating suicide.
There was a rule in the camps that if one were committing suicide, the others could not stop him, as he has chosen to end his suffering and be liberated. And stopping him from doing so would be cruel.
Therefore the only option was to convince the two men not to commit suicide.
Imagine how astronomically difficult the task would be to convince someone not to commit suicide and continue to spend an indefinite amount of time enduring some of the worse living conditions known to men.
And yet, the two men were eventually convinced, as they were reminded of their meaning in life.
For one of them, it was his son waiting for him in a foreign country, for the other one, it was his unfinished scientific paper that convinced him to keep going.
“There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.” – Viktor Frankl
As demonstrated by the two inmates who decided to keep on keeping on instead of ending their own lives, one’s meaning in life and suffering can come from love.
This “love” can be in the form of the love of one’s work, such as the scientist who had unfinished work. Or it could be one’s love for another human being.
Frankl himself had a combination of the two forms of love that kept him going, as he also had a manuscript that was waiting to be published, and he had hope that he could one day be reunited with his wife.
“He who as a why to live can bear almost any how” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Furthermore, most of the time, one’s suffering in life can seem unfair and meaningless. But Frankl suggests that there is always a meaning to one’s suffering, even if it doesn’t seem apparent.
Consider this thought experiment proposed by Frankl to a group of people grieving the death of their loved ones.
Imagine that an ape is being tested for a new vaccine. During the process, the ape is regularly being punctured by a syringe. And this goes on for months. Do you think the ape understands the meaning behind its suffering?
Much like the doctor who couldn’t get over the death of his wife after two years, the meaning behind one’s suffering is seldom obvious, but it is there; and it is up to the individual to decide what they make of it.
“Fundamentally, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.” – Viktor Frankl
*important note here, Frankl emphasizes the point that meaning is possible in spite of suffering, only when it is unavoidable. One should not seek out suffering for the sake of it.
Happiness cannot be pursued
“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.” – Viktor Frankl
Despite what the Will Smith movie tells us, the pursuit of happiness is one of the biggest lies ever told.
How many times in your life have you thought to yourself, “once I achieve this, I will be happy.” Or “when I get into a relationship, I’ll be happy.” Or “when I get that job/promotion, I’ll be happy.”
But when you finally achieve these things, the moment of so-called “happiness” is ever fleeting. And before you know it, you’re already looking to the next thing in order to obtain “happiness.”
The truth is, happiness is a state of mind, not subject to any external forces.
According to Frankl and Logotherapy, happiness itself cannot be pursued; it can only be a by-product of one’s pursuit of meaning.
“What is called self-acualization is not an attainble aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would stive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-acualization is possible only as a side-effect of self transcendence.” – Viktor Frankl
*Here’s an article that goes more in-depth into this concept of happiness.
The Meaning of life
So here comes the big question, what is the meaning of life?
Well… the short answer is that there is no universal 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. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion : Tell me Master what is the best move in the world?” – Viktor Frankl
Jean-Pual Sartre, a french philosopher who was also alive during the second world war, told this story to demonstrate Viktor Frankl’s point:
Sartre had a student who was facing a difficult decision in life. The young man could join the military and fight for his country, or he could stay at home and take care of his elderly mother, who would otherwise be all alone. The young man felt obligated to do both, but he could only choose one.
Sarte told the young man, “There is no answer until you choose one for yourself.”
We are all born into a meaningless world, and we must define our own meaning. That, in essence, is one’s search for meaning.
Frankl stresses the point that even when meaning ought to be determined by the individual, it is constantly changing from day to day and even hour to hour.
Is the young man’s ultimate meaning in life to fight in the war or take care of his mother? No, that is only the meaning of his life at that moment.
Imagine if this young man was still a 9-year-old child, and he learns that his meaning in life is to one day join the military and fight for what he believes in; wouldn’t that render his 9-year-old life pointless? What’s the point of getting good grades and behaving well if the meaning of his life is to fight in the war ten years from now.
Consider a movie, which consists of many frames that make up many scenes.
Each of these frames makes sense and carries meaning, so does each of the scenes. No frame or scene from a movie is pointless. But the meaning of the whole film is not complete until its very last moments, at which point everything comes together to form an ultimate meaning.
However, the film cannot be understood unless you understand each of the scenes. Isn’t that life?
“Doesn’t the final meaning of life, too, reveals itself, if at all, only at its end, on the verge of death? And doesn’t this final meaning, too, depend on whether or not the potential meaning of each single situation has been acualized to the best of the respective individual’s knowledge and belief?” – Viktor Frankl
A helpful guideline to discovering meaning in one’s life at any moment, as Frankl suggests, is responsibility.
Whether it’s a responsibility to society, your conscience, your health, your faith, or your loved ones; Responsibility is often the key that opens the door to reveal the answer of one’s life at any given moment.
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life.” – Viktor Frankl
This book summary only touches on the surface of this incredible book. There are many more points that were planned for this article but had to be cut due to length.
If you are interested in diving deeper, I suggest reading the book for yourself.
If you don’t usually read books, let this book be the one that you read.