Man's Search for Meaning Summary by Viktor Frankl

July 2, 2020


What it's about?

This book tells the story of holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s horrific experiences in Nazi concentration camps. It is broken into two distinct pieces, Frankl’s experiences in concentration camps, and how those experiences led to his theories and philosophy of the important of meaning in one’s life. The book gives compelling arguments as to why each of us should find a reason to live. It also reminds us just how terrible humans can be to one another, while also giving us hope that we have the choice to be good.

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!Viktor Frankl

The meaning of our lives is to make our lives meaningful. Therefore, life is a quest for meaning. Frankl believes meaning can come from three key forces:

  1. Find work that is worth doing, that is significant
  2. Love by caring for others
  3. Find meaning in suffering

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.

Find work that is worth doing, that is significant

Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values!Viktor Frankl

Frankl entered Auschwitz with a manuscript he had been working on his entire life. Within moments it was confiscated and lost. Frankl vowed to survive the horrors of the concentration camp and to rewrite and publish his manuscript.

This vow gave Frankl meaning, as he felt he was the only one who could write this manuscript due to his unique experience, knowledge and skills. He therefore felt if he died the world would miss this important contribution which made his vow so much stronger. This was the work he felt that was worth doing, so much so he survived what only 1 in 28 men did.

To discover work that is worth doing, that gives meaning in life man must look externally, not internally. Frankl declared "that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, 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.”

Therefore man must be responsible themselves for finding work of significance. They must go outside into the world and look for it, no one is going to hand them their life's meaning. To do this one must seek out new experiences, try to develop your own unique combination of skills through the acquisition of knowledge. Then look where you can contribute those unique experiences, skills and knowledge that you find is worth doing that gives your life significance.

As Frankl puts it “the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest.” We must understand that we are responsible for our own meaning in life, you must get out there and find things that give you meaning.

Love by caring for others

The truth—that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.Viktor Frankl

Many times throughout the book Frankl sights his love for his wife and his desire to reunited once he leaves the concentration camp as reason enough to endure the worst of the camp. He would simply need to close his eyes, picture her and that was enough to keep him going to give him meaning.

His love led to his theory that “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.”

Whilst Frankl himself spoke of the love for his beloved, it wasn't the feeling of love that helped him endure. Frankl describes love more as seeing potential in others and helping them unlock their potential. Love is creating products for businesses that make a difference in the way they operate, love is offering mentor-ship to a junior, it is creating opportunities for others and it is any way you can make someone else's life better. He recalls the prisoner who would volunteer to take the blame, by enduring the beating he was loving his other prisoners and making their life better.

In Frankl's words he describes how love gives meaning, “the more one forgets himself—by giving himself to another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.” By giving your time and your love to others you find meaning.

Finally in the afterword, the idea of love in man's search for meaning is summed up fantastically. “To achieve personal meaning, one must transcend subjective pleasures by doing something that “points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love.” (William J. Winsdale) Therefore love gives life meaning through serving and loving others.

Find meaning in suffering

Once an individual’s search for a meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capabil- ity to cope with suffering.Viktor Frankl

Frankl and the others prisoners of Auschwitz endured suffering that you or I may never know. But, he as well as many others found ways to rise above the suffering and to give that suffering meaning. Frankl's through his observations theorized that “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

He would see men who would sacrifice their own well being, deliberately putting themselves in harms endure the suffering as it gave them meaning. Those men he noticed, pictured themselves doing it for the good of their fellow man. “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 sacrifice of one mans own life for another gave them meaning.

As I see it suffering ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it. We can then bare the suffering as it has meaning. Frankl saw it time and time again that man's search for meaning would change “when you turn that suffering from the emotion of despair into something meaningful it (would) cease and take on a new meaning.”

It is important to note that suffering is not necessary to find meaning, the key point is that meaning is possible in spite of suffering. You can choose to give meaning to your suffering. You don’t need to go out and find something to suffer for to give your life meaning, rather you must understand that when your enduring and suffering meaning is still possible.

General Summary Notes (lots of inspiration)

He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how Friedrich  Nietzsche

“Was Du erlebst, kann keine Macht der Welt Dir rauben.” (What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.)

Most people either give into doing what other people are doing (conformism), or they do what other people tell them to do (totalitarianism).

When I spend my time procrastinating and working jobs I hate instead of working on something worthwhile I am giving into “give-up-itis.” I am no longer finding meaning in my suffering and I am giving into immediate pleasure. For the men of Auschwitz this was a death sentence and it should drive me to not give in, as these men endured much worse than I.

“Those who one morning, at five, refused to get up and go to work and instead stayed in the hut, on the straw wet with urine and feces. Nothing—neither warnings nor threats—could induce them to change their minds. And then something typical occurred: they took out a cigarette from deep down in a pocket where they had hidden it and started smoking. At that moment we knew that for the next forty-eight hours or so we would watch them dying. Meaning orientation had subsided, and consequently the seeking of immediate pleasure had taken over.”

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. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.

“It is a question of the attitude one takes toward life’s challenges and opportunities, both large and small. 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.”

Frankl brings up a point I often need to remind myself that, “No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

“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.”

We are capable of surviving anything, “the medical men among us learned first of all: “Textbooks tell lies!” Somewhere it is said that man cannot exist without sleep for more than a stated number of hours. Quite wrong! I had been convinced that there were certain things I just could not do: I could not sleep without this or I could not live with that or the other.”

Despite all the horror and suffering the prisoners went through, they could still see the beauty in the world. There is a story told in the book where the prisoners are all outside one evening and the sky's alight as the sunsets one man says to another “how beautiful the world could be!”. To me the message here is we need to search for beauty in the world more often.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

Humor can keep us going, it is perhaps what keeps you from becoming a pessimist. “The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living.”

“In the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually.”