Man's Search For Meaning

3 min read
Man's Search For Meaning

Author: Viktor Frankl

Published: original, 1946; this version, 2006 (165 pages)

Started reading: 4.December.2016

Finished reading: 7.December.2016

Brief description

One of the most enduringly insightful descriptions of, and reflections about, the Holocaust must surely be Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, first published just one year after the Second World War ended.

Viktor Frankl was a distinguished, young psychiatrist working in Vienna in the 1930s. A precocious teenager, he was mentored by none other than Sigmund Freud, whose methods of psychoanalysis Frankl went on to counter-offer with his own school of psychiatry, logotherapy.

Frankl, was a person who in any other era would have been treated with unabated respect – except that he had the poor fortune of being a Jew, living in Europe as the Second World War broke out.

He had the chance to escape Austria if he wished – he had been offered a visa to the US. But he elected to stick with his aging parents, and in due course he, them, and his pregnant wife, were arrested and sent to the camps, where the survival rate was no more than one in twenty-eight. Alone among his close family he survived into that small minority.

The first part of his brief book is a description of what actually occurred during his imprisonment at, among other facilities, Auschwitz. The second part delves into his intellectual love-child, the school of logotherapy, a form of psychiatric treatment that cures patients’ psychological ailments by focusing them on finding existential meaning.


Albrecht Durer, sun shining over the Bavarian woods: Frankl said in the midst of suffering they were greeted with many such hope-giving vistas, peering through barbed wire or over work trenches

Based on his experience in the camps, he found that a sense of meaning was a lifeline to survival, somehow stringing together a person’s intellect with his or her physiological sustenance. To illustrate this connection, between Christmas and New Years Day, the death rate in the camps would jump. The only reason for this, Frankl could surmise, was that prisoners, all year, envisioned being liberated and home with their families by Christmas, but when that date passed, they became hopeless and simply gave up living. Frankl quotes Nietzsche endlessly: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

Frankl further reasoned that ‘meaning’ was a subjective question, and each person was responsible for defining his or her own. And although suffering wasn’t necessary for meaning, one could find purpose in pain by keeping in mind that the ability to choose one’s response or attitude to a situation was a final, un-confiscate-able freedom – a very stoic teaching.

“It was my turn. Somebody whispered to me that to be sent to the right would mean work, the way to the left being for the sick and those incapable of work, who would be sent to a special camp. I just waited for things to take their course, the first of many such times to come. My haversack weighed me down a bit to the left, but I made an effort to walk upright. The SS man looked me over, appeared to hesitate, then put both his hands on my shoulders. I tried very hard to look smart, and he turned my shoulders very slowly until I faced right, and I moved over to that side.”

– Viktor Frankl

Actionable insights

> Every person is individually responsible for forging his or her own meaning out of life. Frankl: “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?’ There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence.”

> Consider paradoxical intention as a solvent to outcome-attachment or anxiety. Although I’m not sure of it’s current clinical usage, Frankl recommends it as a key technique of logotherapy. It involves amplifying your feelings of anxiety – whether towards a stutter, insomnia or driving etc – in order to satirise and expose their irrationality.