Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl: Summary and Lessons

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

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Man’s Search for Meaning Summary

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl tells his story of surviving a concentration camp and how this experience led to his theory on the importance of meaning in one’s life (Logotherapy). You can find meaning in work (by doing something significant), in love (by caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. A fascinating read.

Executive Summary

Life is not a quest for pleasure, but for meaning.

The 3 possible sources for meaning:

  • Work, by doing something significant
  • Love, by caring for another person
  • Courage during difficult times

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.

Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. The salvation of man is through love and in love.

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.

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

To find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. This meaning is unique and specific and can only be fulfilled by him alone.

What matters is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.

“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!”

True meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche.

Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.

Experiences in a Concentration Camp

Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. The salvation of man is through love and in love.

Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self.

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.

Any man can decide what shall become of him — mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.

It is this spiritual freedom — which cannot be taken away — that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Without suffering and death, human life cannot be complete.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails gives him ample opportunity to add a deeper meaning to his life.

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

Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”

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.

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. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

Logotherapy in a Nutshell

Logos is a Greek word which denotes “meaning.”

Logotherapy focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for such a meaning. According to logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.

This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.

To be sure, man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health.

Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.

The Existential Vacuum

The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century.

It may be due to a twofold loss which man has had to undergo since he became a truly human being:

  • The loss of some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behavior is embedded and by which it is secured
  • The traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism)

The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom.

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

The meaning of life differs from man to man. 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.

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. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.

This emphasis on responsibleness is reflected in the categorical imperative of logotherapy, which is: “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!”

True meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche.

Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. 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. Self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

We can discover meaning in life in 3 ways:

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

The Meaning of Love

Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality.

By his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.

Love is not understood as a mere side-effect of sex; rather, sex is a way of expressing the experience of that ultimate togetherness which is called love.

The Meaning of Suffering

We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph.

Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

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.

Once an individual’s search for meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering.

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