Man’s Search for Meaning
By Victor Frankl
Victor Frankl survived a Nazi concentration camp, and in the pages of this book, first published in 1946, he explains how he did it. Despite facing daily atrocities and extreme hardship, he somehow managed to struggle through and maintain his sanity, and this experience provided him with evidence supporting the development of his psychological theory named logotherapy. It is his firm belief that to thrive (and survive in desperate circumstances), we need to have meaning in life, and through sharing his findings, he helps the reader to find that personal meaning for themselves.
My Top 3 Takes from the Summary
We always have a choice when it comes to living up to our own high moral standards.
Personal values are something that no one can take away from you.
The search for meaning is the greatest motivation in a person’s life, and anyone unable to find meaning, or unable to live according to their values, is left with an existential vacuum – an emptiness within themselves.
Life in a Concentration Camp
In today’s world, the horrors of the Holocaust are well documented, but according to the author, even at that point in time, those being transported to Nazi concentration camps had an inkling of the grave circumstances and horrendous fate awaiting them. He points out that because of this inkling, anyone would imagine fear to be the initial reaction upon arrival at the camps, but he explains otherwise. He witnessed three distinct phases in arrivals’ reactions: shock, apathy, and existence.
Shock: Arrivals were so shocked by the events unfolding around them that they tried desperately to hold on to some hope of everything being okay. They’d heard stories of horrific happenings in these camps, but yet when arriving themselves, they clung to a belief that this would not be their fate and the outcome would somehow be different for them. Arrivals at Auschwitz (now known to be a death camp) would find themselves being filed to the right or to the left as they stepped off the train. Although unknown at the time, one direction led to hard labour, the other to immediate execution, but the state of shock arrivals was in led to them convincing themselves that the line they were in would remove them from all danger and they would be saved.
In this first phase of shock, thoughts of hope soon turned to despair as new arrivals began to witness the cruel reality of camp existence. Witnessing other prisoners being brutally punished for trivial offences left many feeling so hopeless that death seemed a better alternative, and the author tells of most new arrivals considering suicide as a way to end the ordeal. Grabbing the electric fence surrounding the camp became a means of ending it all.
Apathy: Shock gave way to apathy as prisoners became accustomed to the horror and death surrounding them every day. The author describes an emotional dullness that provided a shield against the atrocities faced. Instead of musing over emotions such as love and desire, people talked about food and other basic necessities that had previously been taken for granted. All thoughts were now focused on survival, and everyday horrors were no longer hidden from but used as opportunities. An outbreak of typhus in the camp is given as an example. People were dying, but the surviving prisoners no longer felt pity or disgust as they looked at the corpses, they saw opportunities to improve their own chances of survival by grabbing items such as clothing, shoes, and leftover food from those that had died.
Existence: Prisoners became numb and unable to imagine any future beyond the camp. They were at the mercy of the guards, and there was no way of knowing if their time in the camp would ever come to an end. The author explains that under normal circumstances, we live for the future, meaning we make plans and get excited about the direction we’d like to take our lives in. However, for the prisoners, there could be no excitement because they could see no future. For them, life now had no meaning. There were no goals to reach and most considered their lives to already be over. Instead of living, they were merely existing.
Life After Camp Survival
Those who survived the concentration camps found that liberation brought with it a new challenge. After so many years as prisoners, adjusting to freedom and a normal life proved very difficult. The state of apathy they were in made it impossible to feel joy or pleasure, with many unable to grasp their freedom at all. Changing their perspective wasn’t easy; freedom had been a long-held dream, yet when it came, it was hard to accept as reality. Some found themselves looking to inflict pain on others after the years of brutality they’d endured. To them, taking vengeance on the prison guards felt like justifiable compensation for their suffering.
Also, for many, there was no warm welcome home. They had dreamed of returning to their families and homes, but very often those families had been killed and the houses destroyed, along with entire towns. Hopes of compassion and understanding were dashed when those they spoke to on their return failed to recognise the horrors of a concentration camp, instead merely pointing out that they too had suffered through bombing and the limitations of rationing. The author makes it clear that freedom was not the end of suffering for many who survived the Holocaust, but he adds that most survivors did eventually adapt and find ways to enjoy life again.
What Makes a Survivor?
The author explains that enduring hardship and cruelty, and still managing to protect their sanity came down to focusing on their inner lives. For some prisoners, this meant imagining conversations with their loved ones, reminiscing over special times, or holding onto memories of anything that represented happiness in their life. As he experienced it, those who could find even a shred of happiness in their thoughts were often those who would survive. Inner thoughts provided a mental escape from the horrors of their environment. They were given no physical relief, forced to do hard labour in cold conditions with little clothing or food to keep them warm, but the mental relief of happy memories was something that couldn’t be taken away from them.
Even tiny fleeting memories of mundane things could bring relief, with one example being simply remembering how it felt to turn the light on in their own bedroom at home. Other moments of relief were found in catching a glimpse of a bird or being able to see a beautiful sunset. Sometimes they had time to distract themselves with songs or other small performances they could put together, and they even managed to hold on to a sense of humour at times when they joked about how camp life might affect their home life when they were released: for example, still trying to eat the soup from the bottom of the pot where the few peas it contained might be found.
Freedom of Choice
In normal, everyday life, we make hundreds of decisions that we take for granted. Choosing what to wear, what to have for breakfast, or what charitable organisations we want to support, but as a prisoner, nothing can be taken for granted. There was no option other than to do what they were told, and any decisions that did have to be made were often a matter of life or death. For this reason, most prisoners were afraid to make any decisions.
The author explains that prisoners would sometimes be ordered to go to another camp. The location of this camp or what it meant to go there was never known. Guards might call it a “rest camp,” but the possibility of it being a gas chamber could never be ruled out. In these situations, prisoners had to decide whether to leave their fate to chance and go as ordered, or whether to try all they could to have the decision changed by working extra hard or volunteering to do extra tasks. There was no way of knowing which decision would turn out to be the best.
He also points out that there were some prisoners determined to maintain any tiny degree of freedom of choice they could, grabbing every opportunity to make their own decisions. They would do this by choosing to continue living in accordance with their values, perhaps in their spiritual life for example. Living conditions were dire, and not every ritual could be upheld, but they could still choose to live up to their own high moral standards, such as giving bread to others in greater need than themselves, even when it meant going hungry. Their values were something that couldn’t be taken away from them by the guards.
The terrible scenes witnessed by the author during his time in the concentration camp helped him come to the realisation that people need meaning in their lives. Prisoners with something to look forward to were more resilient and mentally stronger than those who no longer felt their life had any meaning. Observing this confirmed many of his theories of psychotherapy ideas which he named logotherapy. He asserts that the search for meaning is the greatest motivation in a person’s life, and anyone unable to find meaning, or unable to live according to their values, is left with an existential vacuum – an emptiness within themselves. A study undertaken at Johns Hopkins University supports this theory, revealing that 78 per cent of the students reported finding purpose and meaning to be central in life and of most importance to them. The aim of logotherapy is to help people find meaning, and in so doing, prevent the negative consequences of experiencing and living with an existential vacuum.
Purpose in life is important, but how do we go about finding it? It’s a commonly held belief that to make the right choices in life, we first need to discover our purpose, but logotherapy suggests the opposite: our actions and the responsibility we take in our choices determines our meaning in life. The author saw this in the concentration camp. Those who maintained purpose did so through the choices they made. Making the decision to look for small pleasures in nature or to help others gave those prisoners a purpose – a reason to keep going.
The author’s message is that everyone has their own meaning in life, and it’s not the same meaning for everyone. He explains this using chess as an example. If you ask a chess grandmaster what the best move is, they’ll tell you that there is no one best move, there’s only a best move depending on the precise circumstances at any given moment during the game. The same applies to life: there is no one meaning of life, it depends on each individual’s unique circumstances. Logotherapy aims to help people understand that everyone must figure out their life’s purpose according to their own circumstances and decisions and that there are no restrictions on meaning.
The ultimate goal is to help individuals find meaning in life, but logotherapy has also developed a number of techniques that are particularly helpful to anyone with mental disorders that may have arisen through experiencing an existential vacuum. The aim is to learn how to focus on the inner world, rather than external events and circumstances. This is quite different to a normal psychotherapy approach in which a person’s neurotic fears will be analysed and explained by their external environment. In logotherapy, it is assumed that people are able to make decisions and define their life’s purpose independently of their environment, therefore they can take control of their fears and anxieties.
The author explains that when we fear something will happen, it often does. However, when we try to force something to happen, it rarely does. As an example, he suggests imagining someone with a timid personality who fears blushing whenever they’re around other people. Because they’re always fearing it, they always blush whenever they’re in that situation. Using a logotherapy technique known as paradoxical intention, this individual can deliberately try to start blushing whenever they’re around others, and they’ll soon find that trying to force it leads to nothing happening. In this way, the fear of blushing can be taken away.
In sharing his own experiences as well as his approach to psychotherapy, the author clearly demonstrates that success in life, and even survival, is dependent upon an individual’s ability to find meaning. This meaning doesn’t need to be something grand or existential, it need only be something that’s personal to them. By finding something to look forward to in the future, and having goals to pursue and accomplish, a person can survive a great many challenges.
The author believes that people must find their own meaning in life based on their own unique circumstances. The story of his own survival in a Nazi concentration camp provides powerful evidence to back up his theory that a person’s purpose is self-made, not written out for them by the universe, and regardless of circumstances, meaning in life can always be found. Meaning gives a person all they need to persevere, find positives, and overcome even the most difficult of challenges.
Bio of the Author
Viktor E Frankl (1905-1997) was an Austrian psychiatrist, founder of logotherapy, and a holocaust survivor. He published 39 books, with Man’s Search for Meaning becoming an international best-seller translated into 24 languages.