Man’s Search for Meaning


  This life changing book details Viktor Frankl's experience in several different Nazi concentration camps and what he learned during this time. Before he ever went to these concentration camps, he postulated that man must live for a reason, have a meaning, in order to be truly happy. He proved this hypothesis first hand and helps show all of us that we can find meaning in any situation imaginable. If you'd prefer to listen to this article, use the player below. You can also find more of my articles in audio version at Listle

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Key Takeaways

  1. Men died less from a lack of food or medicine than from lack of hope, lack of something to live for
  2. Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation
  3. Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself
  4. A man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how
  5. An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior
  6. is not the physical pain which hurts the most (and this applies to adults as much as to punished children); it is the mental agony caused by the injustice, the unreasonableness of it all
  7. Some men lost all hope, but it was the incorrigible optimists who were the most irritating companions
  8. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain, but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom
  9. The truth - that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love
  10. Suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore, the "size" of human suffering is absolutely relative
  11. No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same
  12. This was the result of a strong feeling that fate was one's master, and that one must not try to influence it in any way, but instead let it take its own course
  13. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress. We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that 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.
  14. In a different connection, we have already spoken of the tendency there was to look into the past, to help make the present, with all its horrors, less real. But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist. Regarding our "provincial existence" as unreal was in itself an important factor in causing the prisoners to lose their hold on life; everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp's difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless
  15. It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future
  16. Each task that each man must complete, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.
  17. But for every one of the liberated prisoners, the day comes when, looking back on his camp experiences, he can no longer understand how he endured it all. As the day of his liberation eventually came, when everything seemed to him like a beautiful dream, so also the day comes when all his camp experiences seem to him nothing but a nightmare. The crowning experience of all, for the homecoming man, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more - except his God.
  18. Man's search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health...Thus it can be seen that 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.
  19. Can discover the meaning in life in three different ways - creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone and by the attitude we take toward avoiding suffering
  20. Suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice
  21. Man has both potentialities [sinner and saint] within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions
  22. Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers at Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Sherma Yisrael on his lips.
  23. I do not forget any good deed done to me and I do not carry a grudge for a bad one

  What I got out of it  

  1. Be so incredibly grateful about your circumstances, whatever they may be, for even Frankl, who lost everything but his meaning to live, still found a way to learn and benefit from his gut-wrenching experiences.

Part 1 - Experiences in a Concentration Camp

  • Frankl kept himself alive by imagining what it would be like to see his wife again and teach about the psychological lessons he learned at Auschwitz
  • Life is not about a quest for power (Adler) or pleasure (Freud) but a quest for meaning - in work, in love and in courage during difficult times
  • First released it anonymously because he wanted a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any condition, even the most miserable ones
  • Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen not by caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run - in the long run, I say! - success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.
  • Capos were prisoners who beat and told on other prisoners and only the most brutal prisoners were chosen for this job
  • Not meant to be entirely factual or about any famous person but a regular man's experience during this most horrible time
  • Apart from that strange kind of humor, another sensation seized us: curiosity. I have experienced this kind of curiosity before, as a fundamental reaction toward certain strange circumstances
  • A friend to Frankl and other inmates that "If you want to stay alive, there is only one way: look fit for work"
  • Disgust, horror and pity are emotions that our spectator [any of the inmates] could not really feel anymore
  • After a few months' stay in the camp we could not walk up those steps, which were about six inches high, without putting our hands on the door jambs to pull ourselves up
  • Apathy was a necessary mechanism of self-defense...all efforts and all emotions were centered on one task: preserving one's own life and that of the other fellow
  • I had a distinct feeling that I saw the streets, the squares and the houses of my childhood with the eyes of a dead man who had come back from another world and was looking down on a ghostly city (as he was being transported from Auschwitz to Dachau)
  • There was a cultural hibernation in the camp in all areas except for politics and religion
  • Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance
  • The intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past
  • Humor was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation
  • The corpses near me, crawling with lice, did not bother me. Only the steps of passing guards could rouse me from my dreams
  • In Auschwitz I had laid down a rule for myself which proved to be a good one and which most of my comrades later followed. I generally answered all kinds of questions truthfully. But I was silent about anything that was not expressly asked for
  • Does this not bring to mind the story of Death in Teheran? A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him. He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse. On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him, "Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?" "I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran," said Death.
  • The majority of prisoners suffered from a kind of inferiority complex. We all had once been or had fancied ourselves to be "somebody." Now we were treated like complete nonentities. (The consciousness of one's inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things, and cannot be shaken by camp life. But how many free men, let alone prisoners, possess it?)
  • It is this spiritual freedom - which cannot be taken away - that makes life meaningful and purposeful. An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords him the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in man's attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces. A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. 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.
  • A man who could not see the end of his "provisional existence" was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life. He ceased living for the future, in contrast to a man in normal life. Therefore the whole structure of his inner life changed.
  • We could say that most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.
  • The prisoner who had lost faith in the future - his future - was doomed
  • The sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect
  • "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how" - Nietzsche
  • Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us, we refused to minimize or alleviate the camp's tortures by ignoring them or harboring false illusions and entertaining false optimism. Suffering had become a task on which we did not want to turn our backs. We had realized its hidden opportunities for achievement...there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.
  • The prison guards were able to do these atrocious things because some were simply sadists, these sadists were chosen purposefully to lead certain camps, the guards' feelings had been dulled after years of brutal violence, but some guards took pity on the prisoners
  • The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths and becomes apparent even on the bottom of the abyss which is laid open by the concentration camp.
  • On being released - ...we wanted to see the camp's surroundings for the first time with the eyes of free men. "Freedom" - we repeated to ourselves, and yet we could not grasp it. We had said this word so often that it had lost its meaning. Its reality did not penetrate into our consciousness; we could not grasp the fact that freedom was ours
  • We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly
  • ...the man who has suddenly been liberated from mental pressure can suffer damage to his moral and spiritual health
  • Bitterness and disillusionment could damage the character of the liberated prisoner once he returned to his normal life

Part 2 - Logotherapy in a Nutshell  

  • Logotherapy focuses on the future, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future. It focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man's search for such a meaning (logos is Greek for meaning)
  • The 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
  • The existential vacuum has increased in the 20th century and manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom
  • Self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence
  • Suffering is not necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering - provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable
  • Ironically enough, in the same way that fear brings to pass what one is afraid of, likewise a forced intention makes impossible what one forcibly wishes.
  • The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure
  • Paradoxical intention helps a lot of people cure their neuroses (if sweat a lot, tell the person who makes you sweat that you are going to show them how much you can sweat...)
  • Every age has its own collective neurosis
  • Things determine each other but man is ultimately self-determining

Postscript - The Case for a Tragic Optimism  

  • Tragic Optimism - that one is and remains optimistic in spite of the tragic triad - pain, guilt and death
  • Human potential at its best allows for turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; deriving from guilt the opportunity to chance oneself for the better and deriving from life's transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action
  • Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue
  • In today's age, people have enough to live by but nothing to life for; they have the means but no meaning
  • Frankl wrote Man's Search for Meaning in 9 days!

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