Man’s Search for Meaning


Trotzdem ja zum Leben sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager
Category: World
Genre: History
Publisher: Beacon Press
Published: 10/28/2014
Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir of life in Nazi death camps has riveted generations of readers. Based on Frankl’s own experience and the stories of his patients, the book argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward. Man’s Search for Meaning has become one of the most influential books of our times, selling over twelve million copies worldwide.

Book Summary - Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Key Insights

Man’s Search for Meaning is the story of Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s experience finding the meaning of life while imprisoned in a series of Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Frankl discusses his own experience and the experience of other prisoners to create a psychoanalytic model called “logotherapy,” which centers on finding meaning and purpose in life. The main idea of Frankl’s manifesto is that humans can survive nearly anything, and are able to find meaning and purpose in even the most atrocious and disturbing conditions. He is certain that our primary focus in life is finding meaning, and that your attitude about life shapes your experience of it. He also makes the claim that we are obligated to take on the tasks that life sets before us, even if they seem impossible or are rooted in suffering.

Key Points

Frankl established himself as an eminent psychoanalyst at a young age but chose not to escape the concentration camps because of his family.

Viktor Frankl grew up in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century. He was interested in psychology at a young age. He wrote to Sigmund Freud when he was only sixteen to share some of his ideas about psychology and the mind. Freud was interested in Frankl’s thoughts and had one of the boy’s papers published. This helped establish Frankl as a preeminent thinker in his field - by age thirty-nine, he was the head of neurology at Vienna’s Jewish hospital. Frankl began to fear for his life when the Nazis closed his hospital in 1939.

The US consulate knew about Frankl’s work and offered him a rare opportunity. He was sent a visa in 1942, long after most people were given a chance to escape the Germans. Frankl was working on a manuscript at the time and wanted to finish his book in America. But after a discussion with his father damaged Jewish synagogue, Frankl realized he could never abandon his family. He let his visa application lapse and was deported alongside his pregnant wife and parents in September 1942.

From September 1942 until 1945, Frankl was moved between four different camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kaufering and Dachau.

In the camps, Frankl witnessed three stages of reaction for both prisoners and guards: denial, apathy, and acceptance.

Frankl’s stages of response to life in concentration camps are in some ways similar to the stages of grief, though he leaves out anger, bargaining, and depression. There is also a fourth stage, which comes after being released from the camps, in which prisoners slowly reacclimate to “normal” life. Frankl explains his reasoning for the three stages based on his own experience in the camps.

The process begins with denial. Prisoners don’t want to believe the conditions in the camps are as bad as they suspect. Frankl writes about being greeted by the healthiest prisoners, which only increased the denial - it’s easy to believe it won’t be that bad if these senior prisoners can make jokes.

After experiencing the horrors of the camps, most prisoners begin to experience apathy. Where normally someone might experience anger or bargaining in this stage, prisoners had no bargaining power and would be killed if they acted out. There may have been some spiritual bargaining, but for the most part, prisoners became apathetic to horrors around them. Eventually, this lead to acceptance, for those who survived. If prisoners did not find acceptance, they would often kill themselves by throwing themselves on the barbed wire fences.

This process was similar for guards and Capos, Jewish prisoners chosen to help guard the camps. Frankl writes about the lack of agency of most guards and all Capos, and the way they used denial and apathy to cope with their assignments.

Even in the most horrible circumstances, we have the freedom to choose how we respond.

Prisoners in the concentration camps had virtually no control over their own lives. Any individualizing projects, like the manuscript that Frankl wrote during this time, had to be kept secret and could result in punishment or death. Any disobedience could cost a person their life. Despite this complete lack of autonomy or choice, Frankl noticed that there was one freedom that all prisoners preserved - the freedom to choose how to respond to suffering. This meant that prisoners developed deep inner worlds, where they could use their imaginations to escape from pain.

Frankl noticed that people who felt they had not yet achieved their true purpose had more incentive to persevere. In his own case, for example, the desire to finish his first manuscript drove him to avoid suicide and accept his fate. He imagined himself giving talks at prestigious university conferences about the psychology of concentration camp guards. He helped other men avoid suicide at the hands of the barbed wire fences around the camp by encouraging them to make goals for the future. By responding with optimism, Frankl found that even the worst tragedy could be survived.

According to “logotherapy,” finding meaning is the purpose of our lives. If we can’t find meaning, we often experience symptoms of mental illness.

The basic principle of “logotherapy,” Frankl’s contribution to psychoanalytics, is that all humans are motivated by the desire to find meaning in life. This contradictions earlier opinions by Freud and Adler, who said that humans are driven by pleasure or power.

In logotherapy, the idea that we find motivation in the search for meaning is more individualized. Frankl argues that the only thing that sets people apart from animals is the desire to find meaning. Meaning also sets us apart from each other – one person can't tell another person the meaning of their life. The burden of finding meaning in your life falls on each individual. For some people, meaning might be found in pleasure or power, but those drives aren't true of all humans.

In Frankl's theory, finding meaning means finding happiness. Depressed, lethargic, or directionless people are probably not mentally ill, as we might assume – they just need purpose. Losing meaning can also lead to a mental crisis. For example, someone might go through a mid-life crisis if they thought the meaning of life was raising a family. Once their kids are grown and they have an empty home, their life no longer as the meaning it once did. They have to find new meaning to heal.

A mid-life crisis might also occur if someone thought they were heading for a particular purpose, and find themselves living an entirely different kind of life – maybe you dreamed of being a famous artist, but instead you are working as a secretary at a law firm. Something similar might happen during a crisis of faith. If a person finds meaning in holy texts, and then questions their religion or faith, their whole world can crumble.

Meaning can come from one of three sources: making something, having a unique experience, or walking with dignity through tragedy.

Frankl believes meaning comes from one of three sources: making something, cultivating unique experiences or relationships, or acting with dignity in the face of tragedy.

Many people find meaning in making something. This is true for artists, but also for bakers, carpenters, or scientists. A doctor might find meaning in researching a cure for a terminal illness. For Frankl, writing his book and establishing logotherapy gave his life meaning.

People might also choose to have unique experiences or focus on unique relationships to give life meaning. When people retire, for example, they have to find meaning outside of work. They might start traveling, take up a new hobby, or spend more time with children and grandchildren. Some people find meaning in bonds with animals, or by volunteering in their communities. Cultivating these unique experiences can give life meaning.

Finally, meaning can be found in tragedy, as Frankl knew. He found meaning in the pain of losing his family to the Nazis and moving through the experience with dignity. Other people might find meaning in accepting death gracefully after a terminal diagnosis. This can be important in situations where it is impossible to make something or have a unique experience. If you are sick in bed, you can still find meaning by allowing your death to inspire others.

Giving and receiving love can cure many pains and anxieties.

Frankl witnessed the power of human bonds to cure fear and anxiety, even in the midst of tragedy and pain. Humor, sharing food, and other demonstrations of love allowed prisoners in the camps to reduce their own pain - giving made them feel better. Frankl found that many phobias can be solved with giving and receiving love, and that by focusing your attention outside yourself, you can often heal internal pain. For example, a woman struggling in a camp and separated from her fiance might find pleasure taking care of herself because she knows it would soothe her fiance. Even if he never finds out about her act of love, she will feel better because she thought of him.

Adopting tragic optimism as an attitude can allow us to cope with even the most unimaginable pain and grief.

Tragic optimism is the root of Frankl’s theory of life. He learned it in the camps, but it is relevant for all of us. Tragic optimism isn’t just about being optimistic through horrible circumstances. It means taking those horrible circumstances and growing from them.

Growing from tragedy can look different for each person. Someone struggling with addiction might find meaning and grow from the pain they endure coming off of narcotics. Someone who is unexpectedly widowed at a young age might grow from the experience, despite their grief. Frankl reminds us that it is easy to give up on our life's meaning when things are hard, but persisting is the ultimate hero's story. Stephen Hawking, for example, didn't give up when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. He grew from his experience and used his deteriorating condition to inspire him to keep learning and working. Along the way, he became an inspiration for not only scientists but also people living with a terminal illness or life-altering disability.

Main Takeaways

Viktor Frankl’s story of tragedy and horror in Nazi concentration camps is the backdrop for an exploration of logotherapy, or the idea that man is motivated by the search for meaning. In his exploration of his life and his therapeutic principles, Frankl explains the ways meaning can be found in life, the crises that can occur from a lack of meaning, and the value of tragic optimism. He insists that our attitude can alter the way we view the world, no matter our circumstances.

About the Author

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychologist from Vienna. He survived four concentration camps and went on to publish more than thirty books on clinical psychology and psychotherapy. He is the founder of logotherapy.

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