Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl stands huge among the monuments to human magnificence.
- If you have a strong WHY in your life -a guiding purpose-, you will bear any HOW -any difficulties-
- Success and happiness cannot be pursued. They must ensue. Get a goal greater than yourself and success and happiness will ensue.
- You choose your attitude in any set of circumstances
Viktor Frankl survived five concentration camps, lost mother, brother and wife in the holocaust (link).
And yet there’s nothing but hope, beauty and faith in his writing.
That alone would make it a must read. Now add a life changing content that will truly make you a better person, and you get Man’s Search for Meaning.
You choose your attitude (no matter what happens)
No matter what happens to you, you decide how to react and how to feel about it.
Viktor Frankl details how some men, no matter how desperate their situation, still found the strength to comfort others. Some of them even giving away their last piece of bred.
I can’t help but quote him verbatim here because it’s too beautiful to paraphrase:
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 human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.
Happiness and success must ensue
Frankl says that happiness is not something we should seek directly. He defines happiness as a by-product of giving ourselves fully into an endeavour. This is Viktor’s number one way to find meaning, and we might call it today “a life goal”.
He who has a WHY can bear any HOW
Viktor Frankl recounts of men going from suicide plans to survivors simply by finding a big reason to live on. It could have been a child in a foreign country or an unfinished work. Or making sure an holocaust would never happen again.
Or, I would add, it can even be a not-so-positive, raging one. You might tell yourself for example you’ll survive no matter what to make sure you kill every single prisoner’s abusing m@#$@f^&!#g guard.
Which, incidentally, is not far off from what’s driving The Power Moves.
I also found interesting how across all book some of the biggest reliefs from pain came from thoughts and mental images.
Viktor Frankl for example had mental images of his wife and the birds nearby became her living embodiment. Powerfully, he even said later on that the mental image wouldn’t have changed if he had known his wife had already died.
He also imagined himself after liberation in lecture halls, teaching about what must never happen again -very prophetic as that’s exactly what happened-.
Recurrent among other prisoners were also very descriptive and imaginative discussions about the food they were going to enjoy once free.
What is life asking us
Viktor Frankl turns the table on the question of what we expect from life which, he believes, is a terrible question.
We must instead find the courage to ask what life expects of us.
And sometimes, that answer only reveals in the worst suffering.
I quote him:
(…) We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. (…) stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life. (…) Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems (…)
A chapter of Man’s Search for Meaning is dedicated to Logotherapy, the psychotherapy school founded by Viktor Frankl.
Contrary to Freud’s introspection, Logotherapy takes the person out of themselves and puts their life in a broader perspective. Logotherapy also sees mental health as the tension between who you are and who you could be -or whom you wished to be- (a concept repeated by Tony Robbins on what he calls “blue print”).
In the logotherapy’s perspective existential distress is not neurosis or mental disease, but a sign that we are internally looking for a meaning in our life.
Depression sets in indeed only when the gap between who we are and whom we could be becomes so large that we can no longer ignore it.
Thus depression can be a welcome warning if we use it as a wake up call for some long-due soul searching.
Sunday Neuroris: Slow Roasting
Indeed, before reaching full depression, Viktor Frankl talks about ‘Sunday neurosis’, which is the feeling of dejection at the end of the working week. We realize our day to day humdrum is empty and meaningless, and instead of going to the root cause we cover up the pain with binge eating, drinking or shopping.
The bad thing is that these compensation, in the short term, might even patch us up. And poison us just like a drug would. And, probably worst of all, they prevent us from looking deeper into ourselves to find meaning.
This part made me think of Henry Thoreau’s quote about most people “living a life of quiet desperation”.
So, here we are finally, how can you find meaning?
According to Frankl the main sources of meaning are:
- Give back to the world with your work or creation
- Experiencing or love
- The attitude we take to situations and suffering outside our control
The first is what you could call a life purpose, or life goal.
I love the second one as it puts experiences and a life of enjoyment as an alternatives to achievement. Thus traveling the world or giving yourself fully to your partner can replace a more concrete or materialistic goal.
We get to the third when we learn to look at suffering as an opportunity to find meaning in life. For example, in the most dire of consequences, we could take pride in staying humans and helping one another instead of regressing to animal level.
To me, it can run even deeper. This is about growing and becoming people who are able to choose our meaning, no matter the situation we are in.
I leave you indeed with a powerful quotes from the book on this subject:
Real Life Applications
Get a strong WHY for a happier life (and overcome depression)
If you feel depressed, maybe you don’t have an overarching goal which juices you? It doesn’t have to be lofty or grandiose.
You want a kid? Maybe your goal is “find a man and become the best mother you can be”.
You like smoking weed and gaming? What about a legalization advocate and game tournaments to take kids off the streets.
Enjoying what life can offer is a great way of living a meaningful life. If you are like me and tend to be demanding of yourself and rarely enjoy rewards, start changing that. Book holidays, plan new activities. Learn to lose yourself in new experiences you will cherish for years and start living life fully. It’s a skill you and you can learn it (develop a growth mindset).
Or go even further, by loving and cherishing everyone close to you.
You have just read a neatly organized summary with all the biggest lessons. But I had to spend some time to put it all together from different parts of the books.
But it’s a minor detail really. You will finish reading Man’s Search for Meaning way too quickly and there won’t that many books which can compare. That’s the biggest con I can think of.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl can change your life.
Here are a few more personal reflections:
Depression and Meaning
Depression or existential distress as a wake up call to search for a deeper meaning was, pun intended, a wake up concept for me. It just rang so true with what I’ve seen around me. The number of people I admire whom overcame depression and/or existential crisis just seemed too high to be random. Viktor Frankl thesis seems the perfect explanation: we experience distress when we’re not (yet) where we’re supposed to be. And once we heed those calls and get going on the right track newly found energies and lust for life will all but replace any distress.
We’re more than basic drives
While Maslow or Freud would make us believe that we can’t see past our basic urges until they’re satisfied Viktor Frankl proves the contrary: half starved men taking care of others show us that we can go beyond any lack of basic needs. Also, it proves that “higher” drives and ideals also work when our basic urges are not met (ie.: Intrinsic Motivators work, even in the dreadest scenarios).
Generalization are just.. Generalization
Viktor Frankl affirms we can make few generalizations about what it means to be human, as man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz (..) and also that being who entered those gas chambers upright. And also is man the being comforting others while starving himself. In the end, it’s up to each one of us to uphold the better angels of our nature, beginning with ourselves and projecting then onto others.
I will leave you with one more empowering thought. Man’s Search for Meaning is not a literal translation from the original title, which with “Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen” I found even more befitting and inspiring.