Man’s Search for Meaning: Review & Summary

man's search for meaning book cover

“Man’s Search for Meaning” tells the story of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.
Frankl, a psychologist, reflects on the meaning of life and on the mental differences between those who survived and those who didn’t.

Man's search for meaning quote

Exec Summary 

  • 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

Man’s Search For Meaning Summary

About The Author: Viktor Frankl survived five concentration camps and in the holocaust lost mother, brother, and wife (source).

The most surprising thing in all of this?

In “Man’s Search for Meaning” there is nothing but hope, beauty, and faith.

That alone would make it a must read.
Now add potentially life-changing content, great psychology and deep wisdom, and you get Man’s Search for Meaning.

#1. 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.

#2. 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 endeavor.

This is Viktor’s number one way to find meaning, and we might call it today “a life goal” or, in Simon Sinke’s parlance, a “WHY“.

#3. He who has a WHY can bear any HOW

This is the most famous sentence from Frankl.

In the book, te tells the story 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 unfinished work.
Or it might also be surviving to make sure a holocaust would never happen again.

It’s the reason to live for that pushed people to live and to endure anything.

My Note:
I would add that your WHY must not necessarily be positive.
It can even be a 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.

#4. Mental images

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.
Interestingly, 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.

#5. 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 (…)

#6. Sunday Neuroris: Slow Roasting 

Indeed, before reaching full depression, Viktor Frankl says that most people experience ‘Sunday neurosis’.

Sunday neurosis is the feeling of dejection at the end of the weekend.

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 compensations, 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”.

The Birth of Logotherapy

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 “blueprint”).

In the logotherapy’s perspective existential distress is not a neurosis or mental disease, but a sign that we are internally looking for 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.

How to Find Meaning

So, here we are finally, how can you find meaning?

According to Frankl the main sources of meaning are:

  1. Give back to the world with your work or creation
  2. Experiencing or love
  3. 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 alternative 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 direst of consequences, we could take pride in staying humans and helping one another instead of regressing to an 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 quote from the book on this subject:

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

man's search for meaning book cover

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 that 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.

  • Experience life

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).

  • Love someone

Or go even further, by loving and cherishing everyone close to you.

CONS

  • Poor organization

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 Review

Man’s Search for Meaning is a classic and one of the most quoted books in the thousands of books that I have read.

And for good reasons: it’s a must-read.

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 most dread scenarios).

  • Generalization are just.. Generalizations

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 them 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.

It means:

Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything

Get Man’s Search for Meaning on Amazon.

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