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What We Learned From Viktor Frankl’s 'Man’s Search for Meaning'

What can you learn from Man's search for Meaning?

In this blog post, we will discuss some of our key takeaways from Man’s Search for Meaning. 

Author of the book Viktor Emil Frankl was an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, author, Holocaust survivor and all round top bloke! He also founded logotherapy which we will touch on later.

Man’s Search for Meaning is a non-fiction book where Frankl recounts his experiences in various Nazi concentration camps. Frankl doesn’t necessarily recount a chronological story but instead uses examples to explain how the struggles of camp life impacted the mental state of those involved. It offers insight into how humans can survive the unthinkable and ultimately find meaning. 

This book first came on our radar when we read Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss and since then it has come up a bunch more times in various other media we’ve consumed. 

What are the key takeaways from the book?

Learn from history

Everyone probably knows some details of the harrowing experiences of the concentration camps but I think knowing more about the detailed events of camp life will make you realise the true scale of the horror. You’ll also find that most of the bullshit weighing you down on a daily basis will be put into perspective and you’ll automatically start reframing certain things as pretty minor. 

Finding a why

‘If you find a why, then you can bear any how.’ This quote alone is so profound, I’ll let that sit with you. 

Find your why and remember it next time you come across an obstacle. Let it be your mantra and hold onto it when reaching for perspective. 

‘A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts’ 

Next time you are in the trenches of disaster or setback, hopefully, if you’ve read some of Frankl’s work, you’ll be able to think back to your why and power through.

Humans have the choice and power unlike no other animals to choose our attitudes to life.

Frankl explains that everyday choice is at the epicentre of human experience. “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.”

On a daily basis we are subject to much outside of our control but we can always control how we choose to think about those circumstances.

Frankl explains that the Nazis could take everything away from him but one thing they could never rob him of was his power to choose his response. (Check out the story behind Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s false imprisonment to see this applied in action.)

As Shakespeare said ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ We all suffer obstacles, challenges and injustices but what is important is how we think and act on them. This book is proof that no matter what you may think, you do have a choice.

Finding meaning with logotherapy 

  • Purposeful work
    • Without work, people fall into a meaningless existence. Completing work and the associated short and long term goals to create tangible physical or intellectual outcomes results in deep satisfaction and a sense of value.
  • Love
    • Frankl himself used the love of his wife to see him through and keep his spirits high. He also observed many others used their connection with others to stay positive.
  • Courage in the face of difficulty
    • Admittedly, it’s much easier to harness meaning from the previous two. Having courage in the face of difficulty is perhaps a little harder. Suffering is in and of itself meaningless, its meaning comes from how we choose to think about it. Frankl observed how some people made choices to respond to their environment and others were simply victims of their environment. Ultimately the meaning Frankl took from the above guided him through. 

Reframing the suffering to derive meaning

“Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how can I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such suffering has spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering — to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

I think there’s a lot of power here in this short extract, this same methodology can be applied to many situations where abject despair seems like the only available response. 

In all walks of life, there are good and bad people

Frankl writes:

‘Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils.

From all this, we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two — the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of “pure race” — and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.

Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we again found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil? 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.’

One to remember next time you go to judge a book by its cover. Be open-minded and I am sure your connection with other people will bring you joy.

Don’t be afraid to laugh

“Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”

He accounts how he helped others to benefit from his own tools of survival.

‘I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site to develop a sense of humor. I suggested to him that we would promise each other to invent at least one amusing story daily, about some incident that could happen one day after our liberation. He was a surgeon and had been an assistant on the staff of a large hospital. So I once tried to get him to smile by describing to him how he would be unable to lose the habits of camp life when he returned to his former work. On the building site (especially when the supervisor made his tour of inspection) the foreman encouraged us to work faster by shouting: “Action! Action!” I told my friend, “One day you will be back in the operating room, performing a big abdominal operation. Suddenly an orderly will rush in announcing the arrival of the senior surgeon by shouting, ‘Action! Action!’”’

Success and happiness

And we will leave you with the quote below. We’d love to hear your takeaways and what impact this book has had on you. Either comment below or hit up our Instagram, we’ve posted plenty of Frankl related goodness on there this month.

“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For 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. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not 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.”

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