★ Rockstar Book Review: “Man’s Search for Meaning”
This is part of our Rockstar Book Review series.
Be sure to check out all previous books we’ve covered!
“Man’s Search for Meaning” Provides the Why and the How We Need to Thrive
Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” is one of the few book that graces my library shelf. It serves as both a reference and a reminder of what matters most. Further, its size and the powerful insights it contains invite its owner to give it a periodic reread. According to Frankl, we need to do one thing and one thing only: find meaning so that we may be purposeful in our actions.
The book is organized in two parts:
- Part 1: Frankl’s autobiographical observations while a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps provides the context we require to appreciate how he came to understand the source of human resilience and determination.
- Part 2: A summary of Frankl’s Logotherapy theory, a future-focused form of psychotherapy that addresses the innate need for each of us to identify or develop sources of meaning in our lives.
Part 1: Observations of a Nazi Concentration Camp Survivor
I’ll admit that I have not read works from others on their experiences in Nazi concentration camps. That said, Frankl stresses that choosing to share this part of his life with readers was a means to an end. It is how he explains how purpose and meaning translates into a will to live and to live life as best we can, no matter our circumstances.
Frankl describes how people carried on, despite: seeing friends and family members die, dealing with starvation, forced labor, torture, lack of sleep, lack of hygiene, disease, vermin & parasites, and the dehumanization the prisoners endured. Those who had found a reason to make it through the next moment, day, week, and month were equipped with something that no oppressor could take away: free will. These captives might not have been able to determine what they could or could not do, but they could choose how to think about and how to feel about their situation.
What made individuals more successful in doing so was a will to live that was fueled by one reason: they felt there was a purpose to their lives. Those who felt they had a reason to keep going, and who felt they had something to contribute to others, were able to go beyond the level of fortitude hope alone can offer.
Frankl witnessed firsthand the result of losing hope. He describes the moment when someone had given up: the light left their eyes, they stopped caring about anything and, due to their harsh environment, they often succumbed to disease or starvation within mere days. Despite their best efforts, Frankl and other witnesses could do nothing to change their minds. They had psychologically flatlined and were simply waiting for their bodies to catch up. Their wish, Frankl shares, was always granted.
Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect… Woe to him who saw no more sense of his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. (pg. 75-76)
The following are certain notable characteristics of the resilient, according to Frankl:
- Being used to an intellectual life seems to somehow immunize an individual against some of the psychological trauma due to his/her ability to tap into themselves. (This point makes me think of Andy Dufresne in the movie The Shawshank Redemption based on a novella by Stephen King of a similar name (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.)
- Developing a sense of humor makes it possible for an individual to rise above trying circumstances, if only for a moment. (Frankl considers the development of a healthy sense of humor an important part of learning to live well.)
- Maintaining a strong sense of self is critical in assisting a person’s belief in a need to endure, unlike those who feel they are nothing more than “sheeple”.
Part 2: On Overview of Logotherapy
Logotherapy—Frankl’s future-focused form of psychotherapy—was strongly influenced by his observations and personal experiences as a prisoner of the Nazis.
Core to his theory is that focusing on our happiness is the easiest way to ensure we stay miserable—and the more we strive for it, the more miserable we’re likely to become. Frankl suggests that happiness is an outcome of fulfilling our goals and aspirations; it cannot be the goal, itself. To be happy, we need to focus on what we want to create, both for ourselves and for the world, and strive to achieve it.
In the past, society and religion strongly steered us toward our duties and responsibilities. Much of these were driven by intrinsic values and motivation. Duty and honor guided most decisions. Along with greater access to education, vast improvements in our living standards and the rise of the modern meritocracy, many of us feel lost, searching for what matters in all the wrong places (stuff, status, pleasure, power, money). If we’re so fortunate, we ask, how can we be so discontent?
The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the 20th century…the traditions which buttressed [man’s] behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism)… The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. (pg. 106)
Frankl’s solution to this growing problem: personal growth. He suggests to strive for more from ourselves, and we need to:
- Stop being ashamed about our unhappiness (ironically, letting go of that preoccupation might just make you happier) and refocus that wasted energy into more positive pursuits.
- Find meaning in our lives (by creating, doing, experiencing, loving, overcoming).
- Set worthwhile goals for ourselves on our terms, and strive and struggle to achieve them.
- Turn “personal tragedy into triumph” by focusing on what we can do to improve our situation or our perception of it.
- Focus on what we can do to stack the deck in our favor, as opposed to focusing on what we fear might happen to us.
- Embrace that we have the power to transform ourselves (no one’s fate or personality is predetermined).
- Use guilt as a means of identifying areas for improvement, instead of a means of adding to our sense of personal shame.
Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. (pg. 131)
The Bottom Line
Viktor Frankl offers convincing evidence that we can only experience sustained happiness by doing meaningful things that require us to grow. When we’re driven by purpose, we can reinvent ourselves, become incredibly resilient and experience deep contentment, even in the face of adversity.
Other suggested books of this type: “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho.
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