Man’s Search for Meaning – A Summary

Man's search for meaning summary

I don’t know if you believe in synchronicity, but I certainly do, especially regarding books. Sometimes, I’ll keep seeing a book everywhere. EVERYWHERE. When that happens, I know that I have to have it. That’s what happened with Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl.

Recently, I wrote an article about a book called The Happiness Makeover. The author mentions Man’s Search for Meaning more than once in her book, and it has been the millionth time I’ve seen this book mentioned by happiness authors. I felt that I had seen enough signs and I decided to splurge and buy the book on Amazon. And it blew my mind.

Viktor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist from Vienna. During WWII, Frankl and his family have been taken away from their lives and imprisoned in Nazi death camps. Frankl wrote a memoir from his time in the concentration camps, which constitutes the first half of the book. He describes life in the camps, how the prisoners were treated, but most of all, he described the psychology of the prisoners and how hope for a better future kept the survivors alive.

Frankl’s story is a story of resilience, of great inner strength, but mostly of a search for meaning despite the horror of the death camps. He developed a psychology theory called Logotherapy, which helps patients find meaning and purpose in their lives to overcome suffering. The second part of this short book explains his theory in terms that anyone can understand.

What Man’s Search for Meaning has taught me

The first lesson I’ve learned from the book is about love. In one of the passages of his memoir, Frankl describes the feeling of relief that he felt when, during a long hard day working outside of the camp in arduous weather,  he thought of his wife, from which he had been separated upon arrival at the camp. Although he did not know if she was doing ok, or even if she was still alive, the thought of his wife gave him hope to see her again and he felt fulfilled. He wrote : “In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his suffering in the right way —an honorable way— in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.” This thought made him realize that “love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.”

Later in his book, he wrote that love can lead us to finding meaning. Meaning will always be found in others and not only in ourselves. Being present for our loved ones can constitute our purpose. But also, when we have people we love in our lives, they know us best than anyone. They can show us our unfulfilled potential and inspire us to pursue our life’s work.

Suffering as an achievement

Aptly named, Man’s Search for Meaning poses the hypothesis that finding meaning and purpose can help overcome pain and suffering and lead to greater happiness and fulfillment. When one finds its purpose, he can bear suffering with greater resilience. As Nietzsche once wrote, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Suffering is an important theme in Frankl’s book. He wrote that the way we bear suffering can become an achievement. Our resilience certainly is a form of achievement in my opinion. Thus, we can find meaning in suffering. He reminds us that suffering is an inevitable part of life and that without it, human life would not be complete. He even goes as far as to say that “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” To support his idea, he tells the story of a man who came to him in therapy, mourning the death of his aging wife. He tells Frankl that the suffering of losing his beloved is the hardest pain a man can bear. To which Frankl replies that, because the man outlived his wife, he prevented her to experience this pain. The perspective of suffering in place of his wife gave the man’s pain a meaning and he was finally able to find solace. Frankl wrote that meaning can be possible in spite of suffering, like his comrades prisoners, and even, in the case of the old man, because of suffering.

The existential vacuum

Viktor Frankl talks about the existential vacuum, this feeling that some people will experience when their life seems to be meaningless, when they feel like they have no purpose. I, for one, experienced that feeling of existential vacuum last year, before I started Productive Happiness. I was going to work every morning, coming back from work every night, watching TV and going to bed. I felt like my life was just a rinse-and-repeat, boring chain of meaningless activities. Hopefully, I realized that writing and sharing the knowledge I was amassing from books and my life experiences with others gave me a sense of purpose greater than anything I had accomplished in my life so far. I may still be waking up, going to work and coming back, but in the end, I can live my purpose through writing and share my gifts with the world.

What is meaning and purpose?

Frankl explains that there is 3 ways of finding purpose : creating a work or deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, or developing your attitude towards suffering. But he also shares that love and taking responsibility for our own lives and actions constitute the real meaning of life. He wrote : “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.” He also wrote “Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the task which it constantly sets for each individual.”

To me, the greatest lesson from Man’s Search for Meaning is this: Frankl shares that during his imprisonment, he realized that the SS had power over his body and his circumstances, but they could never have power over his mind if he chose not to let them. He remained free, even in the concentration camps, because he had freedom of thought. I loved that lesson for so many reasons. If you read my blog often, you know that I am a big proponent of the idea that we choose happiness and that we can choose how we think about and react to our life circumstances. Viktor Frankl was the living proof of this idea, and he shared it with more than 12 million readers over the world.

Man’s Search for Meaning is a very profound book, filled with life-altering ideas and a gut-wrenching story of survival, resilience and power over our mind. If you’ve been feeling like you’re drifting, living life without a goal, I highly suggest that you get a copy of this great book, which has been voted one of the 10 most influential books in America by the US Library of Congress.

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Have you read Man’s Search for Meaning? Do you plan to? What was the main takeaway that resonated with you? Let me know in the comments below!

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