top of page

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Read this book! My neighbor lent it to me following an across-the-rose-bushes discussion about topics ranging from the search for a career path to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. By the next day I'd formed the opinion (completely unbiased, of course!) that everyone should read this book.

You certainly know Sigmund Freud, but have you heard of his student and fellow psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl? He's known as the founder of the third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, which says that meaning is the motivating force for human lives, rather than pleasure (Freud, first School) or power (Alfred Adler, second School). Frankl developed a method of psychotherapy based on his ideas called logotherapy.

The traumatic experience as a concentration camp prisoner during the Holocaust convinced Frankl that the most important dimension of our lives is the quest for meaning, a reason to live. In spite of his own suffering, Frankl observed life at the camp through his eyes of a trained doctor and psychiatrist. He noticed that robust prisoners were more likely than weaker ones to commit suicide, a common occurrence due to the dehumanizing conditions. He theorized that a greater tendency towards inner reflection among the weaker prisoners made them more able to cling onto a reason for trying to survive. His own reason for wanting to live was to publish his ideas on psychotherapy; his manuscript had been ripped away from him when he arrived in the camp, and he wanted to rewrite it. Another prisoner's reason for living was to see his son again. The reason didn't matter, what was important was to have one.


Logotherapy is founded on the meaning of life, as determined by each person individually. It looks to the future rather than the past. Man is responsible to find the meaning in his life.

Three main paths to find the meaning of your life:

1. Action (work or deed)

Meaning emerges through doing. A professional activity, volunteer work, a hobby, helping others, or some other action can fill you with a sense of meaning and purpose.

2. Experience (know and love something or someone)

A loving relationship gives meaning to life. This experience can become a source from which a person can draw and discover new meanings over time, even if the relationship is over and in the past. Listening to a piece of music or looking out onto a landscape that moves or touches you are other examples of experiences which can give meaning to life.

3. Attitude (going beyond ourselves)

No human life is with without difficulty or suffering. The question is what attitude do you take when faced with your own or someone else’s suffering. Accepting the hardship through courage, dignity or some other quality leads to fulfillment even in the most apparently hopeless situations.

Nothing Is Lost

I am comforted by Frankl's idea that all of our past experiences belong to us forever. No one can take them away from us. Frankl says, Rather than pity older people, we should envy them. They may not have a future, but they have something more. Instead of future possibilities, they possess past reality, realized potential, meanings they discovered, values they lived out, and no one can take these treasures away from them. 168

Common Sense

Frankl survived the camps and lived to be 92, going on to help many people through his ideas, not just people who had suffered trauma. He tells the story of a man who, unhappy in his work and suffering from depression, had been in psychotherapy for five years, being told that if he would just admit that his unhappiness was coming from father-hatred triggered by his job, he would feel better. But he didn't feel better, so he went to see Frankl, and talked about how he didn't like his job and wanted to be doing something else, but didn't think it was possible. After two or three sessions he realized he could, and must, change jobs. He was then able to get on with his life, and his feelings of depression and angst went away. Frankl's ideas seem simple and straightforward, not requiring years on the psychoanalyst's couch. Is it cynical to say maybe that's why he is less well known?

A Unique Memoir

This is the only Holocaust survivor memoir I’ve read from the point of view of a pyschologist, with the aim of founding a method (logotherapy) to help others. I am awed by Frankl's courage, common sense, humility, humanity and hopefulness in the face of such suffering.

Moral Choices

I was struck by Frankl's explanation of what he calls the psychology of the freed prisoner: victims can choose to act morally but may also become the oppressors, engaging in violence and justifying it by the horrible experiences they have suffered.

Just after being liberated, Frankl and a good friend were walking by a field of crops growing near the camp. Frankl automatically walked around the crops in order to not damage them, but his friend walked right through the middle, destroying the plants on purpose. When Frankl objected, he replied, What are you talking about? What about us, didn't they destroy us? My wife and child were gassed - and the rest of my family - how do you dare tell me not to walk on a few oats?

Frankl (whose wife also died in the camp) tried to show his friend the "simple truth that no one has the right to hurt someone else, even if he has been treated unfairly."

For him that was the only moral choice. 118

I thought back to the conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Imagine what Frankl is saying here. It's huge. No one has the right to hurt someone else, even if he has been treated unfairly.

I want to take the time to really think about that and hope you will too.

20 views0 comments


bottom of page