Book notes: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl book summary.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Synopsis: “Internationally renowned psychiatrist, Viktor E. Frankl, endured years of unspeakable horror in Nazi death camps. During, and partly because of, his suffering, Dr. Frankl developed a revolutionary approach to psychotherapy known as logotherapy. At the core of his theory is the belief that man’s primary motivational force is his search for meaning.

Man’s Search for Meaning is more than a story of Viktor E. Frankl’s triumph: it is a remarkable blend of science and humanism and an introduction to the most significant psychological movement of our day.” -Audible

Opening thoughts:

I’ve heard this book referenced in the Tim Ferriss podcast a few times by various guests. At first, the book didn’t appeal to me too much, but I think I’m gravitating towards putting more variety in my reading lists so I’m not stuck reading about the same business and self-development type things. The reviews were pretty good so I decided to pick this one up for my August 2017 reading batch.

Key notes:

  • The central theme of existentialism: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is a purpose to life at all, then there is a purpose and suffering and in dying
  • He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how
  • When all is snatched away, what remains is the last of human freedoms: ability to choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances
  • In psychiatry, there is a certain condition called delusion of reprieve: The condemned man may immediately before his execution gets delusion that he might be reprieved at the last minute
  • Despite all of the discomfort and horrible living conditions, they were surprised at how used to it all they became
    • An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior
  • The next phase of a prisoner after a few weeks was a dead any of emotions and reactions to everything horrible around them
    • Apathy was soon a very necessary protective shell
  • He had the good favor of one of his campo’s because he listened to his problems and diagnosed him
  • Being in this environment made them regress to a primitive human state where all they thought about was food in their spare time. They also longed for a time when they would think about food all the time
    • There were two schools of thought about rations: whether you ate it immediately to satisfy the hunger and prevent loss or theft, or rationing it out throughout the day
  • The lack of food and trying to survive is probably what contributed to a lack of sexual desires or energy
  • Politics and religion were discussed a lot. Politics about the war spreading quickly throughout the camp, and hope that it would end soon
  • The truth is that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire
    • The salvation of man is through love and in love
  • Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self
  • Even in the circumstances they were able to appreciate the natural beauty around them
  • Art and performance was appreciated and sometimes rewarded at the camp, though the contrast between the art and the environment was stark
  • There is also sometimes slight and sparse humor at the camp. Humor was another one of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation
    • Humor, more than anything else in the human make up, can afford and aloofness and ability to rise above any situation even if only for a few seconds
  • The attempt to develop a sense of humor and see things in a humorous light is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living
  • Despite all the discomfort of the second camp, they still found joy in the fact that it had no chimney or crematorium
    • The relativity of suffering, they envied some prisoners they passed by once for all of the comforts they had, since they lost all of theirs long ago
    • They even envied those who had the luck to work in a sheltered room like a factory
    • Relative luck where some units were worse than others
    • The sign of the bombing sirens was usually a relief while working in the fields or a hard camp
    • They were grateful for the smallest of mercies
  • Negative happiness, freedom from suffering. Real positive pleasures were very few
    • His balance sheet of pleasures. He had only 2 per week when he tracked it
  • No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same
  • A man in the camp lost the feeling of being an individual, a being with a mind and inner freedom and personal value
    • He thought of himself then as only a part of an enormous mass of people, his existence descended to the level of animal life
    • As sheep being herded, they only thought of two things: how to evade the bad dogs who heard of them, and how to get a little food
    • While in such a crowded life, one will occasionally wish to find personal solitude
  • In camp, a man was terrified of taking the initiative and making his own decisions because most of them acknowledged fate as their master
    • Most prisoners preferred an escape from commitment. When they had minutes to make lightning fast decisions, usually on escape attempts, it would be the hardest decisions ever
  • Seeing daily beatings made the propensity for violence increase. This was especially true when there was a tension between the general masses and the promoted minorities
  • The human being is completely and unavoidably influenced by his surroundings
    • In this case, the surroundings being the unique structure of camp life, which forced the prisoner to conform his conduct to a certain set pattern
  • There were plenty of examples where a man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress
  • While they were few in number, there were examples of men who offered sufficient proof that 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
    • It is this spiritual freedom which cannot be taken away which makes life meaningful and purposeful
  • There was a loss of certainty once went into the camp, for they did not know how long they would be sentenced or when their sentencing would end
    • The most debilitating aspect of camp life was not knowing your release and the end of this existence. It is an existence without a future and without a goal
  • The man who could not see the future occupy his mind with retrospective thoughts
    • There was a tendency to look into the past to make the present with all its horrors seem less real
    • But in robbing the present of its reality there lied a certain danger, it became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive out of camp life, opportunities which really did exist
  • Regarding their provisional existence as unreal was in itself an important factor in causing the prisoners to lose their hold on life, everything in a way became pointless
    • Such people forget that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself
  • It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking into the future, and this is his salvation in the most difficult of moments, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task
  • The prisoner who had lost faith in the future, his future, was doomed
    • With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold, he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay
  • Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the task it constantly sets for each individual
  • Questions about the meaning of life to never be answered by such sweeping statements, life does not mean something vague but something very real and concrete
    • Just as life’s tasks are very real and concrete. They form man’s destiny which is very real and unique for each individual man
  • The sufferer’s unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden
  • There’s no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bear witness that a man has the greatest encourage, the courage to suffer
  • This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence have a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love
    • When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude
  • There are two races of 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 all decent or indecent people
  • Immediately upon their release, they realized that they literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to slowly relearn it
    • He calls it depersonalization, where everything felt unreal and unlikely, as in a dream where they could not believe it was true
  • The body was more free from constraints than the mind, for they could eat ravenously and talk for seemingly forever, for seemed like the mine had a lot to talk about and release. The desire to speak was irresistible
    • The man who has been suddenly liberated from mental pressure can suffer damage to his moral and spiritual health
  • Some men had to be lead back to the truth that no man has the right to do wrong, even if wrong has been done to them
    • Some men upon liberation bitterness and disillusionment
  • In logotherapy, the patient is actually confronted and re-oriented towards the meaning of his life, and to make him aware of this meeting can contribute much to his ability to overcome his neurosis
    • Man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health
    • There is nothing in the world that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life
  • In the 20th century, there is an existential vacuum
    • No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition to tell him not to do. Many times he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do, informationism, or he does what other people tell him to do, totalitarianism
    • The existential vacuum causes either distress or boredom
  • What matters is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment
    • Similar to asking a chess champion, “what is the best chess move in the world?”
  • Maxim: “Live as if you were living already for the second time, and as if you’ve acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.”
    • Nothing would stimulate a man’s sense of responsibleness more than this maxim, which invites him to imagine first that the present is past, and second that the past may yet be changed and amended
  • In logotherapy, the psychotherapist does not allow the client to give the therapist the ability to pass value judgments
    • It is up to the patient to decide whether do you interpret his life task as being responsible to society, or to his own conscious
  • He stresses that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system
    • Self-transcendence of human existence. It denotes the fact that being human always points and is directed through something or someone other than oneself, being it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter
  • The more one forgets himself by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love, the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. Self-actualization is possible only a side effect of self-transcendence.
  • The meaning of life always changes, but it never ceases to be
    • According to logo therapy, we can find this meaning in life in three different ways:
      1. By creating a work or doing a deed
      2. By experiencing something or encountering someone
      3. By the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering
  • No one can become fully aware of the essence of another human being unless he loves him
    • By his love, he enables to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person, and even more, he sees that which is potential and him which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized
    • Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware what he can be and what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true
  • Normally sex is a mode of expression for love. Sex is justified, even sanctified, as soon as, but only as long as, it is a vehicle for love
    • Thus love is not understood as a mere side effect of sex, rather, sex is a way of expressing the experience of ultimate togetherness which is called love
  • We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed
    • For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement
  • In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice
  • It is one of the basic tenants of logotherapy that man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or avoid pain, but rather to see a meeting in his life, that is my man is even ready to suffer conditioned to be sure that his suffering has a meeting. However, in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning
  • He believes that man is ultimately self-determining
    • Man does not simply exist, but always decides what his existence will be. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change in any instant
  • One of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them
    • Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary
  • Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon who is positive aspect is responsibleness
    • In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness
    • He recommends the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented with a statue of responsibility on the West Coast
  • Some behave like swines while others behave like saints
    • Man has both potentialities within himself, which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions
  • For suicide patients, he would tell them that all of his past patients have found a meaning in their suffering and suicide attempt and that now their responsibility currently is to wait or find a day where they can find the meaning in it
  • How does a human being go about finding meaning?
    • All we can do is study the lives of people who’ve seemed to have found their answers to the questions of what ultimately human life is about as against those who have not
  • The ability to find meaning in suffering
    • Empirical data of war prisoners have shown that although their captivity was extremely stressful and full of suffering, they never the less benefited from the captivity experience seeing it as a growth experience
  • He isn’t saying that suffering is indispensable to the discovery of meaning. He only insists that meaning is available in spite of, even through suffering, provided that the suffering is unavoidable
    • If it is avoidable, The meaningful do is to remove its cause for unnecessary suffering is masochistic rather than heroic
  • The priority stays with creatively changing the situation that causes us to suffer, but the superiority goes to the know how to suffer if need be
  • There’s no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them, for although it is true that the old have no opportunities or possibilities in the future, they have more than that
    • They have realities in the past, the potentialities they have actualized, The meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized, and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past
  • The values of each and every person stays with him or her, and it does so based on the values he or she has realized in the past and is not contingent on the usefulness that he or she may or may not retain in the present
  • Society categorizes usefulness relative to useful to society and adores happiness and success particularly from the young
    • It virtually ignores the values of all of those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity, and being valuable in the sense of usefulness
  • Sigmund Freud asserted that if you expose a diverse group of people to hunger, their differences will blur
    • Victor asserts this isn’t true for in the concentration camps when they were exposed to the hunger and sufferings, the opposite occurred. People became more different, people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints
  • “The world is in a bad state, and it will get worse unless each of us does his best. Let us be alert because since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of, and since Hiroshima, we know what is at stake”

Closing thoughts:

Absolutely loved this book, instant top 10. This is one of those books that applies to everyone because it covers themes that we all face, such as finding the meaning in your life, how to overcome suffering, and refocusing your perspective to find the beauty in the toughest of situations.

At first, I couldn’t understand why people on Tim Ferriss’ podcast really liked the book. I thought, okay sure it might be a great book and give a very enlightening perspective. However, I was a bit wary of being depressed from reading a book about the Holocaust. I was pleasantly surprised that Viktor takes the tone of “I don’t need to paint a picture of the atrocities during this time, but let’s discuss some interesting topics with the background of what went on.” What I learned was there was so much insight that really hit home for me, and I imagine many other people who’ve read the book. I think the book really puts one’s own life meaning into perspective, which is where the huge value of this book lies.

Nutshell: Viktor discusses the meaning of life and logotherapy against the experiences he had in the concentration camps during the Holocaust.

Rating: 5/5

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