"Man's Search for Meaning" Review
Updated: Aug 14, 2019
Viktor Frankl’s Man Search for Meaning is a classic that has sold over 12 million copies since being published in 1949. Even though it’s a short read, I was afraid to read it for long time because of the dark subject matter as I had heard that Frankl was a psychotherapist and a Holocaust survivor who wrote about his Nazi camp experiences in an unvarnished manner. It was an emotional read, but I wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone with an interest in psychology or self-improvement.
At the heart of Frankl's hypothesis of logotherapy (logos is Greek for meaning) is the idea that man's primary drive is the need to find meaning as opposed to pleasure or power. Men do not seek these for their own sake but for the meaning that they provide. If men were universal seekers of power or pleasure, then all Nazi camp inmates would have withered away as they were subjected to physical and psychological pressure that stripped their life of both. However, as Frankl tells us, some persevered and managed to hold on to the vestiges of dignity, happiness, and sanity even in the face of abject cruelty by constantly reminding themselves of the pursuits and people who made their life meaningful. His study of the inmates reveals certain lessons about meaningful living that remain doubtlessly relevant to millennials and Gen Z-ers like us.
According to Frankl, we can live with courage, kindness and dignity despite suffering if we are able to find meaning. This can be achieved in three ways: through work, love and the attitude with which we face unavoidable suffering. The first is straightforward: find work that offers more than just money, find work that interests and nourishes you. Don’t pick your major only because you’re seduced by the ease of landing a job post-graduation. While it may be true that choosing a major purely out of interest with no regard for career prospects is a privilege that only the rich can afford, there are other school-related ways to imbue your life with more meaning, for example, through community-oriented CCAs or volunteering.
The second way to find meaning is through love. One of the more memorable parts of the book is Frankl's description of how the thoughts of reuniting with his wife kept him motivated during the most soul-crushing moments at the camp.
Build and maintain relationships that feature love in its various forms, whether romantic, platonic, or familial. Remember your best friend from secondary school whom you haven’t seen in years? Drop her a text and make plans to catch up properly once midterms end. Take the initiative and refuse passivity. Not everyone will respond positively to your active efforts, but a few will, and the bond that you share with them will buoy you through your lowest lows.
The final way to attain meaning is through a persevering and optimistic attitude. Even when the freedom of all kinds is snatched away, as it so happened in the Nazi camps, man always retains the freedom to choose his attitude toward a situation, what Frankl calls “the last and inviolable freedom” available to him. The Holocaust inmates chose to base their optimism on little pleasures like being treated a small dollop of synthetic honey on their regular, scanty slice of bread or receiving thin soup "scooped from the bottom" (filled with peas, a luxury in the camps). They also relied on art, nature, and religion to transcend their sorrows and eke out some semblance of happiness. They were grateful, for even the smallest of joys. Think about the small joys that you may have overlooked. Surprise fries at the bottom of the bag, being able to squeeze into the first D1 that comes your way, or even the rare & beautiful blessing of landing co-operative group mates. Give thanks to God, the Universe, or to the people who made that joy possible.
Eventually, heartbreak, loss and despair will rear their ugly head for everyone. Suffering is a fact of life. It is inevitable. But it’s possible to be compassionate and courageous even in the face of unspeakable tragedy, if one sails on meaning as he navigates the choppy waters of life. Frankl teaches you how to build a life raft for troubling times in this startling and transformative book.