Man's Search For Meaning

By Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was a German psychiatrist imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps during World War 2. He writes about the suffering that he and his fellow inmates endured, the cruelty of the guards, and the even greater cruelty from the inmates appointed to a level of authority over the rest.

Frankl learned that suffering is an inevitable part of life, and without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

Everything can be taken from 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.

Frankl came to realize that if a prisoner could keep his faith in the future, he had a chance to survive, but if he lost his faith he lost his spiritual hold leading to mental and physical decay.

There are two types of people, the decent man and the indecent man.

Frankl survived his internment and went on to practice psychotherapy afterward and developed his own therapeutic technique he called logotherapy: an approach that helps people find personal meaning in their lives.

According to logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivating force in man.

More about logotherapy:
  • Existential Frustration - mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one ought to accomplish. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.
  • The Existential Vacuum - The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom. Boredom is now causing, and certainly bringing to psychiatrists, more problems to solve than distress.
  • The Meaning of Life - Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.

According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

The Meaning of Suffering - When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

Life’s Transitoriness - The only real transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but as soon as they are actualized, they are rendered realities at that very moment; they are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved from transitoriness. For, in the past, nothing is irretrievably lost but everything is irrevocably stored.

Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal itself.

Fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes for.

Man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes - within the limits of endowment and environment - he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.