Library / Personal Development | Human Psychology

Date of review: June 2022
Book author: Viktor E. Frankl
Вook published: 1946

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (originally published 1946)

The book is about having a purpose in life, and the importance of meaning in what you do.
I have heard about this book for many years but decided to read it only this year with the tragedy in Ukraine.

Frankl describes all the sufferings that prisoners in a concentration camp (including himself) went through and that having a big goal and a meaning to their lives helped some of them to overcome all the troubles. The ability to make sense of suffering helped some prisoners, including strengthening their immune systems compared to those with weak mindsets who lost their faith.

As Gordon Allport wrote in a preface to the book:
The central theme of existentialism: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. If there is a purpose in life at all, there must be a purpose in suffering and in dying.

But no man can tell another what this purpose is. Each must find out for himself, and must accept the responsibility that his answer prescribes. If he succeeds he will continue to grow in spite of all indignities. Frankl is fond of quoting Nietzsche, 'He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.
Another big takeaway for me from reading that book was that to achieve something (to be successful at something), focusing on the outcome too much is counterproductive. Too much focus on pleasure worsens the result. Pleasure should be a side effect of the process. It is destroyed if it is made a goal by itself.

It is much better to focus on the process. Then the results would come almost naturally (e.g. even when you are trying to fall asleep, letting it go and not focusing on how many minutes you have been lying with your eyes closed would help you better than if you tried very hard).
Don't aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.

Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.

Frankl offers three ways of finding meaning in life

By creating a work or doing a deed;
By experiencing something or encountering someone (meaning can be found not just in work but also in love);
By overcoming tragedies. This is the most important avenue, according to Frankl: "even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph."
I also found interesting this point that the meaning of life is like the meaning of a film - it may be revealed at the very end.

Related to that, another valuable piece of advice from Frankl on how to live one's life:
Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.
Frankl shares a few thoughts on his life in concentration camps that reminded me of stoics' philosophy, whose central idea is that we can control our emotions and thoughts, but not circumstances. As Frankl wrote in his book:
The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer 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.
Perhaps even more important is the following passage from the book:
Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp.
It is not unusual for those working in the world of finance to measure one's success by the size of their bank account. In simple terms, your success (and happiness) depends on how much money you have made. Frankl's book, however, offers a sobering description of what success in life can be for some people. It makes you rethink how you live your life and goals you have set for yourself.
Frankl tells a story about Jerry Long, who had been paralysed from his neck since he was 17 after a diving accident. Despite that, Jerry attended college courses via telephone, was always busy reading, watching TV and writing. This is what he once wrote about his life to Frankl:
I view my life as being abundant with meaning and purpose. The attitude that I adopted on that fateful day has become my personal credo for life: I broke my neck, it didn't break me. I am currently enrolled in my first psychology course in college. I believe that my handicap will only enhance my ability to help others. I know that without the suffering, the growth that I have achieved would have been impossible.
The book has many more interesting ideas, which I leave for readers to discover. Frankl also wrote several more world bestsellers discussing his approach and therapy, which I may read in the future.

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