4 Key Takeaways From Man’s Search For Meaning

This deeply inspirational story of triumph of the human spirit over the evils of the Nazi regime, tells the courageous story of a Holocaust survivor, determined to live through his ordeal. His remarkable secret to salvation was to deeply imagine his life having a higher purpose. This belief allowed him to survive the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp he was confined to.

My key Takeaways from “Man’s Search For Meaning" by Viktor E. Frankl

Takeaway #1 Understanding Your Why

Forget the meaning of life as a whole, you just need to work out the meaning of your life. “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how” - This is the undertone of the entire book written by Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl. He claims that he survived the holocaust because he know his why; he wanted to finish his manuscript that had been destroyed when he entered the camp but he also found salvation in the love that he had for his wife, despite not knowing if she was alive. Others in the camp had not identified their 'why' and with thoughts of “I have nothing to expect from life anymore”, could not endure the atrocities and did not survive.

Takeaway #2 Learn From Your Mistakes, Don't Dwell On Them

Frankl tells you to focus on where you want to go in life and not where you've been. This helps avoid riding the wave of epic highs felt during success and the epic lows felt after a failure. Using a method he termed Logotherapy (Frank's own take on psychotherapy) he teaches people to focus on how they want to be fulfilled in their life in the future and not on analyzing past regrets as hashing over the past does no good.

Takeaway #3 Face Your Fears To Overcome Them

Frankl discovered that overindulging in fears can help you to overcome them so it's true what they say about facing fears, in this case, the more you do it, the easier it becomes! The technique called “paradoxical intention” is based on the twofold approach that fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes. In practice, this means that if you have a fear of the dentist, by placing yourself in the dentist's office (without even having work done) you can grow accustomed to the sounds and smells and gradually overcome your fear.

Takeaway #4 Your Attitude Is Up To You.

Don't blame your bad mood on others, your attitude is entirely up to you so turn that frown upside down! You get to choose how you react to others, your circumstances, your emotions, and your thoughts – Sure, something can upset you and trigger you but you don't have to lash out or be upset by it. Frankl came to realize in the concentration camps that despite lack of sleep, insufficient food, and all of the mental and physical stresses inflicted on them, the type of person the prisoner became was down to an inner-decision to decide what would become of him and not purely the result of outer influences.

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Key Points form Man's Search for Meaning

  • We, as human beings, can survive extreme atrocities by clinging on to a sense of meaning, never giving up on hope. (Frankl shares that after the prisoners were released, many of the survivors had feelings of disbelief, followed by bitterness. Additionally, the survivors were not met with the compassion they’d expected, as people could not comprehend the horrific experience.)
  • Focusing on our ‘inner’ life (such as thinking about loved ones, noticing beauty, or finding humor) can bring a sense of fulfillment even during the worst of atrocities. (Frankl noticed that the prisoners who were most likely to survive had a rich inner life and that they could find meaning in their suffering.)
  • Freedom to make choices is something most of us take for granted. When we make choices—even the smallest ones—it gives us a sense of empowerment. (Having the tiny bit of autonomy gave prisoners the ability to live with their own values, for example, giving up their bread so that someone else could eat.)
  • We always have the freedom to choose how we approach something. How we act and the responsibility we feel towards our choices determine our meaning in life. There is no all-encompassing meaning of life.
  • Our motivation stems from our life’s meaning. Frankl’s theory of psychotherapy known as logotherapy asserts that the search for meaning is the greatest motivation in our lives. (Frankl recognized that prisoners who could maintain meaning were stronger and more resilient than those who could not. Those who feel life has no meaning are left with an emptiness or existential vacuum.)
  • We are called to figure out our life’s purpose depending on what emerges in our life and our own choices. Each person may find personal meaning in different places, times, and circumstances. It could be their positive contribution at work, as a volunteer, or in any situation where they influence others.
  • We are in control of our fears. We are able to make decisions regardless of our environment.
  • When we fear something will happen, it often does. Yet, when we try and force something to happen, it rarely does. Therefore, do the thing you’re afraid of (for example, getting tongue-tied when making a speech) to be released from it.

In-Depth Insights

1. Shock Comes in Two Stages

When people entered the concentration camps, their first reaction was not fear but rather shock—initially in the form of hope but then in the form of despair.

It’s not because the Jewish people were unaware of the inhumane acts being carried out but because their reactions were split into distinct phases.

The first phase—shock—set in when the prisoners were being transported to the camps or upon their arrival. They were so shocked at what was happening to them that they tried desperately to convince themselves that everything would have to, somehow, be OK and that what they’d heard of happening to others wouldn’t—couldn’t—happen to them or their family. At Auschwitz, people arriving on the train were divided into two lines with one going to the left and one to the right. One of the lines was for people going to immediate execution, the other for hard labor, but no one in either of the lines knew what the lines meant, so each group would convince themselves that their line was the line of reprieve, signaling hope and escape.

At this initial stage, the prisoners were not accustomed to the atrocities of the camp; they were not used to seeing the brutal punishments carried out for minor offenses, so everything was frightening and the intense emotions too much for them to manage. Soon after, though, people would lose hope and see death as a welcome relief from the grotesque brutality, most contemplating suicide and some even succeeding.

2. Apathy Allows for Survival

After a few days in the camp, prisoners would get over their initial shock and fall into a state of apathy. They became used to the horror of the Nazi camp, becoming emotionally numb to the death and brutality that surrounded them. This sense of apathy allowed people to concentrate all their thoughts and emotions on the matter of survival. No longer did they think, talk, or dream about love or desire; instead they became focused on food and other vital, life-sustaining satisfactions that were limited in the camps.

Their apathy acted as a shield, allowing them to live through the day-to-day atrocities whilst grabbing any opportunity to better their chance of survival. During a typhus outbreak, people experiencing this second phase didn’t feel pity or disgust as they looked at the corpses; instead they saw opportunity, taking shoes, clothing, even hoarding food from the deceased prisoners.

The majority of prisoners saw no hope in the future, and since their life had no meaning, they gave up on the idea of “living” and simply existed until they died.

3. Bitterness Follows Disbelief

Many people survived because they managed to cling on to a sense of meaning, never giving up on hope, but this didn’t mean that after their liberation they could return to life as normal. Because they had felt apathy for so long, they could not immediately switch to feeling joyful upon their release. Even though they had dreamt of freedom for so long, it was difficult for them to understand that the day had finally come when what they had been longing and praying for had actually happened. Add to this the sadness of returning home only to find that all family members had been killed and their homes destroyed.

Feelings of disbelief followed by bitterness were normal with many prisoners feeling the need to inflict harm on others (such as the guards in the camp) after all that had been done to them.

The prisoners thought they would be met by compassion from people on the street, but their suffering was shrugged off. Most people, having never seen a concentration camp, were unable to understand the horrors of one, so they would explain how they, too, had suffered from bombings and rationing.

4. Our ‘Inner Life’ Distracts Us from the Real World

Prisoners who were able to distract themselves from what was happening around them by putting their focus on their “inner” lives—for example, by thinking about their loved ones and reminiscing about past times—were able to keep their sanity and survive the horrors going on around them.

Thinking about loved ones, or having an imaginary conversation with them, could bring a sense of fulfillment whilst the prisoners were doing hard labor in the cold without the proper clothing. Others would find a fleeting glimpse of happiness from a pretty sunset, from watching a bird flying overhead, or from humor. Song, dance, and other performances were held in small gatherings during the prisoners’ 30-minute lunch break as distractions from the harsh reality of another day imprisoned.

5. Recognizing Choice

Freedom to choose is something most of us take for granted day in and day out, from selecting what we wear to choosing what we eat, but in the prison camps, the ability to decide for oneself was rare, and when it did come up, it could be a life or death matter. Most prisoners were afraid to choose in case they made the wrong choice, but others liked to make decisions at every given opportunity in an effort to change their fate.

Being ordered to change camps is one such example where most prisoners would simply await their fate but others would try to control it. A camp transfer would be referred to as a move to a “rest camp,” but the true destination was unknown and could have meant being moved to the gas chambers instead. Some prisoners would go wherever they were told, resigned to their fate, but others would become desperate to change the decision such as by working extra shifts so that they could remain despite not knowing if it would be better or worse for them to stay put.

This need to choose gave prisoners the sense of maintaining a tiny sliver of freedom, so they would grab any opportunity that was presented to them if it involved a choice. It was these prisoners who tried to live, as far as was possible, in accordance with their own values and high moral standards, such as by choosing not to eat their bread despite their great hunger and giving their portion to someone in greater need.

6. Our Motivation Stems from Our Life’s Meaning

Viktor Frankl realized that people need meaning in their life in order to have something to look forward to. He saw that prisoners who could maintain meaning in their life were stronger and more resilient than others who had lost theirs. These observations helped him to confirm ideas from his own theory of psychotherapy known as logotherapy which attests to the fact that our search for meaning is the greatest motivation in our lives.

When people don’t have meaning in their lives, they’re left with an existential vacuum. Consequently, people who are unable to live according to their values or feel that life has no meaning carryl a sort of emptiness inside themselves.

7. There Is No All-Encompassing Meaning of Life

Most people think that they need to discover their purpose in life before they go about making the so-called “right” choices in life, but logotherapy suggests the opposite is true: how we act and the responsibility we feel towards our choices determine our meaning in life.

Everyone’s life has its own specific meaning in any given moment. It all depends on each person’s circumstances and decisions—there’s no one-size-fits-all and zero restrictions. Think of this in terms of chess, a grandmaster would tell you that there’s no best move overall, only a best move depending on the situation you come up against in the game. This means that everybody can have meaning in life, and everyone must figure out their life’s purpose depending on their own decisions. One person might find personal meaning at their place of work, feeling that they’re part of a positive contribution, someone else might find meaning by helping society through volunteering, which helps improve people’s lives.

8. Pursue Your Fears to Banish Them

Logotherapy doesn’t just help people to find their meaning in life; it also helps those who have experienced the existential vacuum and developed mental disorders because of it.

Through a number of techniques, logotherapy focuses on the internal factors that affect patients rather than the external factors, which is where regular psychotherapy fails (the psychotherapist analyzing the patient’s neurotic fears that are explained by the patient’s environment and other external circumstances and events). Logotherapy helps people understand that they are actually in control of their fears by assuming that people are able to make decisions and define their life’s purpose independent of their environment.

Think about it: when we fear something will happen, it often does. Yet when we try and force something to happen, it rarely does! Logotherapy asks the patient to do the thing that they’re afraid of as much as possible (perhaps this is getting tongue-tied when making a speech in front of people). The patient will find that the more they try to force something to happen, in this case getting tongue-tied, the less that thing will actually happen until eventually the fear is cured.

Best Quotes from Man’s Search For Meaning

"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. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence."

"It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual."

"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."

"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."

"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 personal 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. "

"Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'."

"Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in 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 of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true."

"Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

"In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice."

"So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!"

"No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same."

"..Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire... The salvation of man is through love and in love."

"A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how"."

"Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant."

"A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes - within the limits of endowment and environment- he has made out of himself."

"Dostoevski said once, "There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings." These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of the their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful."

"Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it."

― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

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Editor and Founder

Tal Gur is a location independent entrepreneur, author, and impact investor. After trading his daily grind for a life of his own daring design, he spent a decade pursuing 100 major life goals around the globe. His most recent book and bestseller, The Art of Fully Living - 1 Man, 10 Years, 100 Life Goals Around the World, has set the stage for his new mission: elevating the next generation of leaders to their true potential.

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