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  • 10th October 2018
Books
Environs
Psychology
Spirit

Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning {Book Review}

The Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has inspired millions of readers over generations. In his Book Mans’s Search for Meaning, he depicts his personal experiences in the Nazi death camps. Frankl argues that it is impossible to avoid suffering, but it is up to us how we cope with it. He believes that by adding meaning to our suffering we can move forward and overcome any hardship.

Book Cover

I first heard about Viktor when I was listening to an interview with Tony Robbins and Tim Ferris.  Tony Robbins was asked about the two books that had the most impact on his life.

One of them was Man’s Search for Meaning.  At the time, I was studying successful people, and Tony Robbins definitely qualifies.  For those of you who do not know him; Tony Robbins is an American success coach, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and bestselling author who has a net worth of over 500 million dollars.

I believe that when we emulate the habits of high achievers, we will eventually get similar results, and in my investigation of the successful, one habit popped up over and over: They read a lot! 

You might say, no shit sherlock, everybody knows that?!

Well, I did not.

So, I started a little self-experiment: How would my life change if I would start to read 1,000 books recommended by people who are kicking ass globally.

So, I made it my mission to find out what these books were and read as many of them as possible.  Thus, the 1,000 Book Challenge was born.  In my book club, you find my latest favourite books that have helped me to upgrade my life.  Click here to check it out.

Viktor Frankl’s Man`s Search for Meaning is, to this day, the psychology book that I have recommended most often.

I do not say this about many books, but this one has truly changed my life.

Being a lifelong student of human behaviour, I was particularly interested in Viktor’s Man`s Search for Meaning because I was looking for an answer to the question:

What is the difference between people who overcome hardship, suffering, problems and those who are not?

Viktor’s Man`s Search for Meaning gives you the answer to this question.  So let us dig into this!  But first, let us see who is the author of Man`s Search for Meaning.

…Who is Viktor Frankl

Who is Viktor Frankl?(1)

Viktor Frankl lived from 1905 to 1997, and he was a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor.

He was the founder of Logo-therapy and wrote multiple best sellers.  His mother, father, and sister all perished in the gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps.  His book “Man`s Search for Meaning“ is one of the most important and famous pieces of literacy ever written.

Viktor received his MD and PhD from the University of Vienna where he studied psychiatry and neurology, focusing on the areas of suicide and depression.

After treating thousands of people, Frankl became the Head of the Neurological Department at the Rothschild Hospital.

In 1942 during the Nazi regime, Frankl, his parents, and his entire family were arrested and sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp.

His father died there within six months.  Over the course of three years, Frankl and the rest of his family were moved to Auschwitz.  His brother died there, and his mother was murdered.

In the camps, Frankl studied how humans behaved in the face of extreme hardships, and he helped other inmates who faced severe depression by encouraging them to reflect on positive memories, scenes, and thoughts of their loved ones or something that gave them a compelling vision of their future.  Frankl thought that during extreme hardships, people can use meaning and spirituality to survive even inhuman circumstances.

What Is Viktor Frankl’s Mans Search For Meaning About?

The book starts with Frankl sitting inside a train to Auschwitz.  A death train.

Passengers, all of the Jewish origin, forcefully being deported to their imminent and unavoidable death.  The deported are fully aware that they will not come back from this trip.  Just imagine the absurdity of it!  Having a gun held to your head and being fully conscious that your next stop is going to be a place where you are either murdered in a gas chamber or worked to death as a slave.

How does a man cope with such odds?  How does a man put sense into this amount of misery and horror?

How can one find meaning in difficult times?

Frankl was in a unique position, as a psychiatrist, he was a student of human behaviour, and as gruesome as this situation was for him, he created a meaning for his suffering.  His meaning was to observe the behaviour of other concentration camp inmates.

He wanted to research which humans were going to fall into despair, and which humans found ways to survive under such horrible conditions.

Which humans were committing suicide and which were not?

Ask yourself this: Why are you not committing suicide right now? 

Frankl wanted to know what inmates were surviving the longest, and he wanted to write a book about it.  That was his why.  To share his findings with the entire world.

Frankl argues that it is impossible to avoid suffering, but we can choose how to cope with it.

Frankl believed that even amid the most horrific, atrocious, and dehumanising conditions life had meaning and that suffering can have a purpose.

He observed that those concentration camp inmates who had a meaning, a purpose, were less likely to fall into despair and depression.  Less likely to commit suicide.

An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour — Viktor Frankl

He believed that it is up us to put meaning into our suffering.  He thinks that it is possible and necessary for us to put a sense into our misery.

And, that it is necessary to form a new purpose out of it.

His theory is called Logotherapy; which comes from the Greek word “Logos“, which means, meaning.

Frankl believed that a sense of life is when we discover what is personally meaningful to us.  So, take a sec of my article and really dwell into what gives you meaning, why are you here, what brings you joy, and what is important to you?

What Did He Observe In His Time In Auschwitz?

  1. To his surprise, he found out that those who survived longest in concentration camps were not the physically strongest, but those who kept a sense of control over their environment.
  2. He found that the inmates who were surviving the longest all had a why. The why can be your family waiting in America, or your fiancé, for example.  For example, Victors why was the love for his wife.  The thought of being united again with his beloved helped him to endure the hardships in the camp, even if they were unrealistic and unfounded.  Because after all, his chances of surviving were slim to none.  He also had the dream of writing his book.  He visualised himself with his published book in New York.  Giving lectures to hundreds of students.  He had a dream.  He linked a “why” to his pain and suffering, and it made the hardships bearable for him.
  3. He noticed that prisoners who lost their “why” quickly lost their life as a result.

He also noticed that prisoners who had a “why” were able to endure the atrocities and hardships that most of us cannot even imagine.  Inmates had to work for 20 hours a day, mining and laying railroads and doing heavy labour.  Most only had one small piece of bread to eat the entire day.  The moment you looked weak; they were killing you because they did not see any use for you anymore.  If people with a why can thrive under these conditions, imagine how you could blossom when you have nothing holding you back, but yourself.  And no matter what your hardships have been, just the fact that you can read this article right now means that you belong to the most privileged 5% people on this planet.

  1. You can get used to anything.

This was one of the most inspirational take away’s for me.  Our body is way, way tougher than we think.

Frankl reports about the absurd conditions in the camps how he and other inmates were stripped naked and completely shaved.  They had all their passports and belongings burned.  For Frankl, his life’s work (the papers of his logotherapy books) were burned as well.

Jews had their names taken from them in the camps.  They were given numbers, and the numbers were tattooed on their skin.  Treated like animals.  If you looked weak, or fragile whatsoever, you were sent straight to the gas chamber where they would murder you.

 The medical men among us learned first of all: “Textbooks tell lies!” Somewhere it is said that man cannot exist without sleep for more than a stated number of hours.  Quite wrong!  I had been convinced that there were certain things I just could not do: I could not sleep without this or I could not live with that or the other.  The first night in Auschwitz we slept in beds which were constructed in tiers.  On each tier (measuring about six-and-a-half to eight feet) slept nine men, directly on the boards.  Two blankets were shared by every nine men”.

4 Important Lessons I Learned From Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning

1) Existential Vacuum

Viktor Frankl answers one of the questions that I had for a long time in his book Man`s Search for Meaning.  How come, that with rising resources, people seem to live more and more in detrimental psychological states?

The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the twentieth century.  This is understandable; it may be due to a twofold loss which man has had to undergo since he became a truly human being.  At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behaviour is embedded and by which it is secured.  Such security, like paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices.  In addition to this, however, man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behaviour are now rapidly diminishing.  No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes, he does not even know what he wishes to do.  Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism), or he does what other people tell him to do (totalitarianism)”.

Viktor Frankl

Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl believes that due to modern civilisation, we have been neglecting some of our most basic, primal needs and live in insecurity and purposelessness in consequence.  Many years after Frankl’s death, this still seems to be the case.

One of the main causes of depression and psychological pain, in my opinion, is the disconnection of humans from their true needs.  We seem to be living in a world that is unfit to satisfy our true desires.

In history, it was never so normal for humans to live a life isolated from our tribe, from nature, from meaningful work.

The consequence is that we have millions and millions of people suffering from loneliness, anxiety, and depression.  It reminds me of what happens to wild animals after you put them in little cages; they die.

A tiger who cannot hunt anymore, reproduce, and wander through the jungle and eat the food he is supposed to eat will eventually pine away.

I call this the Panda Problem.  Taking pandas and other animals out of their natural habit, and away from their other specimen equals the burglary of their very purpose and meaning.  This is one of the reasons why they do horrible in captivity and why they do not reproduce well in zoos.

It is classic depression.  To hack this social phenomenon, we must reconnect to nature, to our tribe and radically redesign the way we live.

Working 9-5 in small office boxes doing a job that we hate, detached from our natural environment will result in a cultural depression.

This book has encouraged me more and more to live as a digital nomad.  Connecting modern technology with my nomadic nature and travel the world, and find and search for the lifestyle that I feel most happy.

2) Logotherapy

Considers man as being whose main concern of fulfilling a meaning and in actualising values, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts”.  Viktor Frankl.  Man’s Search For Meaning

Like everybody, I asked myself often: What is the purpose of life?

I was particularly interested in this question, because for myself, for a long time, I was not happy.  Nothing had meaning.  Meaningless is a sure ingredient of depression and psychological suffering, in my opinion.

If nothing makes sense, why even try right?

So what drives humans?

One of my favourite psychologists and perverts, Siggi Freud, believed that the pursuit of pleasure drives humans.  Another psychologist during that era, Alfred Adler, believed that our hunger for power is driving us.

Frankl thought a little bit differently about this.

According to Frankl, the primal motivational factor in humans is the pursuit of meaning.

Only when people fail to pursue meaning, do they fall for the darker drivers of behaviour like pleasure and power.

Logotherapy is based on different assumptions about the psychology of a human being.(2)

  1. Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
  2. Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
  3. We have the freedom to find meaning in what we do, what we experience, or at least in the stance, we take when we face a situation of inevitable suffering.

According to Frankl, there are three different ways to experience meaning.

  1. Creating work or doing a deed.
  2. Experiencing something or encountering someone.
  3. By the attitude, we take toward unavoidable suffering.

Viktor Frankl, in his psychotherapeutic counselling, often asked his patients “What stops you from committing suicide?

Dissecting the meaning of the patient.

I personally love this approach because often, people think they have nothing to live for.

We all have things to accomplish, books to write, journeys to undertake, and families to love or to build.  Sometimes, it seems that our meaning and purpose in life is just not present in our perception of our reality anymore.

One of the main tasks of my blog is to change the perception of a reader, showing them a different perspective, to allow them to see things they should have seen a long time ago.

Auschwitz Case Study

Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression.  He could not overcome the loss of his wife, who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else.  Now how could I help him?  What should I tell him?  I refrained from telling him anything, but instead confronted him with a question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive without you?:” “Oh,” he said, “for her, this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!”

After which I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her”.  He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left the office.[1]:178–179 (2)

Showing people in extreme horrific situations that there are still things to look forward to, that there are still things they can control is one of the most powerful lessons I ever learned from a psychological book.

3) Stimulus-Response Gap

Frankl argues in Mans Search For Meaning; there is a gap between the trigger and response.  Meaning that you are in charge of your behaviour, and with it, we decide how we react, even in the face of most dire circumstances.

This is interesting to me because for a long time I thought our behaviour is a direct product of our environment, and that we can do little about it.

Frankl believes in free will and in our ability to implant meaning in even the most horrific, unbearable situations.

Between stimulus and response, there is a space.  In that space is our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our growth and our freedom.  Viktor Frankl

Frankl empowers personal decision, and repairs peoples lost self-efficacy with this belief.

Even with the most undesirable addictive behaviours, the person still needs to act, which means we are not powerless.

And, although society may let it appear that people just get fat magically, I never saw a person eat a Big Mac by accident.  So, we still have to take some responsibility for our behaviours.

4) Gaping Abyss

This is one of the most interesting concepts of Viktor Frankl, and it is the gaping abyss, in my opinion.

Frankl believes that depression occurs at three levels.

  1. Psychological
  2. Physiological
  3. Spiritual

One of the drivers of depressions seems to be the discrepancy gap of undertaking tasks beyond our abilities.

If there is too much tension between what a person actually is, concerning what he, in his opinion, should be, can result in depression.

If we set goals for ourselves that are unreachable, we live in a constant state of failure, and this will result in a lowered belief in our own abilities, in my opinion.

This contradicts public opinion in that one should constantly shoot for the stars.  I think we must segment our goals and dreams and moon-shot projects into achievable pieces.

Instead of having a dream where the reward is all the way on the other side of the rainbow, we must celebrate each and every little step on our way to our vision.

Because of that, I ask myself segmenting questions.

After visualising a dream or a goal I ask myself, “What three things, can I do to make this dream come true TODAY, THIS WEEK, THIS MONTH, THIS YEAR”?

And, I am happy over the tiniest steps forwards towards my dream because growing is a sure antidote to despair and unhappiness.

We need to have at least the feeling of being control or the feeling that we are moving towards something.

Otherwise, we are lost.

5) Despair Is Suffering Without Meaning

In an interview, Frankl was asked what he witnessed in the concentration camps, and one of the questions was if he spotted any patterns in inmates that were prone not to survive.

Frankl argues that people who have no meaning in their suffering are prone to falling into despair and even suicide.

In the concentration camps, the inmates faced dire circumstances, and many inmates became depressed and killed themselves.

In war, this is a common, logical phenomenon.  Suicide is a self-protective mechanism when one has lost all faith that things will get better in the future.  In Germany, when the Russians were invading Germany, after Nazi Germany committed thousands of war crimes against Russia, entire villages committed suicide.

Frankl was in a unique situation as a therapist in a concentration camp, and his observations are of incredible value and give extreme deep insight into human psychology.

One thing he witnessed was that inmates who survived had the ability to see meaning in their suffering.  Frankl even took his predicament and turned it into a personal triumph, a resource even.

In Auschwitz, Frankl counselled countless inmates who fell into despair in order to save their lives.  Because, if you are observably weak in a concentration camp, you are of no use to the Nazis anymore, and you get gassed.

So to survive, they needed to shave daily, and pretend that they were strong and capable of doing hard work.

If one person was limping, this was enough of a reason sometimes to gas them.

Frankl observed many people who gave up.  The concentration inmates used to trade with cigarettes.  If a person would start to smoke all their cigarettes themselves and not use them as a currency anymore for food or something else, you could predict that that person had already given up.

When you face a dire situation, a problem, or a hardship, ask yourself; What is great about this problem?  What can I learn from this situation?  How can I become stronger through this hardship?  Will I be able to one day help somebody else, with my experience, who is going through this right now?

I took this principle into the extreme.  Do you know the statement that everybody who studies psychology has some problems himself?

Well, for me, this was quite true and being the crazy fucker that I am, I failed more often than others, and I experienced a whole lot of not awesomeness.

Struggling with depression was, for a long time, a predicament.  I mean being in pain and unhappy does not quite seem like a blessing from the sky, but when you study psychology, you basically are living with a case studies 24/7.  Yourself.  So, for me, learning about behavioural psychology and clinical psychology became an intrinsic endeavour.

I realised that being unhappy as an aspiring psychologist is not a detriment but a resource.  I thought that to cure others; I first needed to learn how to cure myself.  Suddenly, my mental predicament was not solely about me anymore.  It also became about helping others.  I thought that it was a selfish thing for me to stay depressed because of all the people I was missing out on that I could help.

I created a why.  A why that was bigger than me.  My suffering became meaningful to me.  Even more.  When I saw people in my inner circle in pain, I spotted patterns quicker and quicker, and I was able to help more and more.  This resulted in me always being in learning mode, and also, always giving me a reason to frame suffering in my family as learning and an opportunity to get better at my craft, becoming a pain in the ass, full-time extreme psychologist.

I believe that by transforming myself from a total fuck up into an epic version of myself, I will be able to duplicate this transformation in others, by showing them a blueprint that change is possible.  If I can do it, so can you.

Viktor Frankl believes that suffering is inevitable, and it is, but it is your decision whether you want to perish due to your trauma or if you want to put meaning into it and thrive because of it.

If you are in pain anyway, one might as well use it.  Once you defined your why, you are prepared to face any “how”.

So, go all out and kick ass.

Thanks for reading.

Footnotes

Want To Read More?  Sources!

  1. https://www.goodtherapy.org/famous-psychologists/viktor-frankl.html
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logotherapy

Call to Action

Here is some homework for you.

So what is your why?  What is your meaning in your life??  Do you see your suffering as a curse or as a chance to grow?

  1. Write down ten reasons why you are not killing yourself. What is important to you?  Who do you love?  What is fun for you?  What are the things you want to see and achieve?
  2. Grab an empty cookie jar.
  3. Write down three hardships of your past on a small piece of paper.
  4. Now, write on the back of the paper what you did to overcome it.
  5. Write down three problems that taught you something or turned out later to be a skill or a resource.
  6. If you would die today, what tasks, projects, dreams would die with you?
  7. Ask yourself every evening: What did I give today?

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