Book Review: Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Book Review: Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

The Book in 3 Sentences

Viktor Frankl, a neurologist and psychiatrist, presents his story of surviving life in 4 concentration camps during World War 2 and how his experience led him to create a branch of psychotherapy called "Logotherapy". Logotherapy is based on the premise that primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning in life in order to escape the nihilistic 'Existential Vacuum' or a collective state of pervasive meaninglessness. How one can find meaning in their life is through work, experiencing something or encountering someone by love or suffering in unavoidable situations.

My 411

I can't remember of any other book that has evoked such varied emotions from me. Listening to the first part was like booking a first class ticket on a train to hell; this first part is an autobiographical account of the inception of the theory of Logotherapy as a result of the immense suffering the author experienced through 4 concentration camps during World War 2, including Auschwitz.

The suffering was described in such graphic and vivid detail that it almost caused me to vomit, curl up into a ball and pontificate about the evil in man. I distinctly remember having nightmares for two consecutive nights from listening about the author's mistreatment.

Three different psychological aspects of this horrific experience were elucidated on: the of the prisoner at the beginning of the sentence that included a state of shock, the apathy experienced during the sentence and the "rehumanization" after emancipation. In addition to the author's personal experiences, experiences of other prisoners was highlighted without exaggeration; this is what made this first part more painful to read - the veil of euphemism was torn away and nothing but frank facts were presented.

The second part of the book was as uplifting and energizing as the first part was saddening after the author got freedom from his despotic oppressors and decided to crystallize the lessons from enduring the hell he went through that resulted in the death of a majority of his family members and friends. The author, who is without a doubt a true genius in my opinion, dissected the human condition and concluded through his branch of psychotherapy called Logotherapy that the way to happiness is through finding meaning in life - "He who has a why to live can bear with any how". This is some powerful stuff! (More about Logotherapy in the notes below)

What I loved about the writing was that there was no fluff or ceremony associated with what was presented. The lessons were first stated in a manner that any novice could understand and then advanced descriptions were added as a way to scientifically bolster the hypothesis. Granted there were many of these concepts that went over my head, however, the essence of message was never lost.

This book has one of my favorite quotes of any book, so far - "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." I got goosebumps.

PLEASE READ THIS BOOK! It will give you chills, it might also make you cry, however, the observations and lessons of the human condition are as close to the TRUTH as you'll get.


Rather than a chronological recountal of the book, I decided to take notes on different aspects of Logotherapy.

What Is Logotherapy?

  • Undogmatic psychotherapeutic study concerned with the potential meaning inherent and dormant in all single situations one has to face throughout their life.
  • We are all born with purpose and a mission to fulfill.
  • It's not about leading a life of pleasure but that of meaning.

On 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.
  • 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. Thus, logotherapy sees in responsibleness the very essence of human existence.
  • This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by them alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.
  • To be sure, man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health.

Basic Principles of Logotherapy

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

On Attitude

  • Anything can happen to us and be taken from us but ONE remaining thing - the freedom to choose how we respond to a situation. (Common with Stoicism).
  • "What alone remains is "the last of human freedoms" - the ability to "choose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances."."
  • We need to control the contents of our consciousness.
  • We need to choose a positive response to any given situation - we need to choose optimism.
  • Our perception of situations is what gives it meaning.

On Success and Happiness

  • "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. 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."

On Potential

  • "By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system."
  • "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."
  • "Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions."

How To Find Meaning In One's Life?

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone i.e. loving others. Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality.
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

Existential Vacuum

  • Existential vacuum which is the mass neurosis of the present time can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism; for nihilism can be defined as the contention that being has no meaning.
  • The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom.
  • And these problems are growing increasingly crucial, for progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in the leisure hours available to the average worker. The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time.
  • Pan-determinism: The view of a human which disregards his capacity to take a stand toward any condition whatsoever.
  • The human is ultimately self-determining and has the capacity to rise above any condition and grow beyond them.

Triads of Logotherapy

Those aspects of human existence which may be circumscribed by:

  1. Pain: Turn suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment.
  2. Guilt: Derive from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better.
  3. Death: Derive from life's transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.

Logotherapy as a Technique

  • Paradoxical Intention: The human capacity for self-detachment inherent in a sense of humor. This basic capacity to detach one from oneself is actualized whenever the logotherapeutic technique called paradoxical intention.
  • Example: "The fear of sleeplessness results in a hyper-intention to fall asleep, which, in turn, incapacitates the patient to do so. To overcome this particular fear, I usually advise the patient not to try to sleep but rather to try to do just the opposite, that is, to stay awake as long as possible. In other words, the hyper- intention to fall asleep, arising from the anticipatory anxiety of not being able to do so, must be replaced by the paradoxical intention not to fall asleep, which soon will be followed by sleep."

Hyperintention and Anticipatory Anxiety

  • Anticipatory Anxiety: It is characteristic of this fear that it produces precisely that of which the patient is afraid.
  • Hyperintention
  1. "The more a man tries to demonstrate his sexual potency or a woman her ability to experience orgasm, the less they are able to succeed. 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 in itself."
  2. Anticipatory anxiety has to be counteracted by paradoxical intention; hyper-intention as well as hyper-reflection have to be counteracted by dereflection.
  3. "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."