Man’s Search For Meaning: What Viktor Frankl Can Teach Us About the Meaning of Life

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist who was subjected to the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. Once the war ended and he was released, he wrote Man’s Search For Meaning in a nine-day span, describing his experience in the concentration camps and his theory of logotherapy – that meaning was the central motivational force in human beings.

Most of the book describes the conditions that the Jews had to endure in the Nazi concentration camps. I couldn’t help to feel more grateful that I hadn’t ever had to deal with that kind of suffering or torture before. Even as we complain of being locked down in a pandemic, it pales in comparison to the suffering endured in the Nazi concentration camps.

Frankl outlines that meaning is the central motivating force in human beings. The meaning that an individual has doesn’t have to be the same as everybody else’s, and an individual can have multiple meanings for life. The meanings can also change with time and circumstances.

Frankl described three sources of meaning:

The first source of meaning comes from life’s work. Frankl was determined to survive the concentration camp because he believed that he needed to produce academic work on his theory of logotherapy once the war finished. While he was in the concentration camp he was unable pursue that work, so he had to make sure he survived to be able to get back to regular life as an academic and finish his work.

The second source of meaning comes from love. Frankl remembered that when he was on his arduous daily walk to his labour camp during the Second World War, he would picture his wife, the love he had for her, as well as the thought of being able to see her again once the war was over. This was another motivating factor for him to survive the concentration camp.

The third source of meaning comes from suffering. In the concentration camps, Frankl realized that the Nazis could take away everything except for the attitude that he chose to have towards the suffering he was experiencing. Once he added meaning (and sometimes humour) to his suffering, he no longer felt as if he was really suffering. Frankl observed that there was a deadly effect for anyone who lost hope and courage in the concentration camps, as well as those who were overly optimistic about their release dates (to find out eventually that they were not released by the date they had in their mind).

Frankl does note however, that just because meaning can can be found in suffering, you do not need to seek suffering to find meaning (the first and second source of meaning should be the main focus).

In summary, Frankl’s book is a reality check for us. What it also does beautifully is take the pressure off the individual to find their one life’s purpose. We can remember that there can be many purposes, and they change over time. As long as there’s an inkling of meaning in the moment, we might just be okay.