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.

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life Rule 7: Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient)

Expedient: (of an action) convenient and practical although possibly improper or immoral.

Now that we know what expedience is, how do we stay away from it? Expedience is our default. Expedience is usually what is instantly gratifying. Think chocolate, comfort, and drugs. What’s instantly gratifying takes away from our future selves. Take too much instant gratification over an extended period of time, and you will be in big trouble.

Delayed gratification is the same as bargaining with the future. If we put in some work now, or seek some form of discomfort whether it be exercise, cold showers, fasting, or apologizing to someone we have wronged, we will be better off in the future. It’s the equivalent of investing or saving money for a later date.

The secret to success is the successful sacrifice. A Queen’s Gambit of sorts.

Success is letting go of who you are in the search for who you might become.

So how do we figure out what is meaningful? Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search For Meaning – a book accounting life in the Nazi concentration camps in World War II – says that meaning can come in various shapes and forms. It could come in the shape of life’s work that is yet to be completed, a mission of sorts. Or it could come in the form of the love for another like a spouse or child.

Peterson states that meaning is something that comes upon you, of its own accord. It cannot be produced as an act of will. To have meaning in your life is better than to have what you want, because you may not know what you want, or truly need it either.

Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.