Top Takeaways: Man’s Search for Meaning
Victor Frankl, Viennese psychotherapist and former prisoner in Nazi Germany’s concentration camps shared his ethos on life in his 1946 bestseller.
The first part of the book focuses on his arresting life story.
Born in 1905 in Vienna, soon into his adolescence Frankl discovered a passion in psychology and philosophical thinking, concentrating a lot of his work around the topics of depression and suicide.
By the time 1940 rolled around and the Nazi party’s grip on Germany was in full effect, Frankl had completed his residency programs in Vienna and had been working at the Rothschild Hospital.
By 1944, he was transported to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp.
During his time as a prisoner, he maintained sanity despite being forced to work in outrageous conditions of cold, fatigue and hunger. He quoted his will to live on for his family and the unpublished work he felt he needed to share with the world. He noticed many of his compatriots succumb to insanity and defeat, walking around and hearts still beating but the light of humanity extinguished from their eyes.
After being liberated on 27th April, 1945 from the Türkhiem camp, Frankl discovered most of his immediate family had not survived.
So he immediately went back to work as a psychiatrist, often asking his patients after they had related their distresses:
“Why do you not commit suicide?”
To this there were invariably responses about their need to live for his children, her greater life purpose or an unfulfilled dream that needed to be accomplished.
I have a friend I met during my freshman year at college. Nowadays, he’s graduated and works in the Bay Area in finance — like me, he is an international student so this was a great achievement.
However, our conversations frequently steer to his lack of fulfilment despite having achieved his goal. On the surface, everything seems perfect. He’s in great physical shape, maintains a healthy diet, meditates frequently and earns a salary many people dream of in just his first year out of college.
But he is neither happy nor fulfilled.
Perhaps, it’s because of long hours and sometimes even weekends.
But maybe despite all these things it is instead because he doesn’t have a vision for the future. There is no greater purpose or goal to yearn for.
One of Victor’s most singularly touching quotes hits home in this case:
“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”
Through working a range of jobs from bar-back to corproate data analyst, I met some amazing people for whom their daily life was the struggle of work, then finding some release from the tension through alcohol or drugs or skydiving, and then return to work to repeat the process to earn money — all in the hope of one day having the time to pursue experiences termed as luxuries: travel, expensive meals, only to find that their lives were still just as empty and devoid of meaning as before.
We have all experienced this phenomenon that Frankl describes as “Sunday neurosis”, built around the idea that after working a 9-to-5 job and the drunken stupor and elation of Friday and Saturday nights pass us by, Sunday morning’s sobriety induced panic attack hits and we realise there is little going on in our lives.
This effect seems to have been magnified in the past decade with the prevalence of social media and an idealistic portrayal of glamorous lives more vividly accessible to the general populace and simultaneously out of reach.
I’ll end with the book’s title, “Search for Meaning”.
After interviewing people from all walks of life, I asked “do you feel distinctly empty at any point in the week?” to rather surprising feedback.
The responses seemed to agree with Frankl’s thesis.
The optometrist who spent her week between work and studying toward her PhD felt no void, saying the continual challenge keeps her engaged. But the retail supervisor and even corporate data officer reported this feeling of emptiness, mentioning the rote quality of the work they did on a regular basis.
Frankl says that there is no ‘one’ answer to the “meaning” of life, just in the same way as there’s no one simple answer to “what’s the best chess move?”
The answer evolves with the situation, and is unique to every person at every moment of their lives. In the same way that concentrating on sleeping usually fails to bring it, concentrating on being happiness is not the solution.
Perhaps Albert Camus summarised it best:
You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live life if you are looking for the meaning of life.
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