The Meaning of Life

Imagine being stripped down to nothing (no possessions, clothes, freedom) and suffering daily from hunger, cold, and brutality.  Imagine for a moment that you have been taken from your home and thrown into a train. In that train, everyone is crammed together on top of their luggage.  When you arrive at your destination (after days of travel with little food and no shower) all of your possessions are left on the train and you are ordered off at gunpoint.  Then they take your documents (passport, ID, etc.), they strip you down to nakedness, they shave you from head to toe, and then they give you a number.  It’s unimaginable, but that’s what Viktor Frankl, along with millions of others, went through.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (who was a professor in neurology and psychiatry) is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. The book chronicles Viktor Frankl’s experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during WWII.  During his time in camp, he is tortured, beaten, worked to the brink of death, not given enough food or proper clothes/shoes during freezing temperatures.  He was subjected to vermin, frost bitten toes, and edema.  He paints a truly a horrific existence of his day to day camp life.  Daily, people dropped dead all around him (from disease and starvation) and are executed for no reason at all.  His mother, father, brother, and wife were all killed in the camps.  With all this in mind, how could he find life worth preserving?

 Lesson 1 – Find meaning in suffering and in your life

Even though Frankl was living in extremely difficult circumstances and had been stripped of almost all his humanity, he noticed something.  His ability to find meaning in even the direst of circumstances helped him to survive.  He noticed two types of prisoners: those that had lost faith, meaning, and hope in the future and those that didn’t.  The ones that looked at life as a challenge to be overcome, the ones that had a why to live, were more likely to survive.  He discovered that in life, you can either make a victory of your experiences or you can ignore the challenge and simply fade away.  Do you have a strong why in your life?  A why strong enough to get you through any challenge? 

In Viktor’s case, he thought of future lectures he would give based on his experiences.  In doing so, his current life experiences became more objective.  He looked at them as learning events.  He believed, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”  To him, suffering became a task that he didn’t turn his back on.  He embraced it and realized the hidden opportunities for achievement.  He had a strong why.  Do you look for the why behind a tough situation or do you just complain about it?

From what he learned during his time in concentration camps, he developed an alternative psychotherapy called Logotherapy.  Logotherapy focuses on the meanings to be fulfilled in your future.  It is a meaning centered psychotherapy rather than a retrospective or introspective one.  Many of us suffer from existential frustration.  In our existence, we are bored and without meaning we become frustrated with life.  This can cause depression, anxiety, etc.  Logotherapy aids the patient in finding meaning in their life.  Man’s search for meaning can bring inner tension, but this is natural and necessary.  Struggling to achieve a goal is normal and natural.  So, I must ask you, what is your purpose, what is your meaning?


Lesson 2 – You have a choice

You always have a choice.  Between stimulus and response is a gap and in that gap is the ability to choose how you respond to any given situation.  There will always be external forces acting upon you that you cannot control (traffic, weather, etc.).  What you can control are those internal forces; your response.  Never forget that you have the freedom to choose your reaction.  It doesn’t matter what life throws your way, what matters is how you respond to the situation.  It’s your attitude toward your existence that makes all the difference.

You decide what your life will be in the next moment.  Man is capable of changing the world and can change himself for the better. You have the freedom to change at any instant.  Even in a concentration camp where you have no freedom at all, you can behave like a swine or a saint… which one depends on decisions, not on conditions.

Let’s look at an example from the book.  A man’s wife died and he was depressed.  So, the doctor asked him, “what if it was your wife that died?  She would suffer, no?”  He says “oh, yes, she would.”  The doctor says “ok, then you are the one to take on the suffering instead of her.  Isn’t that what you would prefer?”  The man says, “yes of course.”  That is an interesting way to look at the suffering.  Did the situation change?  No.  The only thing that changed was the old man’s attitude towards the situation.  This is a great example of someone finding meaning in suffering by changing how they respond to a circumstance.  It’s not about your situation, it’s about your attitude towards your circumstances.  You can be happy now with what you already have, if you choose to be.

Lesson 3 – We are more resilient than we realize

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 each nine men.

We were unable to clean our teeth, and yet, in spite of that and a severe vitamin deficiency, we had healthier gums than ever before. We had to wear the same shirts for half a year, until they had lot all appearance of being shirts. For days we were unable to wash, even partially, because of frozen water pipes, and yet the sores and abrasions on hands which were dirty from work in the soil did not suppurate (that is, unless there was frostbite).

We are way stronger than we give ourselves credit for.  You can always push harder and go further.  Limits of Human Survival

Lesson 4 – Take responsibility

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather 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.

Extremely powerful statement.  It’s not about what life can do for you, it’s about what you can do for life… Has a JFK ring to it, doesn’t it?  Ask “what can I offer life?” Life wants something out of you.  Go find it.

Lesson 5 – Paradoxical intention

Another aspect that Logotherapy attempts to tackle is managing anxiety through paradoxical intention.  Intend, even if only for a moment, precisely that which you fear.  As soon as you stop fighting the obsession and instead try to ridicule them by dealing with them in an ironical way – by applying paradoxical intention – the vicious cycle is cut.  The symptom diminishes.  The fear is replaced by the paradoxical wish.  This causes a little self-detachment and a sense of humor.  Be able to laugh at the situation and the silliness of it.  This technique puts you at a distance from your own neurosis.

Logotherapy bases its techniques called paradoxical intention on the two fold fact that fear brings about that which one is afraid of and that hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes.

The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be the way to self-management, perhaps to cure

Lesson 6 – Everybody’s why is different

No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny.

Each man’s destiny is different and unique and cannot be compared.  Don’t compare yourself to anyone else.

Even in suffering, he is unique and alone in the universe.  His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden

Lesson 7 – Love

Love was his anecdote to pain.  Even when the guards were complete monsters to him and those around him, he would think of his wife’s image.

But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imaging it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

Love conquers all.

I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honourable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfilment.

Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.

Lesson 8 – Happiness and success cannot be pursued

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 about it

Lesson 9 – Cherish your memories

The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him?

No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, although these are things which cannot inspire envy.

Lesson 10 – The true meaning of life

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. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. 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. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

5 thoughts on “The Meaning of Life”

  1. Wai Shin Khant

    As I read this Summary, I really want to read this book by Viktor Frankl and I really love it. After reading your summary I got more happiness and reduce a lot of stress that push me down.

  2. I really wanted to share this, but that error makes it confusing (the wife dying vs husband). wish it could be corrected

    1. Hey Clint, I know… I cannot fix it now. Trust me, it bothered me too, but I did pin a comment about it at the top of the comments (in youtube)

  3. Hi Russ,

    I love your animated explanation of Frankl’s live and work. I am a trainer and I work for an organization that provides recovery services for people living with mental illness and addictions. We will be offering a free online training on finding one’s meaning and purpose. We would love to insert your video within this one hour training video. Anyone will be able to access the training video for free. We would be happy to credit your website and channel. Can we get your permission to do so?
    Thanks so much for your time.
    Chris W. Martin

  4. Pingback: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Summary – Wisdom For Life

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *