Viktor Frankl: Shedding More Light on The Meaning of Life

By Lesya Li

Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for. —Victor Frankl

Have you ever had a book on your list you’ve always felt like reading, yet it took you years to getting around to do it? Man’s Search For Meaning was one of those books for me. Yet this year, when three totally random people compelled me to read it, I took it as an undeniable sign. And so I got down to reading this tiny, yet an astonishing book that in the end completely changed the way I perceive the world now. Here’s why.

Viktor E. Frankl (1905-1997) the author of the book, psychiatrist, and neurologist wrote about his torturous experience (during the World War II) as an inmate in a notorious concentration camp Auschwitz. Fascinatingly enough, he noted that people that survived longest in concentration camps were not people who were physically strong, but those few who managed to stay strong soulfully and kept a sense of control over their internal environment, their outlook, their attitude.

Viktor Frankl observed:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances—to choose one’s own way.

Man’s Search For Meaning is a message of undying hope, “the defiant power of the human spirit”: even in the most catastrophic and painful of circumstances, life can be given a meaning, and the same goes for finding meaning in suffering.

“If one cannot change the situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude”

Life in Auschwitz under unimaginable circumstances where the odds of survival were next to none taught Frankl that our main drive or motivation in life is neither pleasure, as Freud had argued, nor power, as Adler had believed, but meaning.

After years spent in the concentration camp and gaining his freedom back, upon release, Viktor Frankl founded the school of logotherapy (from the Greek Logos is a word which denotes ,’meaning’), which is also referred to as the ‘Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy’ for coming after those of Freud & Adler. “Logotherapy focuses on the meaning of human existence as well as on man’s search for meaning. This striving to find meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.”

According to Viktor Frankl, the meaning can be found through:

– Experiencing reality by interacting authentically with the environment and with others,

– Giving something back to the world through creativity and self-expression, and

– Changing our attitude when faced with a situation or circumstance that we cannot change.

Viktor Frankl also coined the term ‘Sunday neurosis’ referring to the dejection that many of us might experience at the end of the week – that moment when at last we have time to sit down, chill, think and overthink and in doing so realize just how boring and meaningless life may seem from time to time. Which then invites this weird sinking feeling of so called an existential vacuum – may which can invite all sorts of sad goons like anxiety, avoidance of certain social situations, binge eating and drinking, working too hard and long hours, and, of course, overspending. All these things play a cover-up role, but only for a short while, whereas in a long-game it keeps us from taking any action towards finding meaning and thus putting existential vacuum to its respectful ‘finito la comedia’.

For Frankl, depression results when the gap between what a person is and what he ought to be, or once wished to be, becomes so large that it can no longer be carpeted over. The person’s goals seem far out of reach and he can no longer envisage a future. As in Psalm 41, abyssus abyssum invocat—‘hell brings forth hell’, or, in an alternative translation, ‘the deep calls unto the deep.’

Thus depression is our way of telling ourselves that something is seriously wrong and needs working through and changing. Unless change can be made, there will continue to be a mismatch between our lived experience and our desired experience, between the meaninglessness of everyday life and the innate drive to find meaning, to self-actualize, to be all that we can be. From an existential standpoint, the experience of depression obliges us to become aware of our mortality and freedom and challenges us to exercise the latter within the framework of the former. By meeting this ultimate challenge, we can break out of the cast that has been imposed upon us, discover who we truly are, and, in so doing, begin to give deep meaning to our life.

I absolutely loved Man’s Search For Meaning and I think this book should be a required reading for all mankind.