How to Find Meaning Amidst Suffering – Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Published Categorised as Philosophy, Psychology

Viktor Frankl chronicles his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II and how individuals can find meaning and hope in the face of seemingly unbearable suffering.

Who should read this book? This should be compulsory reading for everybody at some point in their life. It gives the reader a new perspective on existence and provides lifelong wisdom on how to face life’s difficulties.

The Book in 3 Points

  1. Life can be full of seemingly unbearable suffering.
  2. We can find meaning in love, creation, or exploration.
  3. But even when we have none of that, we can find meaning in our suffering. We can willingly take responsibility for the burdens that life lays on us. In this choice we do not always eliminate the suffering but rather we give it meaning.

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”

Viktor Frankl


The book is separated into two halves.

PART ONE: Experiences in a Concentration Camp: Viktor Frankl documents experiences from his three years spent in Auschwitz and Dachau, from 1942 to 1945. The trials and hardships as well as his observations around what gave people hope to live on.

PART TWO: Logotherapy in a Nutshell: A new type of therapy is introduced. One in which self-transcendence and meaning are emphasised. The book notes following are focused on the concepts discussed in Part 2, I recommend you read part one for yourself.

Victor Frankl shows how through work and sacrifice that we find meaning. A place of tension where we are striving under a weight that is actually psychologically healthy. This is why we are inspired by stories of triumph over circumstances; these are demonstrations of the right way of living.

We are not happy just living in equilibrium.

Our minds do not simply need homeostasis, given an eternal holiday on a beach you would get bored fast. We instead find meaning in a place of tension between what we know and some unattained goal. The meaning is found not in the achievement of the goal but in the striving for it: Personal exploration and transcendence give us meaning, mathematical certainty on the other hand is something we find insufferable.

As Dostoevsky put it in Notes from the Underground:

“Man loves to construct and lay down roads, no question about it. But why is he so passionately fond of destruction and chaos? […] Isn’t man so passionately fond of destruction and chaos (and there’s no disputing that he’s sometimes very fond of them, that really is the case) that he himself instinctively fears achieving his goal and completing the building in the course of erection? How do you know – perhaps he only likes the building from a distance and not at all at close quarters; perhaps he only likes building it and not living in it […]”

The Will to Meaning

This journey for meaning is eternal because there is infinitely more potential to grow into. Freud said that man has a “Will to Pleasure” and his theories are centred on this concept. Alfred Adler described a “Will to Superiority” as the core driver in an individuals life. According to Frankl, one can find meaning in a vacuum of both pleasure and opportunities to obtain superiority, thus there is something more important than both of these. He calls this most important drive, a “Will to Meaning”. This drive can be “frustrated” when we fail to find meaning in our lives and this frustration can lead to anxiety depression etc. When mental illness arises from this existential frustration, Frankl calls this noogenic neurosis. This noogenic neurosis isn’t necessarily pathological (a mental disease), but a part of life.

Noodynamics and the Existential Vacuum.

Nietzche wrote, “He who has a why can bear any how.” This why in itself generates tension between what is and what could be. This tension is good, it is dynamic.

Society has a vacuum of meaning because we don’t have instincts like animals to guide what to do next, neither do we adhere to traditions passed down to us which tell us what we ought to do. This lack of guidance has created a vacuum of meaning in modern society. People with an existential vacuum have a tendency to fill the gap of meaning and guidance in life by conforming to the crowd (do what others are doing) or obey (do what others say).

Solving the Existential Vacuum

The next question people naturally ask is, what is the meaning of life? This is like a chess player asking what is the one greatest chess move. There is no answer. Rather, like chess, meaning is found in your free choices at the present moment. The maxim of logotherapy is “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”. Or in my own words: Ask yourself “What would I do differently if this was my second time in this position?”

This makes some things clear.

  1. Meaning is not found within ones self-actualising or reaching some psychological state but out in life by acting and taking responsibility for those actions.
  2. This means that meaning is not about finding yourself but losing yourself.

“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 fulfil 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.”

If meaning is not to be found within myself but by taking responsibility for my actions out in the world, what are some ways I can find meaning?

  • By creating a work or doing a good deed
  • By experiencing something or encountering someone
  • By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

Works may come and go, and so may loved ones, but suffering is guaranteed. This is not hopeless but quite the opposite. Frankl describes how he came close to escaping the concentration camp, but in that moment decided instead to return to the camp. It was in this free choice to embrace the suffering that he actually found freedom from it. This paradoxical solution is one of the main insights from the book, this choice made the remainder of his time there much more bearable. In this same way by adopting responsibility for our difficulties and suffering in life, we might also find meaning in it.

Logotherapy treatments:

People suffering from noogenic neurosis are suffering from a lack of existential meaning. This can heighten their fears. To address this Frankl prescribes Paradoxical Intention & Dereflection.

Paradoxical Intention = Laugh and make a show out of your problems to break their power

Paradoxical Intention helps by ridiculing and challenging the false beliefs. This is to draw attention to that which they fear most and thus break its power over them. For example a person who is scared of sweating too much might try to sweat as much as possible and show people they are sweating. This along with a sense of humour can help people, especially those who have anxiety thinking about something in the future (It is also effective for phobic conditions and OCD). Paradoxes as treatments in psychology have been documented as early as the 1920’s by Alfred Adler. Another name for such a treatment is “Prescribing the Symptom”.

Dereflection = The focus should not be on yourself but on others and what greater meaning life is trying to draw out of you

Dereflection is about shifting your focus away from symptoms and onto meaningful activities in life. If one is thinking “Life is meaningless” “My wife sucks” “My job sucks” the focus is on what life, your job, or your wife can do for you. Instead, you can dereflect these thoughts to consider not what these things can do for you but what you should be doing for those things. It is a loss of self a self-transcendence.

The above techniques share commonalities with modern cognitive therapies. Namely that anxiety about a lack of meaning or the future is usually underpinned by a false belief about the nature of reality or the future. Beliefs that can be challenged in both conversation with clients and willingly pursuing new life experiences.

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