Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor E. Frankl | Beacon Press © 2006

Viktor E. Frankl’s extraordinary, moving memoir of three years in Nazi death and labor camps is a literary classic and an inspiration to millions. This 2006 edition features a 57-page added section offering Frankl’s explication of “logotherapy,” the psychoanalytic method he developed after the war. Frankl wrote this memoir in nine days in 1946, after returning to his former home in Vienna, Austria, to learn that the Nazis had murdered his pregnant wife, his parents, his brother and his community of friends. His unsentimental account sets out to help readers avoid what he regarded as a misleading, conceptual trap: thinking of the camps with “sentiment and pity.” As of 2006, Frankl’s book had sold more than 12 million copies in 22 languages. A 1991 Library of Congress survey placed it among the “10 most influential books in America.” In non-English editions, its title is Say Yes In Spite Of Everything; that exuberance captures Frankl’s belief that what happens to you – including suffering – is secondary to your response to it. His book teaches that everyone must find his or her unique meaning and purpose in life, and fulfill it. After the intense horror of his camp saga, Viktor E. Frankl’s report on his psychoanalytic approach is less gripping, but quite meaningful. getAbstract recommends his brilliant, stirring, unforgettable memoir to students of history, all therapists and, really, to everyone.



Viktor E. Frankl

As a teen, Viktor E. Frankl studied philosophy and psychiatry. He initiated a correspondence with Sigmund Freud, who submitted an article of Frankl’s to a leading journal, which published it when Frankl was only 16. By age 34, in 1939, he was head of neurology at Rothschild Hospital, Vienna’s only Jewish hospital. When the Nazis closed it, Frankl feared for his and his family’s lives. In 1942, the US consulate offered him a visa. This rare invitation, a stroke of luck, was a tribute to his reputation. Few Jews got out of Austria that late; fewer still got to America.
“It is a question of the attitude one takes toward life’s challenges and opportunities, both large and small.”

Frankl wanted to flee; he knew he could finish his pending book in America. But he saw a fragment of marble his father had saved after the Nazis destroyed Vienna’s largest synagogue. It came from an engraving of the Ten Commandments and bore only a Hebrew letter. When Frankl asked about it, his father said the letter stood for “Honor thy father and mother.” Unable to abandon his family, Frankl let his US visa lapse. The Nazis deported him and his family in September 1942. From then until March 1945, the Nazis shuttled Frankl among four death and labor camps: “Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Kaufering and Türkheim,” part of Dachau.


Frankl worked in small, less-well-known camps where “the real extermination took place” and uncounted people perished in horror and obscurity. The Nazis pushed their captives off cattle cars at the entry to Auschwitz, confiscating their documents and few remaining belongings. They tattooed numbers on the arms of those they did not send straight to the gas chamber. This – with being stripped naked, completely shaved and given the clothes of dead prisoners – destroyed prisoners’ identities. With the loss of identity came the loss of principles. Few inmates could care about morality or ethics. To live amid great suffering, each person grew a “very necessary protective shell.” Some of those who shed their compunctions survived. Camp life killed many others, and wiped out those who clung to a higher purpose. “The best of us did not return.”


Frankl worked as a doctor in a typhus ward during his last few weeks of captivity only. He spent most of three years doing crushing manual labor, laying train tracks in cold, wet weather, wearing rags and rotting shoes. Jews were slave workers for German industrial concerns. At times, they earned “bonus” coupons for cigarettes, the camp’s currency. Only the Capos – Jewish prisoners chosen as guards – actually smoked their cigarettes. Everyone else traded them for food or tidbits, like a scrap of wire to use as a shoelace. If a prisoner smoked his own cigarettes, everyone knew he’d lost the will to live and would die shortly. The SS soldiers who ran the camps gave liquor to prisoners working in the gas chambers and crematoria. These workers knew they soon would end up in the ovens like most prisoners. The Nazis kept them drunk to keep them working.


Frankl quickly recognized the reality of the camps. He divorced himself from his previous life and vowed to live within this new reality. All he had was “his existence.” He learned he did not need any of the things he once thought he couldn’t live without. He had to sleep on rough boards in unheated huts, sharing two ragged blankets with eight other men, and yet he still slept. He ate almost nothing, but lived. He accepted Dostoevsky’s truth: “A man can get used to anything.” Prisoners seeking suicide would hurl themselves onto the electrified barbed-wire fence. Frankl vowed never to “run into the wire.” He would die soon anyway; he wanted each day he could get.


Prisoners hardened to their circumstances did not look away from humiliating punishments that fellow inmates endured. They raced to strip new corpses of clothes, shoes or hidden food. Many lost all empathy as they starved, though Frankl clung to some caring for his friends as a path to his own survival. The men grew almost used to constant beatings, finding that “the most painful part of the beatings is the insult they imply.” To the Capos and the SS, no prisoner had humanity. They were nothing. All that mattered was survival. Fed only “watery soup” and a tiny bread ration daily, the prisoners watched their bodies “devour themselves.” They forgot anything that wouldn’t help keep them alive. Few had the energy to help others. As the guards and Capos ruled life and death, the prisoners became mere toys of fate, further reducing their sense of humanity.


Prisoners retreated into interior lives. Many Jews became more religious. The more sensitive and artistic tended to survive as their hardier, less-aware compatriots died. The most sensitive were physically weak, but their richer, deeper interior lives fueled survival. By embracing their inner lives, the men became more, not less, appreciative of natural beauty, sunsets, or brief respites, like an hour by a hot stove. Frankl learned that the tiniest moments could evoke profound joy. Longing for his wife, speaking to her in his mind, the full power of love transfixed him. Amid squalor and death, he saw in his soul that “the salvation of man is through love and in love.”


Over time, prisoners became more passive. Any active decision might further death, so they avoided making choices. As liberation neared, Frankl turned down an SS offer to join other prisoners on a truck to Switzerland. He let “fate take its course.” He didn’t try to alter his destiny. Like many, he felt fate controlled him and that trying to shift it meant disaster. The Nazis crammed the men from the truck into a hut, set it on fire and watched the Jews in it burn alive.


Camp life showed Frankl that men have options for how they act. He maintained and saw others maintain “spiritual freedom” and individuality no matter what the Nazis forced them to endure. He found that attitude provides meaning. How you cope with your fate adds or subtracts meaning from your existence. Amid privation, you can keep your “inner liberty.” Men who could hold onto even a small sense of a future found that it helped them survive. Those who ceased to believe in tomorrow did not. In February 1945, a friend of Frankl’s dreamed that the camp would be liberated on March 30. On March 29, amid reports that Allied advances had slowed and would not reach the camp when he had dreamed, the man fell into a deep fever. He died the next day. Typhus appeared to be the cause, but Frankl knew his friend’s loss of belief in his future killed him. Life becomes meaningless when people have nothing to strive for, lose their sense of direction and stop searching for meaning. That is why you must seek answers to the questions your unique life raises. The singularity of your existence gives it meaning. Yet a meaningful life includes death and suffering. Frankl found that life at the bottom of existence revealed good and evil clearly.


When the Allies liberated the camps and freed Frankl, he and his fellow inmates felt no joy. They had lost “the ability to feel pleased.” They had to relearn it. Their experiences depersonalized them. Their new life seemed to be a dream. They could not connect to it. Frankl learned his body could recover as he ate every bit of food that came his way and grew stronger, but his mind and emotions would not heal quickly. He leaned on his faith and slowly found his humanity. Many inmates felt that after what they had suffered, they could behave any way they liked and that their suffering justified evil conduct. Many could not cope with people who hadn’t been in the camps. As the men regained a measure of humanity, they lost their understanding of how they’d survived. The camps came to seem like a bad dream, disconnected from their new lives. The best feeling for those who were able to feel again at all was the exquisite absence of fear.


After the war, Frankl created a new therapeutic approach he called logotherapy, which leads a patient to understand – even if the understanding might hurt – the purpose and meaning of his or her life. He told a colleague that in psychoanalysis a patient lies on a couch and says things that are “disagreeable” to say. Using logotherapy, a patient sits in a chair and “hears things…disagreeable to hear.” Where Freud wrote of a “will to pleasure” and Alfred Adler of “a will to power,” logotherapy concerns “the will to meaning.” Finding life’s meaning is a human’s primary drive. Each person’s meaning is exclusive, particular to his or her life. For a gratifying life, each person must discover and fulfill his or her own meaning. If you cannot find or fulfill your life’s meaning, you will suffer “existential frustration.” Logotherapy helps patients find their lives’ meaning. Unlike psychoanalysis, it doesn’t limit its inquiry to forces in the unconscious. Logotherapy includes the impact of “existential realities” – how patients live, work and love, their health, and the like. Logotherapy tries to help patients identify what their souls need most and fulfill it to give their lives meaning.

“You don’t need any special reason to feel good - you can just decide to feel good right now, simply because you’re alive, simply because you want to.”
A change in any one of these areas generates a "global change" in all five of them.


A healthy psyche exists in a state of tension between what you’ve accomplished and what you have yet to do. Mental health stems not from an absence of tension – or an excess of leisure – but from trying to reach a goal with profound meaning. This is a goal you choose, not one that life thrusts upon you – like, for example, the goal of staying alive in a death camp. The two poles of existence are, first, a meaning you must explore and, second, the person who must explore it – you. When an arch needs repair, those fixing it put a larger load on top of the arch. The load pushes the pieces of the arch together and strengthens it. Your quest for meaning is like the increased load atop an arch.


Life’s meaning changes with each person, each day and each hour. Don’t seek a grand, overall meaning to your life. What matters is your life’s unique meaning in the present moment. This is not an abstraction: It’s a concrete task or series of tasks you must identify and perform. To find this meaning, determine what your life asks of you. Only you can answer the demands of your existence. No matter how life shifts, its meaning endures. You can take three paths to finding the meaning in your life: producing work that is yours alone, connecting with another person – that path is love – or transcending hardship or tragedy. If you cannot change your fate, “rise above it.”


Only love enables you to understand the essence of another person. Love reveals your beloved’s foundational characteristics. Love lets you see your loved one’s true potential. Your love inspires and enables your beloved to achieve his or her true potential as his or her love does the same for you. Love may be manifest in sex and, ideally, sex expresses love. But love exists in a place beyond sex or rationality.


Suffering, like love, can reveal your life’s meaning. Suffering can stop feeling like suffering when you understand its deeper meaning. But, contrary to what most people think, you do not have to suffer to find meaning in your life. Your heart can “change at any instant.” What seems oppressive today can be revelatory tomorrow. Despite your suffering, strive to embrace “tragic optimism.” Welcome life no matter what course it takes; believe in a future even amid a bereft present. When you find what you must do, and do it, you will gain strength to deal with suffering.

About the Author

"Identity," a powerful core concept, is the belief that dominates all your choices. Your identity is the idea you carry in your mind of what type of person you are. It is your belief in what makes you good or bad, and unique. Most people believe that it is nearly impossible to change their identity. They think of themselves as adventurous, or funny, or quiet, or nonconforming. Usually, identity labels are limiting. You have the power to bestow new labels on yourself and to decide consciously what kind of person you want to be.

Seven Days and Seven New Ways

Challenge yourself by completing the following one-week exercise. Each day for a week, take on a new assignment that can make a significant change in a key area of your life. You have the power to alter your destiny in crucial disciplines by concentrating on one realm per day. Concentrate on your emotions the first day, physical concerns the second day, relationships on the third day and financial matters on the fourth day. On the fifth day, define your code of conduct; on the sixth day, focus on time management. On the seventh day, take a well-deserved rest and have fun! See what a difference you have the power to make in your own life.

About the Author

World-renowned writer and psychotherapist Viktor E. Frankl wrote more than 30 books on theoretical and clinical psychology.