Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl is best-known for his seminal and best-selling work on purposeful living, Man’s Search For Meaning – a book of timeless, universal relevance to all those looking for a fuller life.
Our biggest challenge is to live a meaningful life.
This realisation strikes hardest on days when work offers no distraction – for many people, Sunday. Viktor Frankl depicts the age-old feeling of lacking direction – of life happening to us rather than us giving it purpose – with uncanny clarity:
‘Sunday neurosis’, that kind of depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.
Yet in his brief but powerful memoir on surviving the Holocaust, and the life lessons he drew from that experience, Frankl reminds us that we are always more free to live a meaningful life than we recognise:
Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.
If you’ve ever felt a sense of entrapment or a desire for direction, we highly recommend reading this inspiring text in its entirety. Man’s Search For Meaning delivers practical wisdom embedded in a story that is both harrowing and profoundly uplifting.
We focus, here, on Frankl’s founding realisation of our own irrepressible freedom and five of his takeaways for a meaningful life.
Viktor Frankl In Brief
Unlike Freud (who believed in pleasure as man’s primary motivator) and Adler (who argued it was power), Frankl viewed purpose as our underlying driver.
His observations are the fruit of his heart-wrenching experience of concentration camps, often laid bare in terms as beautiful as they are clinical:
A fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds to see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colours, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, ‘How beautiful the world could be…’
Despite the extreme severity of his context, Frankl is unequivocal in inviting us to draw clear parallels between his experience and our own feelings of entrapment. He wrote because he believed his view of a meaningful life could be a basis for us all.
Frankl’s Founding Realisation For A Meaningful Life
Frankl’s directions for a meaningful life spring from an empowering realisation, one of absolute importance to his work and to his overriding life message.
Soon after arriving at Auschwitz Frankl concluded that, in spite of his circumstances, he and his peers retained one freedom – to be the ultimate determiners of their own behaviour, outlook and actions.
It’s in this inner morsel of freedom that Frankl believes our true identity is vested:
The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance. […] Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
He lay down this founding thought after observing his fellow prisoners turning into either saints or swines. It was the saints – those who withstood a diabolical existence and maintained their integrity – that led Frankl to believe that many of the constraints we place on our own conduct and attitudes are either imaginary or self-imposed.
The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. … Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
Back when Patrick and I were still in our corporate jobs, we started to apply this outlook to our own situation: in doing so, a mortgage, big salary and peer approval suddenly stopped feeling like traps, obstacles that prevented us from moving on from a career that, to us at this time in our lives, lacked purpose. These were self-imposed constraints we’d willingly made ourselves subservient to and could just as willingly remove ourselves from by adjusting our priorities. Frankl foresees worrying consequences for those who shirk the pursuit of meaning:
Without meaning, people fill the void with hedonistic pleasures, power, materialism, hatred, boredom, or neurotic obsessions and compulsions.
So many of the shackles that keep us stuck in life are self-imposed, sometimes even illusions.
With this point firmly in mind, Frankl provides a number of takeaways for a meaningful life. Here are five of our personal favourites:
Frankl’s Five Directions For A Meaningful Life
1. View happiness and success as by-products, not objectives
Frankl views chasing happiness and success in place of purpose and meaning as a recipe for inauthentic life choices, procrastination in determining one’s own purpose and perpetual dissatisfaction:
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.
Frankl says we should try to understand what we are personally driven to do and focus on doing that as well as possible. Success will necessarily ensue from following our own authentic path to the best of our abilities:
[…] 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.
Similarly, Frankl presents pleasure as an off-shoot of purposeful action, easily made inaccessible if mistaken as a goal in and of itself.
2. Aim for a meaningful life, not the meaning of life
Frankl asks us to shelve the question: what is the meaning of life and understand, instead, that life itself poses us the question:how will you make your life meaningful?
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.
For Frankl, this approach is not only the most meaningful – it’s also a frank admission of our inability to know the ultimate reality of the cosmos, even allowing for spiritual inclinations (which he does not dismiss):
Ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man… What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.
3. Pursue purposeful work
The pursuit of purpose is a personal dance and Frankl isn’t prescriptive as to what you should find purposeful. He’s fairly succinct on the matter, trusting us to pick our own path based on our experiences and skills:
Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.
There are ample resources available on the subject of how to find your own personal goal, many of which we’ll be exploring in the near future (and others we can share with you, just drop us a line).
4. (Love) deeply
Before zooming in on love, Frankl starts with a broader concept that’s distinctly relevant to The Great Everything:
The second way of finding a meaning in life is by experiencing something – such as goodness, truth or beauty – by experiencing nature or culture or, last but not least, by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness: by loving him.
Nonetheless, the focus of this section soon moves on to personal love. At a practical level, Frankl views love as the sole means to seeing the truth and potential in another person:
No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him […].
This was a direction Frankl would return to again in his later work, notably in his insights on how we can elevate one another by willingly overestimating each other. He calls it promoting man to what he really can be, echoing the famous words of Goethe:
Some of his most moving passages refer to his wife, from whom he was separated at Auschwitz. I always carry this one in my mind:
My mind still clung to the image of my wife. A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing-which I have learned well by now: 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. […] Had I known that my wife was dead, I think that I would still have given myself, undisturbed by that knowledge, to the contemplation of her image, and that my mental conversation with her would have been just as vivid and just as satisfying. ‘Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.’
5. Find value in hardship
Dostoyevsky once said there was only one thing he dreaded: to not be worthy of his sufferings.
These words frequently appeared in Frankl’s mind after he became acquainted with the saints mentioned earlier – those humans who bore witness to the fact that we can never lose the ultimate freedom to respond to our circumstance as we choose. Frankl remarks that:
It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.
Frankl is lucid about suffering. He views it as an ineradicable part of life, much in the same way as Henry Miller. Without suffering and death, human life, he believes, cannot feel complete. Echoing the words of the Great Indian thinker Jiddu Krishnamurthi, he muses:
The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation, he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.
* * * * * * * * *
Man’s Search For Meaning is a staggering work of extraordinary relevance, and short enough to read in a day. You can buy it here (and support us in the process). While its template for a meaningful life applies to almost anyone, it calls into question many of the limitations we place upon ourselves in order to avoid an important truth: that we are uniquely responsible for our own self-creation.
It was Nietzsche who famously observed that he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how. It isn’t easy, but Man’s Search For Meaning may trigger serious transformation and renewed freedom in those open to it.
[L]ive 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!
Which books have inspired you in your major life choices?Drop us a line or share them in the comments section below – we’d like to discover those that have mattered to you.