Man’s Search for Meaning: Summary and Key Takeaways

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“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

With these words, Viktor E. Frankl summed up the basic thought of his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

It is for this reason that finding your why, your purpose, your reason for being, is so important. It will carry you through any trial, even when those trials seem completely overwhelming to the exclusion of all else.

What follows is a brief summary and some of my key takeaways for this incredible book. Of all the books I read when researching the topic of purpose, this is perhaps the most profound.

Frankl’s work served as one of the foundation stones of positive psychology, and his book is absolutely essential reading for those who want to delve deeper into the meaning and purpose of their lives.

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A Book Summary of Man’s Search for Meaning

Man’s Search for Meaning is a book written in 1946 by Viktor Frankl, that documented his experiences as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II.

Prior to the outbreak of the war, Frankl earned a living as a psychologist, a background that served as the basis for his observations and experience during the war.

While in a Nazi concentration camp, Viktor Frankl experienced horrors that most of us would not dare to dream about, horrors that should not happen to anybody in the world. But by going through those horrors, and observing them in others, Frankl was able to learn some surprising truths about the nature of humanity, and the nature of purpose in particular. He was able to observe those of his fellow prisoners who lost the will to live. He observed their existential frustration when confronted with camp life, compared to those who found personal meaning that helped them push through the unavoidable suffering.

The book introduced Frankl’s new theory called logotherapy, which involves finding a purpose to feel positive about, then fully immersing the imagination in that outcome, even when you have nothing.

While the original book was published in Vienna, Austria, in 1959, the book was published in the United States, and Frankl’s theories gained enormous popularity, and selling 10 million copies in 24 languages by the time of Frankl’s death in 1997.

Key Takeaways

There are a lot of profound thoughts that can be mined from this book, and I’ve assembled for of what I feel are the most important. This is especially true if you are searching for your purpose, or finding meaning in human life.

Everything Can Be Taken Away From You, Save One

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

As someone who lived through the chilling events of a German concentration camp, Frankl knew firsthand what it meant to have everything taken away.

However, there is one thing that cannot be taken away no matter what happens: your attitude. You can choose to react positively, or to react negatively to literally any circumstance in life. It is the only thing that can never be taken away from you.

This is a philosophy of tragic optimism that has been embraced by many other great thinkers throughout history, including Marcus Aurelius, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and Martin Luther King Jr. to name a few.

But few if any of them had the experiences to back up their philosophy. Frankl had that. Few of us have ever experienced losing all of our family, all of our possessions, even the clothes off our back.

So how can we apply this knowledge?

Frankl’s experience really puts into perspective whenever we feel like we are the victim. If Viktor Frankl can choose inner strength in the most horrible situations, so can we when someone cuts us off while driving, when we can’t seem to lose those last 5 pounds, or when we feel stressed at work.

That’s not to say that these things aren’t important in our lives, and shouldn’t have an impact on our mental health. They can. But with practice, we can learn to harness our thoughts, and to inject the thoughts that we want to have in order to have the emotions that lead to the actions we desire.

Striving and Struggling to Find Our Goal

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. 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.”

The second big take away is this concept of striving and struggling to find our goal.

We are not meant to have it easy in life. To do so would be like a butterfly whose cocoon is forced open. The butterfly cannot survive without struggling to get out of its cocoon. Only through that struggle cannot grow strong enough to fly.

We all want to live in this “tensionless” state, a life of pleasure. But that isn’t the point of a meaningful life. So what is the point? According to Frankl, that point is to find a goal worthy of us into pursue it relentlessly, even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard.

Meaning Comes in Service

“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.”

The third big take away is that mankind will not find a purpose in serving ourselves, we find purpose in serving others.

The next point will make it clear why this can benefit us, but the point is to not dream of our own benefit. The more we can help others, the more we can serve, the more we get closer to our own high self.

So what can you do to serve others today?

Don’t Pursue Success, Let Success Ensue

“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.”

I believe this is a particularly profound thought. Most of us, especially in the West, are so focused on success. That is our target, that is our goal.

But Frankl suggests that the more you pursue success, the more your life is going to be hollow.

If we apply take away number three above, and spend all of our time in serving others, the more we will find not only success, but also happiness and fulfillment.

In fact, it can be stressful to focus so much on yourself. It’s easier to get anxiety over things not going the right way, and to live in a reactive mindset. Instead, we need to take a proactive mindset, a mindset that takes us out of ourselves in the service of others.

And if we can do this, success will undoubtedly ensue.

The Best Man’s Search for Meaning Quotes

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’”

“What is to give light must endure burning.”

“The meaning of our existence is not invented by ourselves, but rather detected.”

“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 fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

“Then 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 honorable way—in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.”

“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 the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

“What is to give light must endure burning.”

“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”

“To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”

“For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”