Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel
Sit Down and Read
One Line Summary
Meaning is a choice
If you’ve been following along with my blog, you know I’ve had some personal encounters with this question of meaning. But I’m glad I waited in till now to do this review. Because many of the ideas Frankl brings to the table in this book are nuanced and really require a deep understanding of human psychology in order to appreciate.
The setup of this book is intense. Dr. Viktor Frankl is a Holocaust survivor and opens the book by giving a gruesomely honest account of his experience at a death camp. The stories will make your stomach turn and shock you at what humanity is capable of doing.
The second half of the book is Frankl explaining what he experience from a psychiatrists point of view. His insights into the human mind are extremely powerful, given his professional background.
Why it’s Awesome
“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”
-Dr. Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Many people start getting into self-development work because they desire to make some external change in their life. And that’s great. It’s nice to be able to improve your business or get healthy or whatever your goal is. I definitely consider myself a goal-oriented person who works hard.
But what’s interesting is that people really tend to assume that if they just solved whatever problem their facing, then they would be fulfilled in life. I know because I used to do this. And I still run into this trap myself all the time.
It isn’t in till you start getting deeper into self-development work that you start to realize that you need to flip this problem completely on its head. The reason you’re not fulfilled and can’t find meaning in your life isn’t because of some external problem. It’s an internal problem. It has to do with your mind and your thinking.
This book is one of those powerful books that can start people in that direction.
By all accounts, Frankl lived in the shittiest external conditions a human being could imagine. He was in a goddamn Nazi death camp. His life was in danger every day. And yet, he and his campmates managed to find meaning in what was obviously the most meaningless life possible.
But you can’t do it even with all the modern luxuries of the Western world. Because it’s definitely that guy at work’s fault that you’re not fulfilled, right? He didn’t give you that promotion. That promotion would have made you fulfilled, and he took that away from you. He’s taking away your happiness! Fuck that guy.
Or maybe it’s your spouse’s fault. They didn’t do that thing they were supposed to do! And that thing was really important. How can you throw a proper dinner party if you don’t have Paprika?
Notice how these excuses are very good at one thing: stopping you from looking inside and accepting responsibility.
In the Happiness Hypothesis, Hadit talks about the relativistic nature of the human mind when it comes to fulfillment. Essentially, the your psychology does not measure happiness by adding up sum total of all the shit you’ve got, which is how most people seem to try and get happiness. They think if they just keep getting the external better and better, they’ll be happy. No, not at all.
Rather, the human mind measures happiness in a relativistic way. Frankl tells a story of how a train he was on made a stop separate from going to Aushwitz, which was a known death camp. All the campmates spend the rest of the day in extremely high spirits, knowing they had a little more time to live.
That’s relativistic happiness. Going to Aushwitz -> taking a detour to Aushwitz. From our modern perspective it might seem crazy that one could be happy just taking a detour from a death camp. But if you search your own personal experience, you’ll see this is true. This is how the human mind approaches happiness.
Obviously I’m not saying that you need to give up on your goals and your life and go live in a Nazi death camp in order to be happy. Remember that these are nuanced truths, so don’t look for the simple answer. I’m just making a point about how your psychology functions.
This leads Frankl to come to the apex of the entire book: a meaningful life is a choice. Quote, “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.”
This is heavy stuff. It’s not trivial or vague philosophizing. It’s fundamental to being able to love your everyday life. Because that is what you want, right?
I actually don’t like using the word “meaning”. Because what Frankl is talking about here with finding “meaning” is different from probably most people consider meaning. So I’m going to make a distinction between Egoic Meaning and True Meaning.
Egoic Meaning is what most people are searching for, and it’s also what people are talking about when they say they “can’t find meaning”. I know because I’ve done it.
Essentially, you feel hollow inside. You feel like something is “missing” from your life. And so you set out to try and “get” or “accomplish” something that you feel is significant. But it never really works out. That hollowness remains.
At this point you have two choices: double down on your previous strategy of trying to find happiness through Egoic Meaning, never acknowledging to yourself that it’s not working. Or, you admit it doesn’t work and just find some form of external numbing yourself to avoid depression. Most people choose some combination of the two.
Fundamentally what’s going on is actually just that people are mistaken. You’re trying to get meaning by satisfying needs of your ego, but the ego is an illusion. You can’t get happiness from an illusion.
Here’s an analogy to people seeking fulfillment through Egoic Meaning. Imagine that you had a tremendous pain in your foot. Now normally you’d maybe take some Tylenol or go see a doctor and the situation would get resolved.
But instead, imagine that you were confused and you actually thought you were your toaster. Total misunderstanding. So you keep trying to fix this toaster, making it the best toaster you possibly can, hoping the pain in your foot will go away. You clean it every day and start buying decorations for the toaster. Maybe you even give it a name. But the pain in your foot won’t go away, and you can’t figure out why. You conclude that trying to fix the pain is impossible and live your life in misery.
This is an absurd analogy. But I’m trying to make a point to show you how ridiculous this looks to someone no longer functioning through the ego. Fundamentally it’s really no different.
So that’s Egoic Meaning. What is True Meaning?
I’m going to give Frankl the floor again here. Keep in mind to contrast this quote with what we were talking about with the ego.
“Therefore, man is originally characterized by his search for meaning, rather than the search for himself. The more he forgets himself, giving himself to a cause or another person, the more human he is. And the more he is immersed and absorbed in something other than himself, the more he becomes himself”.
I love this quote. It perfect encapsulates not only what I call True Meaning, but explains the reasoning behind almost every great moral teaching. True Meaning, rather than operating through the ego, is when your sense of meaning comes from connecting with your Authentic self, which is the totality of existence itself.
This is how you really fill that hallow hole you feel that you try and drown out. You have to look outside yourself.
It’s so surprise that people who do things like charity work or have tremendous dedication in some cause seem to find great personal satisfaction in their lives. Their focus is off serving their ego and is about serving who they really Are.
It’s easy to dismiss teachings like Karma and the Jesus’s Golden Rule as primitive forms of human morality. But really these enlightened teachers were trying to convey exactly what Frankl just said. Acting selfishly and through the ego is “bad” in the sense that some God is judging you. It’s “bad” because you damage yourself. The punishment isn’t external, it’s the state of mind you’re forced to inhabit.
Of course, the ego is a very clever shapeshifter. Many people can perform outwardly selfless acts such as making a donation to a charity, but their motivations are tainted. They’re doing because they hope other people will see what a “good person” they are. They’re still falling into Egoic Meaning and so they experience no really happiness.
So I’m going to propose another definition of True Meaning, one that comes to us first from the ancients. And that is Action for the sake of Action itself. Or you could say, Action with expectation of return.
When people here this, they tend to get tremendously confused. Why would someone act just to act? Why do anything if you’re not going to “get something” in return? I feel sorry for these people, because sometimes they are the most lost.
Think of dancing. When you’re dancing to a song, you start moving at the beginning of the song and continue in till the end. Action is performed with a definitive goal in mind, and yet it would make no sense to say that the point of dancing is to “get to” the end of the song. Rather you’d say the point of dancing is, well, for the enjoyment of dancing. Action for the sake of Action itself.
This is what life is. It’s one giant Dance. Have you noticed that there’s nothing actually really for us to do here? Every accomplishment you’ll ever make will eventually be forgotten. You and everyone you know will die. Problems never end, they just change form. From any point of view, it would be impossible to say that there is meaning in anything we do.
Unless you view life as a Dance.
Once you view life as a Dance, i.e something to experience and enjoy rather than “get somewhere”, you find True Meaning.
We’ve all had tastes of this. The countless hours we spent playing as kids. The incredible rush when skiing down a mountain. The computer programmer totally absorbed in finishing a piece of code. Nothing really is gained in those moments except for having the moments themselves. That is the point.
These are not selfish actions. In fact, they’re true spiritual activities. You have no egoic agenda in mind. So don’t think finding True Meaning and being a selfless person means you need to sell all your possessions and go work with starving children in Africa. Unless of course that is your Authentic desire.
Frankl says there is space between stimulus and response for a person to choose to having meaning in their life. Given our definition of True Meaning, it’s easy to see that he’s right. Someone could always choose to come along and say that this particular activity is “pointless”. And someone else could always make the same choice to see meaning in what they do.
Why Does It Suck
The only reason I can see why someone shouldn’t read this book is that the content is obviously extremely mature. You may not wish you traumatize your young kids with stories from Nazi death camps.
I also feel that Frankl could have cut a good amount of the second half of the book. It’s mostly him just exploring and re-explaining the same concepts over and over again. But this is a very minor complaint.
The Wrap Up
I talk a lot about transcending the Self and Enlightenment work on this blog. But you don’t have to do any of those things in order to experience True Meaning in your life. From one perspective, you could say that Enlightenment really is nothing more than truly experiencing the present moment. This is available to anyone, no matter who you are.
This is one of the most powerful and transformative books I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it to anyone who feels the need to start tackling the “bigger questions” in life.
Otherwise, just forget all this shit, have a beer, enjoy a sunset and go hug someone. The End.