Book Breakdown: “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl

In the 76 years since Viktor E. Frankl first published “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the book has been translated into more than 50 languages and sold over 16 million copies. Its enduring relevance is as important today as it was in 1946. Yet despite its success and acclaim, Frankl adamantly contended the book’s popularity was less a result of his own achievement than it was sobering proof of mankind’s disquiet.

In the preface to the 1992 edition, Frankl wrote: “Whereupon I react by reporting that in the first place I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book an achievement and accomplishment on my part but rather an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under their fingernails.”

Born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria, Frankl experienced a meteoric rise through the worlds of psychiatry, psychology, and neurology in the 1920s and 1930s. He carried the torch from his fellow countrymen Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, but eventually created a furor among his peers when he asserted that meaning is man’s central motivational force. Undeterred by his critics, he began refining this theory into an established philosophy and therapeutic method. Logotherapy, as it is known, is now practiced around the world.

In 1942, Frankl and his family were captured by the Nazis and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Frankl spent four years in four different concentration camps, losing not only his original logotherapy manuscripts but also his father, mother, brother, and wife who all died in the camps. Stripped of his family and his life’s work, Frankl endured depression, hopelessness, torture, and starvation as he slowly turned his suffering into resilience.

“Man’s Search for Meaning” is an account of Frankl’s experience as a prisoner and how that experience shaped and confirmed his professional theories. As he and his fellow prisoners struggled to survive, he found life-saving strength in meditations on his wife and hope in a future in which he could continue to help people through his work. Losing sight of that future was perilous, he learned.

“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”

Frankl builds resilience through hope to get him through the worst times of his imprisonment. It becomes a theme for his personal transcendence and a pillar of the logotherapy doctrine, which he continues to create from within the walls of the camp. In one of the book’s most powerful passages, Frankl describes 2,000 prisoners being transferred by the Nazis from Auschwitz to another concentration camp near Dachau. From their cages on the train car, they set their eyes on the Alps at sunset:

“If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor—or maybe because of it—we were carried away by nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.”

Frankl’s experience and insight are heartbreaking, infuriating, inspiring, and empowering all at once. He implores all of us to find our meaning in work, in love, and in courage in difficult times.

There are so many salient lessons:

  • “Suffering ceases to be suffering the moment it finds meaning.”
  • “When we can’t change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
  • “Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.”
  • “Self esteem cannot be dependent on others.”
  • “The salvation of man is through love and in love.”

Frankl survived the camps and was liberated in 1945. Only then did he learn of the death of his wife and family. Despite his tragic losses, the hope he held onto throughout his imprisonment continued to guide his life and work.

“It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking into the future—sub specie aeternitatis. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.”

It’s something we’re constantly reminding ourselves and our community here at MTNTOUGH: do not underestimate the power of mental toughness. Whether you’re grinding through a workout, testing your limits in the wilderness, training to be a soldier, learning how to be a better person, or dealing with the inevitable challenges life brings—your attitude is your single greatest asset.

Much has changed since Frankl emerged from the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp on his way to writing “Man’s Search for Meaning,” but in many ways, the times we live in today are as volatile as any other time in history. With so much beyond our control, Frankl continues to throw us a lifeline:

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