Bodhi Book Summary: Man's Search for Meaning

Man's Search for Meaning

by Viktor Frankl

Summarized and Reviewed by Tim Delson

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The Brief Summary

Viktor Frankl was a psychologist, a survivor of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, and a remarkable man. He endured and survived against all odds. He also lost his wife, father, mother, and brother. Out of the experience, and his observations of his fellow prisoners, he devised a new method of psychotherapy, which he coined logotherapy, which continues to be honored as a field of practice today.

Frankl divides Man's Search for Meaning into two sections. The first is a first-hand telling of life as a prisoner in the camps, and the second describes logotherapy.

As for the prisoner's experience, we of course couldn't do it justice in this summary. Even Frankl confesses that he can't and shouldn't attempt to recount every fact and detail of the horrors of the camps. Frankl instead focuses only on those anecdotes which help him to make his later observations about the psychology of the prisoners, which lay the groundwork for the introduction to logotherapy. Suffice it to say, the incidents were horrific, Frankl and the rest of the prisoners endured the worst that any human may face, and the reader is left with a vivid enough portrayal to follow Frankl's thought process.

The resounding conclusion that Frankl arrives at is that humans need meaning to survive and thrive. It's the greatest motivation in our lives. Without it, we are empty. He makes the following points about meaning:

  • Meaning isn't something that's "there" but something we must find.
  • Meaning is different for each one of us. We each must find our own.
  • Meaning doesn't come first. Action comes first, then meaning follows. We may arrive at our meaning by looking at how we act and what responsibilities we feel surrounding our choices.
  • Meaning can be found in work, in love, or in our attitude toward our inevitable suffering.


The Long Summary

Man's Search for Meaning is one of the most important and influential books of our time for a number of reasons.

Viktor Frankl was a survivor of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and a remarkable man. He survived against all odds, lost his wife, father, mother, and brother, and endured the worst that any human may face.

After the war ended, he wrote the 200-page Man's Search for Meaning in 9 consecutive days. He almost published anonymously, but was persuaded at the last minute not to. It went on to sell millions of copies and get published in 24 languages.

The book also introduces logotherapy, considered to be the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy" following Freud and Adler, and has gone on to be an area of study and active therapy practice.

The book is broken into two sections, the larger of which is spent describing the horrors as experienced through Frankl's eyes. The second section lays out the details of logotherapy.

Section 1: The Prisoner's Experience

It's impossible for us to truly capture here in this summary the full degree of the physical, mental, and psychological horrors that prisoners of the Nazi concentration camps had to endure. For that, we can only recommend you read Frankl's book, or the many other volumes, historical counts, or websites that already do a better job of covering the topic. Even Frankl warns in the early pages of Man's Search for Meaning that his aim isn't to describe every factual detail of life in the camps, but rather, only to share one man's experience there, and only as he saw relevant to provide context for the ideas that follow.

He spends a good deal of time time describing what he calls the psychological stages that prisoners go through, which include:

  1. (Initially) Shock – The disbelief that it's happening, and the delusion of reprieve.
  2. (Then eventually) Depersonalization – As prisoners became "used to" the horror and death of the camps, an apathy sets in, which allowed them to focus on survival.
  3. (Finally, when the prisoner returns to the world) Readjustment – This period is characterized first by disbelief, and an inability to grasp freedom or experience pleasure or joy. Next came bitterness. Many prisoners looked for compensation and vengeance. Living a normal life was difficult.

Frankl provides us with horrifying anecdotes along the way which help us peer, even briefly, into the tragedy of it all, primarily so Frankl can illustrate the human psychological condition and response in each stage.

In the second psychological stage of imprisonment, some men began to lose the ability to see a life beyond camp, to their potential future life after it. When this happened, according to Frankl, that loss deprived them of their ability to imagine a life that had any goals or meaning. They merely existed. And when men would give up on life in this way, they were doomed, and their death soon followed.

The way through the terror and brutality for many prisoners was by focusing inside themselves. Some tried to live in accordance with their own values, as far as was possible. Some imagined loved ones, reminisced about the past, and took in the beauty of nature as a way to find a fragment of happiness, no matter how fleeting. These men, according to Frankl, were often better able to survive.

Frankl asserts that the meaning of life is found in every living moment. That life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. It is during these experiences, and through these epiphanies, that seeds the theory of Logotherapy.

Section 2: Logotherapy

At the center of Viktor Frankl's psychological theory, logotherapy, is the assertion that in order to survive and thrive, humans need to discover their personal meaning of life. That this search for meaning is the greatest motivation in our lives. That without this, we'll feel empty.

The three basic principles of logotherapy are:

  1. The freedom of will (that life has meaning in all circumstances, even the most dire)
  2. Will to meaning (our main motivation is to find meaning in life)
  3. Meaning of life (we have the freedom to find meaning in whatever we do, experience, or stand for)

Frankl further asserts that there is no general meaning of life. Rather, we must each determine our own meaning, and acknowledge that it could change over time and is unique to our circumstances. What's more, many people believe they must first discover their life's purpose so they can make the right choices. But logotherapy suggests this is backwards. Instead, how we act and how we feel responsibility toward our choices determines our meaning.

The three different meanings of logotherapy are work, love, and attitude.


Find work that you simply MUST do and you'll absolutely be driven to survive and finish your work.


Experience life or another individual through love. This is the highest goal to which humans can aspire and our salvation.

Our Attitude Towards Suffering

It is our choice to take a particular attitude toward unavoidable suffering. It's the "last of the human freedoms" that cannot be taken from us.

According to Frankl, suffering is an unavoidable part of life, and therefore has meaning just the same as life itself. And in these moments we are faced with a choice. Suffering can either be a meaningful experience in our life, or we can let it turn into a bitter fight for self-preservation, forgetting our human dignity and becoming nothing more than an animal. So suffer well.


Find your life's meaning by analyzing what you do and why you do it. It doesn't have to be this grand thing. It need only be personal and true to you. If a fear gets in your way of moving into your meaning, move toward that fear and into it. Recognize your values and your freedom to live them no matter your life situation!


Enjoyable to Read: 5 out of 5

For a book which spends so much of its pages detailing the horrors of the holocaust, rating it on how "enjoyable" it is is incongruous. That being said, it was surely a book that keeps the reader's interest, both from the astonishment of each new detail, but also the elegance of his writing and the psychological commentary he wove throughout.


Reviewer's Overall Rating: 5 out of 5

Even Viktor Frankl would attest that Man's Search for Meaning isn't, nor does it try to be, a text book on the facts and analysis of the events of the Holocaust. That being said, one can't help but to take away a great many details of life in the camps that make the experience feel quite vivid. Each passage pulls the reader into feelings of empathy, horror, anger, and pity. For this reason alone, it's a recommended read.

Beyond that, and of course, it's also the introduction to what's become known as the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy" following Freud and Adler, and is thus also an important read for this reason.

Finally, Frankl helps us see that meaning can be found in literally ANY life, in any moment, and under any conditions. That meaning is there waiting for us. That life does not become empty until and unless it becomes devoid of meaning. That meaning is not some general solution, but rather person-by-person. We must go find our own. And finally, he assures us that finding meaning means simply looking at the decisions we already make, and trying to understand why and how we make them.

If you buy into logotherapy's assertion that meaning is the greatest motivation in our lives, then this book is a recommended read.


Actionable Info: 3 out of 5

There is but one action – find meaning in your life. Doing so is perhaps not a single practice or exercise, but rather, a continuing thought experiment which starts from your values and ends with your actions.


Quality of the Ideas: 4 out of 5

All life can have meaning, regardless of the circumstances. And all human life SHOULD, or else it will be empty.
It's up to YOU to determine your own meaning. There's no textbook to read. You can do this by looking into yourself, your values, and your actions.
Meaning doesn't have to be grandiose. It need only be true to you, your values, and your circumstance.
We can find meaning in work, love, or our attitude toward suffering.
The three psychological stages a prisoner goes through include (1) shock/denial/delusion, (2) depersonalization/numbness/apathy, and (3) readjustment/bitterness/vengeance.


Quotability: 4.5 out of 5

“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.”
“Happiness must happen… You have to let it happen by not caring about it.”
“Listen to what your conscious wants you to do.”
“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.”
“The crowning experience for man is the feeling that, for all he as suffered, there is nothing he need fear anymore, except his god.”
“Logotherapy is a meaning-centered psychotherapy… [it] focuses on the meaning of human existence, as well as on man’s search for such a meaning. According to logotherapy, this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man.”
“This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone. Only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.”
“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. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. 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”
"If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete."
"Live 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!”
“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.”
“For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.”
“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.”
“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. 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.”
"I did not know whether my wife was alive, and I had no means of finding out (during all my prison life there was no outgoing or incoming mail); but at that moment it ceased to matter. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and the image of my beloved. Had I known then 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."





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