Summary: Man’s Search for Meaning

Paraphrasing some of the key points:

It is natural - even noble - to strive for meaning in one’s life. In fact, searching for meaning will lead to an infinitely better life than searching for happiness, which modern America has taught us to do. Meaning can be found in creation or action, in appreciation of a something or a someone, but also in suffering.

No matter the circumstances, we are always afforded the choice of dignity - the choice to take responsibility for ourselves, and to do the right thing, no matter how wronged we ourselves have been.

In healing our souls, we might focus on the past (like Freud and other psychiatrists suggest). But we could instead focus on the future, on the meaning yet to be felt. And by looking that meaning, learning to carry the burdens of today, no matter how difficult. That is the essence of logotherapy.

The single most important paragraph of the book:

"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."

Raw and incomplete quotes

Concentration camps were a raw selection process - those most determined to survive, at any cost, did. But “the best of us did not return.”

There were three mental phases of the concentration camp:

  1. The period following admission (characterized by shock, finalized when he completely struck out his old life.) “The prisoner of Auschwitz, in his first phase of shock, did not fear death.”
  2. The period when one is well entrenched in camp routine (characterized by apathy, a kind of emotional death. The result of many experiences which served to mortify normal reactions to horrible things). “The camp inmate was frightened of making decisions and taking any sort of initiative whatsoever. This was the result of a strong feeling that fate was one’s master.” I was horrified, but this was just as well, because step by step we had to become accustomed to a terrible and immense horror.” It is very difficult for an outsider to grasp how very little value was placed on human life in camp.
  3. The period following one’s release and liberation

Two surprising reactions: humor, and curiosity. The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living.

Dostoevsky: man is flatly defined as a being who can get used to anything.

All suffering is relative.

Sometimes the mental agony caused by injustice hurt more than the physical pain - the unreasonableness of it all.

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. (In stark comparison to the idea of “regression” to a more primitive, animal version of a person - unless the spiritual is the most primitive form of all)

Some people (Freud) believe that, in harsh enough circumstances, we become the most base version of ourselves - animals. Yet Freud never saw the inside of concentration camps. There, individual differences were not blurred into uniform animalism. Rather, people became more different; people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.

Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. The greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.

As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before - doesn’t fit into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs - fascinating.

The most important 3 paragraphs of this book:

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way (...). It is this spiritual freedom - which cannot be taken away - that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

An active life serves the purpose of giving man the opportunity to realize values in creative work, while a passive life of enjoyment affords hum the opportunity to obtain fulfillment in experiencing beauty, art, or nature. But there is also purpose in that life which is almost barren of both creation and enjoyment and which admits of but one possibility of high moral behavior: namely, in amn’s attitude to his existence, an existence restricted by external forces. A creative life and a life of enjoyment are banned to him. But not only creativeness and enjoyment are meaningful. 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.

(Later: human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning, and that this infinite meaning of life includes suffering and dying, privation and death.)

Most men in a concentration camp believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of these experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.

It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future. The prisoner who had lost faith in the future - his future - was doomed.

The rift dividing good from evil, which goes through all human beings, reaches into the lowest depths. There are really only two kinds of people: decent, and indecent. And yet both kinds can be found in every place, every people, every time.

No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.


Focused on the future, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future.

According to logotherapy, the striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. [not sure if I agree with this, but it is an entirely new thought and idea, that I will keep thinking about]

Freud prioritized the “will to pleasure,” Adler the “will to power.” Frankl’s is “will to meaning.” They practiced depth psychology - a focus on the past. Frankl practiced height psychology - a focus on the future.

[note: Frankl kept a close correspondence with Freud and Adler, even got Freud to submit his writing for publication when he was 16]

This means that a desire for purpose is in no way attributable to disease.

Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being.

I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis,” I.e. a tension less space.

Our current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.

A human being is not one in pursuit oh happiness, but rather in search of a reason to become happy.

The imperative of logotherapy: 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!

3 ways to discover meaning:

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone
  3. By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

Self-actualization is possible only as a side effect of self-transcendence. Some things cannot be obtained by striving for them. For example, fear can bring about the very thing one is afraid of, and hyper-intention can make impossible what one wishes. In these cases, one can learn to make light and even joke about that thing which they are afraid of.

I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Status of Responsibility on the West Coast.