Man’s Search for Meaning: Book Review

This is one of those classic books I’ve had on my shelf for over a decade, but never touched. A friend was going to read it, and as I’ve been depressed with my recent injury, it seemed a good time for me to read it too. It’s a well known classic of philosophy / Holocaust literature, written by Viktor E. Frankl, an Austrian psychotherapist who was imprisoned at Auschwitz during World War II.

Man’s Search For Meaning is a short book and a worthy read. The author’s tale is exceptionally compelling as his observations about life in hellish conditions are enhanced by his training in psychology, going beyond the awful, but familiar, horrors many of us know from popular movies and documentaries about the Holocaust.

The central theme of the book is about how anyone can choose to make meaning out of any situation, no matter how bad thing are. He uses his personal experiences and observations from the Auschwitz to support this premise. More that the list of platitudes you often find in self help books, the lessons are grounded by the first 50 pages of the book, which centers on Frankl’s first person tale of  starvation, violence, cruelty and epic loss in the German death camps.

One measure of books I use is how many passages I copy down for later. This book scored very well. Three of my favorites were:

Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.

Another was this questioning of the American worldview, where we believe we can get anything simply by aiming directly:

To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to “be happy.” But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to “be happy.” Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.

This need for a reason is similar in another specifically human phenomenon-laughter. If you want anyone to laugh you have to provide him with a reason, e.g., you have to tell him a joke. In no way is it possible to evoke real laughter by urging him, or having him urge himself, to laugh. Doing so would be the same as urging people posed in front of a camera to say “cheese,” only to find that in the finished photographs their faces are frozen in artificial smiles.

And it was hard not to forget this one:

Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how”

The only disappointment is the extra sections of the book vary in quality, There’s one about the theory he invented called Logotherapy, which feels like it was written as it’s own thing (which I believe it was). While  interesting, it contains a series of repetitive self-aggrandizing anecdotal tales of how this method has helped people. Even so, the entire book can be read in an hour or two, these extra sections are short, and you might enjoy them more than I did.

It’s a great book to read when you feel like a failure, feel lost, beaten or downtrodden in any way. When you are finished reading you will, at worst, see your own challenges in a different light: everything in your life could be so much worse, and even if it were, you could still find a way to find meaning.  Get the book here on amazon ( I read the kindle edition).

It seems he was a fantastic speaker. Here’s Frankl talking about the need for idealism:

9 Responses to “Man’s Search for Meaning: Book Review”

  1. Sean Crawford

    Hi Scott, I have parts memorized too. Such a life changer. Maybe next time I’ll read the extra parts first, to avoid anti-climax. One of the most salient parts for me is when a fellow prisoner is having a nightmare: Frankl lets him sleep because anywhere is better than the Nazi camp.

    Nice video. I believe in idealism just as I believe in being healthy. It feels good. And besides, George Orwell once wrote (in his postcards essay?) that a healthy society must demand a little more of its members than it can reasonably expect.

    When it comes to individuals shouldering the burdens of citizenship, I suppose it is no coincidence that the most democratic state is also known as the most naive.

  2. Pawe?

    Typo: it’s “Frankl”, not “Frankel”.

    1. Pawe?

      Also your blog doesn’t seem to be supporting UTF-8 in names in comment. Let’s see if it supports it in the comment itself: ??ó??

      1. Pawe?

        No, it doesn’t do that either.

  3. English Essay Procrastinator

    this book is truely interesting and has moved me

  4. Chloe

    I am a high school student and i used this book for my project, it has been in my favor! i am only half way through but i have pages of information from this book!!!

  5. Personlig udvikling

    Great review!
    Also, I like this little store from the book:

    “”Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now how could I help him? What should I tell him? I refrained from telling him anything, but instead confronted him with a question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive without you?:” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left the office”.

    I believe it can be very difficult to always find positives in any situation, but actually, it IS possible in most situations though.

  6. Manas Pruthi

    This book explains beautifully what goes on inside the man’s soul as he is confronted with the physical, mental and emotional threats to his existence. It not only makes the reader assess the mortal and moral dangers in a scientific and logical light but also provides the necessary tools to overcome them. Whether in a normal situation or during the most distressing states. The book not only changes the reader’s attitude towards life but also bring a conviction that any difficulty in no matter how hard the circumstances can be overcome.


Leave a Reply

* Required