Why Everyone Needs Purpose: Summary of Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’

Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search For Meaning” is a testament to the endurance of the human spirit. Having spent most of World War 2 as a prisoner in various Nazi concentration camps, where only an estimated one in twenty eight survived, he was able to directly test his therapeutic psychological concepts – known as logotherapy – under the most extreme conditions possible.
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Frankl’s thesis is simple and easy to digest. “Man’s Search For Meaning” cuts to the heart of why purpose is fundamental for a fulfilled life. If you don’t have time to read the book, here are the big ideas and important details.
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Everyone Needs A Reason For Being
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Frankl witnessed first-hand how those prisoners who had a future purpose or goal fared the best. Those who lost a reason to live soon ceased to live:
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“As we said before, any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche words, “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why – an aim – for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence. Woe to him who saw no more sense in life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.” [76]
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More succinctly:.
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“In the Nazi concentration camps, one could have witnessed that those who knew that there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive.” [104]
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This reaffirmed Frankl’s belief that:
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“… mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what ones still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.” [105]
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Just as there’s not a universally best move in chess, there isn’t a single broad purpose of life.
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“One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.” [109]
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For Frankl, choice is the special ingredient that brings it all together.
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“To be sure, a human being is a finite thing, and his freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions but it is a freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.” [130]
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According to Frankl, people are not completely autonomous and separate from their conditions. Instead, the ability to make choices within the framework of specific conditions is what matters.
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“Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives into conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.” [131]
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One practical takeaway from Man’s Search For Meaning is the therapeutic technique know as paradoxical intention, or seeking out and trying to actively encounter the thing one normally avoids. This is based on “the two-fold fact that fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that hyper intention makes impossible what one wishes.” [124]
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Frankl offers many examples of this technique in practice, including as a treatment for insomnia:
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“The fear of sleeplessness results in a hyper-intention to fall asleep, which, in turn, incapacitates the patient to do so. To overcome this particular fear, I usually advise the patient not to try to sleep but rather to try to do just the opposite, that is, to stay awake as long as possible. In other words, the hyper-intention to fall asleep, arising from the anticipatory anxiety of not being able to do so, must be replaced by the paradoxical intention not to fall asleep, which soon will be followed by sleep.” [127].
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For myself, the first half of the book – Frankl’s account of the concentration camps – seemed rather slow. I didn’t take any notes until page 76. However, what seemed like a drawn out introduction added extra profundity to his closing remarks:
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“… man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of endowment and environment – he has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentiality is within himself; which one is actualized depends on the situation but not on conditions… Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however he is also that being who enter those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Sema Yisrael on his lips.” [134]
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