This month I read the book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. The book is actually one of the top selling “self-help” books of all time. I put self-help in quotations because I’m not sure if that was the original intention behind Frankl writing it, but it seems that he might have recognized what it became between the years it was first published in 1946 and his death in the late 1990s. The first half of the book chronicles his experiences as a prisoner in concentration camps during the second World War, including Auschwitz. While this could be just read as an intense, heart-breaking story (and it is), the way that Frankl writes about his life experiences doesn’t come off that way. Instead, you can see his reflection and growth in his writing. It’s kind of hard to explain how that works, unless you read it for yourself. The story is also not chronological but instead jumps back and forth across his timeline in the camps to highlight pieces of the story that are connected to each other in some way.
While I don’t want to give away too much from the story, because I highly recommend that everyone read it, there were two main takeaways that I had from the first half of the book. First, is that if we believe our lives have no meaning, then we are more likely to give up when faced with difficult circumstances – and that meaning doesn’t have to be grand or anything, as the beauty of a sunset or holding the hand of a sick friend can bring some meaning for that day. Of course, as Frankl admits, in the concentration camps there was a huge element of dumb luck that you ended up in this line instead of that line (whereas that line led you to the gas chambers and this one didn’t), but for those with that luck, meaning became important. The other takeaway I had is that meaning is created by each other us, and is different for each person. It is solely up to us what that meaning is.
The second half of the book is about Logotherapy, which is a psychotherapy modality that Frankl (who was a psychiatrist) invented. It was kind of based on psychoanalysis, but with a heavy emphasis on existential philosophy, particularly meaning-making. During the second half of the book, Frankl does tell more stories from his time in the camps, integrating it with his theories about human existence and how helping people find meaning can aid with the treatment of many mental health problems. Frankl is considered one of the leaders of existential psychotherapy. Though logotherapy isn’t really used anymore, as there isn’t a huge amount of empirical evidence supporting it, it has influenced many other existentially-based therapies, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which I practice. My personal beliefs are that life meaning is incredibly important, as are other existential concepts, which all humans ultimately deal with, and our ability to deal with contributes, at least partially, to our overall well-being.
Even if you aren’t interested in psychotherapy or existentialism, I highly recommend giving this book a read. There’s a reason that this is a best-selling self-help book. Many people struggle with finding meaning in their lives, especially at transitional periods, and this book can really open your eyes on how to find meaning, even in incredibly difficult circumstances. There are so many amazing quotes from this book, but I’m going to leave you with this one: “The helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by doing so change himself – he may turn personal tragedy into a triumph.”
For a podcast episode on meaning making with chronic illness, check out this one. Everyone, thank you as always for reading my posts. If you end up reading this book, let me know what your takeaways were. For now, keep making the most of it!