[5 minute read]
Final Verdict – 5/5 – Must read
Much has been written on the perennial question, “What is the meaning of life?” What makes this book by Viktor Frankl such a unique and rich addition to the existing discourse are the tragic circumstances which enabled its creation. Frankl was an accomplished Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who had a successful track record of treating patients with suicidal tendencies. In 1937, at age 32, Frankl opened his own practice in Vienna. As such, he would have had intimate knowledge and extensive experience with how people grappled with issues relating to (lack of) happiness and success in their troubled lives.
But first, some more background behind the events which led to the creation of this book. In September 1942 Frankl, his wife, and parents were all transported to Nazi Theresienstadt Ghetto. In October 1944 Frankl and his wife were then transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Only a week after their arrival, Frankl was removed to the Kaufering camp where he spent five months working as a labourer. He was then moved to the Yurkheim camp where he worked as a physician until his liberation in May 1945 by US soldiers. Upon his release Frankl discovered that he was the only survivor. Shortly thereafter he wrote and published Man’s Search for Meaning in 1946.
The book is split into two short, easy-to-read parts. The first deals with Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps while the second outlines his psychiatric treatment methodology which he calls ‘logotherapy.’ I was greatly impressed by Frankl’s practical, humble, and clear writing style which conveyed his experiences in a touching and impactful manner. I honestly couldn’t put the first part of the book down. It is here that Frankl dispenses generous servings of wisdom on the matter of the meaning of life as seen through his real experiences of being a prisoner. I’ve never seen such poignant observations of the human condition before. The second part of the book is also worth mentioning. It is here that Frankl breaks down a solutions-focused psychiatric approach to mental healing rather than the traditional problem-focused approach. There are some fantastic and practical take-aways from this part of the book for those suffering from bad habits and seemingly hopeless frames of mind which are holding them back.
By writing Man’s Search for Meaning I believe that Frankl performed a sort of self-diagnosis of his indescribably horrific experiences – his personal way of coming to terms with what happened in Nazi Germany. He recounts the terrors he was subjected to in a detached and surgical manner, almost as if seeing them through that mental haze which blocks consciousness from memories which are best left forgotten. It really blew me away that even under the permanent conditions of suffering inside the concentration camps that the one freedom the prisoners had was how they chose to react to their situation. Frankl emphasized that this freedom could never be taken away from us as individuals.
Personally, the most amazing insight this little book gifted me was that it put into words what I should have realized all along regarding happiness. Hint: it is very true but not apparent at all. Namely, that happiness simply ensues. What’s more is that it can ensue even under the most unimaginably harsh and brutal living conditions as those he faced in the concentration camps. As Frankl explained in his book, the prisoners which were consciously on the path towards greater meaning and understanding in their lives – despite and because of the tremendous suffering they were going through – were the ones who were most likely to survive the ordeal. So don’t go about chasing happiness because you can never possibly find it. Rather, it will find you through the meaning you have chosen to assign to your life.