Book Review – Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl’s timeless book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning‘ is a perennial classic. It has been recommended in twelve different episodes of Tim Ferriss’ podcast where he tries to learn the things that have helped world-class performers in a variety of disciplines. I first read the book two and a half years ago while on the beach in Hawaii for a wedding, so I figured that the beaches of Costa Rica was a perfect opportunity for a re-read.

My copy is actually the 1969 printing that my dad bought in 1982. He recently re-read it himself last year when he came to visit. He dogeared some pages that spoke to him, which was a fun addition to the reading experience this time around.

Part I is the original printing, when it was titled ‘From Death-Camp to Existentialism’, and recounts Frankl’s horrific experiences in several WWII concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He goes through the different stages that the prisoners went through upon arriving at the camps, but I found a few quotes to be particularly powerful:

“Was he sent to the left side?” “Yes,” I replied. “Then you can see him there,” I was told. “Where?” A hand pointed to the chimney a few hundred yards off, which was sending a column of flame up into the gray sky of Poland. It dissolved into a sinister cloud of smoke.

I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was read to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.

Frankl, a psychiatrist by training, breaks down the elements he noticed that, in the face of all of that despair, would determine whether or not someone would make it. In the last ~50 pages of the first part, he merges the historical recounting of the events in the concentration camp with his developed theory of Logotherapy, and it is this theory that is described in further detail in the second section of the book.

Logotherapy derives from the Greek logos, a word that denotes “meaning”. This “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy” defines to core driver of human behavior and happiness as that which brings meaning. He describes it as a will to meaning, differentiating it from the Freudian will to pleasure and Adlerian will to power. He pairs this with the Nietzsche quote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how,” to illustrate how when the camp members were broken down completely, only those who were still able to find meaning in their lives survived.

I found several aspects of logotherapy that resonated with topics I’ve recently discussed. Frankl, for example, states that “values, however, do not drive a man; they do not push him, but rather pull him.” The idea of a life philosophy centered around meaning anchors that point to which one can then be pulled.

Paradoxical intention, or leaning into problems to remove anxiety, is also an interesting concept. For example:

Paradoxical intention can also be applied in cases of sleep disturbance; 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.

This seems to be exactly the same strategy used in Rejection Therapy, only described half a century earlier.

I’ll close by just mentioning something that I read once in a blog that I now can’t seem to find again. The author mentioned that how whenever he meets someone, he creates a kind of pie chart of how their personality is broken down into will to pleasurewill to power, and will to meaning. For example, I think he said that his breakdown is 20%/30%/50%. I’ve thought about this a lot since as an interesting simple framework for how different people see the world. I think mine is probably closer to 10% pleasure, 20% power, 70% meaning. Maybe that is why this book speaks so much to me.

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