Victor Frankl on finding meaning & happiness

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl is essential reading for anybody interested in happiness, personal growth, the psychology of suffering and mental health. It chronicles the author’s time as an inmate in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. The early chapters do not make for easy reading but the book opens up into one of the deepest and most eloquent explorations of finding meaning and man’s search for meaning and happiness.

Striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man… This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can only be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.

Frankl was already a trained psychiatric doctor. After his liberation from Aushwitz concentration camp, he went on to practice his own form of psychoanalysis called logotherapy The word logotherapy is derived from the Greek word logos, for meaning. Logotherapy assists the patient to find meaning in their life, helping them to become aware of the hidden logos of their existence. It deviates from (what might be considered more Freudian) psychoanalysis “insofar as it considers man a being whose main concern consists in fulfilling meaning, rather than in the mere gratification of drives and instincts, or in merely reconciling the conflicting claims of id, ego and superego, or in the mere adaptation and adjustment to society and environment.”

There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

It takes a very brave man like Frankl to define the meaning of life, which he does in three different ways. You should read the book to find out what they are. Here is a paragraph from the book that resonated most with me, particularly as a coach working with high potentials.

It can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one ought to still accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore it is indispensable to mental well-being. We should not then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill. It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, ‘homeostasis’ i.e. a tensionless state.

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of potential meaning waiting for him to be fulfilled.

If you enjoyed this, you might like:

My list of 15 books that will make you wiser.

The Lindy Effect: a simple heuristic to help you choose your next book, in which I explore why the oldest books often contain the greatest wisdom.