Book Review: Man's Search for Meaning

The Big Idea:

It's the story of one man's experience in 4 different concentration camps over 3 years. He details the brutal, unimaginable treatment that he endured, the loss of everyone he loved, and how, through all of that, he didn't lose meaning in his life. A practicing psychiatrist both before and after the war, he explains that having meaning, much more than striving for pleasure or power, will help you get through life's challenges and allow you to be happy.


In 1942, just nine months after his marriage, Frankl and his family were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. His father died there of starvation and pneumonia. In 1944, Frankl and the surviving members of his family were transported to Auschwitz, where his mother and brother were murdered in the gas chambers. His wife died later of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. Frankl spent three years in four concentration camps.

While head of the Neurological Department at the general Polyclinic Hospital, Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning over a nine-day period. The book, originally titled A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp, was released in German in 1946. The English translation of Man's Search for Meaning was published in 1959, and became an international bestseller.

The book is 50% his account of surviving in the camps and 50% his theory of Logotherapy that he believes is a better psychiatric approach to dealing with neuroses like anxiety and depression.

Top 10 Takeaways:

  • Meaning can be derived from any situation, even the most miserable one. And it is that meaning that gives us the strength to survive and triumph. Frankl lost everything, his family, his home, his possessions, his freedom, his hair,  and his name, but he wanted to make it so that he could share his story and his observations in hopes of helping others.
  • "There is always a choice to make. Everyday. Every hour, offer the opportunity to make a decision whether or not you will be robbed of your inner freedom and become a plaything of circumstance." You can always choose your attitude in any set of circumstances.
  • It is a dangerous misconception that man's goal is to live a stress free life and that he must get help to relieve stress and find equilibrium. What man actually needs is 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 a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled."
  • Tragic Optimism: how can you say yes to life after everything you have been through?
    • Turn suffering into a human achievement or accomplishment.
    • Derive from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better.
    • Deriving an incentive to take responsible action.  In short, what can be done about the given situation? "I broke my next; it didn't break me."
  • "No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them."
  • Logotherapy (Frankl's argument for a new kind of psychotherapy) – rather than look back as most therapy does, it looks forward and says we can discover the meaning of life by:
    • Creating a work or doing a deed
    • Experiencing something or encountering something,
    • By the attitude we take to unavoidable suffering.
  • Frankl explains the concept of existential vacuum or inner emptiness. When no instinct tells a person what to do and no tradition tells him what he ought to do. Instead he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish for him to do (totalitarianism). Both are recipes for sadness. And the end result of an existential vacuum is that man is not only unhappy but ashamed of his unhappiness.
  • "Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self.  Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance."
  • Developing a sense of humor is key to mastering the art of living.
  • Happiness and success cannot be pursued, they must be a biproduct. The more you aim for them, the more they will evade you. They are often the unintended side effects of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself.


  • Potential life impact: 10
  • Fun to read: 10 (I could not put the first half down. The second half dealing with his theory of therapy was harder to get through and had a lot more big words).
  • Likely to recommend it to others: 10
  • Amazing conversations that it can start: 10
  • Total score: 10

Final Thought:

            I am so moved after reading this book that I don't want it to leave my side.  Like I literally want to carry it around in my backpack wherever I go.

            I just never want to forget how I felt reading it. The thoughts of what we as humans a capable of doing to others and at the same time what we are able to survive while maintaining our humanity.

            And I didn't mention it above, but I don't want to forget the story of Dr. J – You can never predict the future actions of a man. People can change in radical ways.

Other quotes I loved:

  • "I do not forget any good deed done to me, and I do not carry a grudge for a bad one."
  • "Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph."
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