Thousands of self-help books are published each year, promising the keys to happiness, transformation, and a meaningful life. But a 1946 memoir, set against a backdrop of one of human history’s cruelest and most horrific chapters, argues that the key to finding happiness begins with letting go of your pursuit of happiness.
Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a powerful psychological memoir and meditation on the author’s experience at Auschwitz, argues that meaning, not success or happiness, is the driving pursuit of human life. The book presents Frankl’s theory of logotherapy, which hold that man’s fundamental drive is to find life’s “potential meaning under any conditions.” As Frankl wrote, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.”
Frankl theorized that it was by connecting to such a sense of purpose that Holocaust survivors were able to make it through such a trying time. Even in the worst imaginable circumstances, Frankl holds firm to the belief that man’s spirit can rise above his surroundings. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves,” he wrote.
Seemingly paradoxically, it was at a time of senseless tragedy and suffering that Frankl was able to make sense of the human experience, and to document and explore the universal search for meaning in a way never before articulated. In 1959, American psychologist Carl Rogers called the work “one of the outstanding contributions to psychological thought in the last 50 years.”
Roger’s words of praise are, if anything, an understatement. At the time of Frankl’s death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and used as a textbook in high schools and colleges, and was reprinted 73 times and translated into 24 languages,according to the New York Times obituary of Frankl.
Haven’t read it yet? Here are the four life lessons you should know fromMan’s Search for Meaning.
We can’t choose our circumstances, but we can choose our attitude.
As Frankl reiterates again and again throughout the book, when all else has been taken away, man still has his last freedom — the freedom to “choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.” This idea that man can overcome his circumstances through his attitude goes back to the ancient Stoic philosophers and still permeates much of the way we think about resilience today. Frankl provides both living and theoretical evidence of its powerful truth.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how,’” Frankl writes, quoting Nietzsche. Frankl wasn’t just paying lip service to the power of optimism and a sense of purpose: He himself had experienced the worst possible how, living through Auschwitz and losing his father, mother, brother and pregnant wife — everyone in his family except his sister — in the concentration camps.
So how was it that Frankl, confronting his own death and the brutal execution of others, could still think that life was worth living? Frankl argues that it is man’s “will to meaning” that allows him to endure in the face of senseless suffering and pain — life is suffering, and to have any hoping of surviving or thriving, we must find meaning in that suffering. We make the decision to keep going on, to keep waking up and living our lives each day, because we believe there is some greater purpose and sense of responsibility in our lives — that our suffering isn’t for nothing.
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice,” wrote Frankl.
By Frankl’s estimation, loved ones, religion, a sense of humor, and even the healing power of nature can give the individual a sense of meaning during times of great suffering.
Love is the ultimate bestower of meaning.
Meaning can come from several different sources, but none are more powerful or transformative than love. Frankl writes that in the trenches of Auschwitz, he experienced the truth of the old cliche that “all you need is love.” The epiphany was inspired by thoughts of his wife during the prisoner’s daily early-morning march to the work site:
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Thinking of his beloved, he writes, allowed a man to know bliss for a moment, even if everything else had been taken away from him.
If there’s one conclusion to be taken from Man’s Search for Meaning, it’s that love is the highest goal we can possible aspire to. It’s a conclusion supported by not only countless individual testimonies but also by the 75-year Harvard Grant Study, which followed the lives of 268 male Harvard undergraduates and collected data at regular intervals. The study’s director, George Vaillant said that the study revealed two basic pillars of happiness: “One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.”
Life calls for a sense of humor.
Frankl believes that choosing laughter and a sense of humor, more than anything else, can help us to “rise above any situation.” And truly, Frankl meant any situation. He explains that the prisoners found small moments of reprieve during which they cracked jokes and laughed together.
“The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living,” Frankl writes. “Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.”
Success isn’t what will make you happy.
Frankl lamented the fact that modern society tended to be characterized by “achievement orientation,” which devalued those who weren’t necessarily as “successful and happy” as others. His advice for living a happy (and successful) life was not to chase after success, but instead to devote yourself to something greater than yourself, and let success follow as an inevitable byproduct of that devotion.
In his preface to the 1992 edition of the book, Frankl implored readers to follow their conscience above all else. He wrote:
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”
Victor Frankl Quotes:
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.
But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.
The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.
Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.
What is to give light must endure burning.
Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.
An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.
In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.
Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.
Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.
It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.
By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.
Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in its 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.
It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”.
We cannot, after all, judge a biography by its length, by the number of pages in it; we must judge by the richness of the contents…Sometimes the ‘unfinisheds’ are among the most beautiful symphonies.
The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him?
No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, although these are things which cannot inspire envy.