Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl Book Notes & Review

Last Updated:
My Rating: 8/10 Find it on Amazon

My Main Thoughts

A great book that I think everyone should read in their life. It examines the psychology of Nazi concentration camps and Frankl’s experience living through such horrific conditions.

It shows the mental processes that humans go through under terrible conditions of suffering including shock, apathy, and depersonalization as well as how we have the ability to endure any hardship as long as we find meaning and a higher purpose in the current situation.

I personally find Frankl’s insights to be true that we find meaning through work, love, and suffering and that meaning is to be found in the unique individual circumstances we are given in our lives. That each person has a unique vocation that only they can complete.

Frankl’s Background

  • Viktor Frankl lived for 3+ years in the Nazi concentration camps
  • He was a psychiatrist who used the concentration camp experience to come up with a psychological framework based on the mental conditions experienced in the camp. He called the form of therapy he created logotherapy.

Typical Mental Stages a Prisoner Passes Through

  1. Shock– in the first few days of arrival after seeing the camp and the life they were now thrown into due to the sheer amount of stress and change into a horrific circumstance
  2. Apathy & Emotional Death– after living in the concentration camp for a long enough period of time if prisoners did not have a meaning and ability to feel and move through the brutal reality of their suffering they fell into apathy and numbness to block out the pain experienced and in which they valued only the things that helped them survive. This was a defense mechanism that allowed prisoners to reserve their emotional strength for  survival
  3. Liberation & Depersonalization– The prisoners who survived and were freed back into normal life outside of the fences were thrown into a totally different world than they had become accustomed to. Life in camp had taken a toll on their psyches and they had to confront the last psychological symptoms. They often experienced depersonalization or being disconnected from their body, thoughts, and emotions. They had to gradually relearn how to feel emotions. Some also had negative reactions to normal life including vengeance, bitterness, and disillusionment. 

Why Some Prisoners Became Apathetic and Died While Others Were Able to Cultivate Strength and Live

  • He saw that prisoners who became severely apathetic and who lost the meaning to continue living often died first as their immune systems got weaker and their will to live grew less and less
  • Another example is how the chief doctor in the camp witnessed an increased death rate of prisoners between Christmas 1944 to New Year 1945. He believed this was due to false hope that they would be home by Christmas and when this did not occur they lost hope and fell into an endless sleep
  • Frankl was able to survive and find meaning in his experiences in the concentration camp by deciding that he was going to use his suffering as an opportunity to make himself a better person. Instead of becoming apathetic and accepting that he was doomed, he chose to embrace his suffering. 
  • He chose to find meaning in his suffering to make himself a better person, in the work he could do to help other people if he survived, and in remembering his beloved wife who he routinely envisioned remembering the hope and power of love compared to evil
  • According to Frankl, while a man’s destiny in life is certainly affected by the circumstances in which he finds himself, he is ultimately free to choose his own path in life. Even in the worst situation possible, man always has the freedom to choose his attitude towards life. 
  • His core philosophy is that mans deepest desire is to find meaning in his life and if he can find meaning in the circumstances he is given he will be able to endure anything that is thrown at him and will live a fulfilling life
  • “Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in camp had first to succeed in showing him a future goal. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why and aim for their lives in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence.”
  • Overall, from learning about Frankl’s philosophy and experience it shows that we must find meaning in something greater than the physical world as the prisoners who died fast tried to hope for different physical circumstances in which they had no control over

Ways to Cultivate Meaning in Life

  1. Work– we cultivate meaning through the work we do and how it serves other people or provides something of value to others or ourselves
  2. Love– we cultivate meaning through a love of everyday beauty (nature, events), relationships (partners, friends, family, people), and creation/creator (god, the awe of creation, etc)
  3. Suffering– we find meaning in our suffering using it to make ourselves better people, more kind and courageous, and to grow in knowledge, wisdom, and spirituality ultimately using it to serve a purpose
  • He believed that we cannot totally understand the general meaning of life but we can find ways to make each of the individual moments and circumstances we are given meaningful and valuable. 
  • Every person has a unique vocation that only they can accomplish and they are responsible for undertaking this job under the circumstances they have been given.

The Basics of Logotherapy & What Frankl Created to Help People

  • Logotherapy aims to help people develop goals and find meaningful ways to accomplish them based on their own unique circumstances 
  • If a man cannot find meaning or purpose in life he can develop mental problems that need to be addressed
  • Everyone should strive to be in a state of noo-dynamics where there is tension between what one has already done and what one is working to accomplish based on the meaning that each person finds in their unique circumstances
  • The tension between past and present is vital for mental health 
  • For people who need help overcoming anxiety and fear, he uses paradoxical intention in which the person tries to bring about the precise thing that he fears  
  • “man is that being who invented the gas chambers at Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
  • Frankl believes that while man is certainly capable of doing evil, no individual human must be evil. Every human has the capacity to change his behavior and attitude in every possible situation. In his postscript, Frankl reaffirms this belief as the basis for his tragic optimism, or belief in the importance of saying “yes” in spite of everything.

Great Video on Frankl & Paradoxical Intention

Photo of author


Josh is a writer and entrepreneur who runs a small digital content publishing business. His main interests are in topics related to developing personal and financial freedom. When not working he enjoys reading, yoga, surfing, being outdoors, meditating, exploring, and hanging with friends.