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Man’s Search for Meaning Summary – Viktor Frankl

Arthur Worsley
by Arthur Worsley
M.A. Psychology, Oxford. McKinsey Alum. Founder & Editor at TAoL.
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One-Sentence Summary

Man's Search for Meaning is a gruelling, yet deeply liberating insight into the why behind each of our whats and hows - by holocaust survivor, psychologist and founder of logotherapy, Viktor Frankl. (165 pages)

Note: This Man's Search for Meaning summary is part of an ongoing project to summarise the Best Biographies and Best Self Help Books of all time.

Man's Search for Meaning Review

This short, moving and life-changing book was written by Jewish-Austrian neurologist / psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl.

The book’s brutal and honest first hand accounts of life and loss in a concentration camp (worth reading in and of itself) are a vehicle for Frankl’s wider theories and deep insights into man’s search for meaning. These theories were his life work (even before his transportation to Auschwitz) and are at the core of Logotherapy (logos = meaning), a major school of modern psychotherapy.

Man's Search for Meaning Summary

The Meaning of Life

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

The essence of Frankl’s theory is as simple as it is universal and runs as follows:

Man’s primary motivational force is the striving for meaning in one’s life.

A frustrated will to meaning leads to an existential vacuum that is the mass neurosis of the present time.

This existential vacuum can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism and manifests itself primarily in states of boredom and anxiety.

But there is no objective or general meaning to life. We cannot strive for meaning as we cannot strive for success or happiness.

Instead, meaning (Why) ensues primarily from active purpose (a What) which can be a thing (a work or deed) or a person (love or responsibility).

However, life also questions us constantly with a passive stream of Whats (including unavoidable suffering) to which we must respond and from which meaning can also ensue.

In this case, a strong individualistic sense of self, of Who we are, becomes the Why for how we respond to those Whats.

No matter what external limitations we face, we are always free to choose Who we are and how we respond.

This allows us to tap into an unassailable source of inner freedom and personal value.

A Story About Fate

A short story from the book about fate that enjoyed I so much I thought it worth preserving/sharing:

A rich and mighty Persian once walked in his garden with one of his servants. The servant cried that he had just encountered Death, who had threatened him.

He begged his master to give him his fastest horse so that he could make haste and flee to Teheran, which he could reach that same evening. The master consented and the servant galloped off on the horse.

On returning to his house the master himself met Death, and questioned him, “Why did you terrify and threaten my servant?” “I did not threaten him; I only showed surprise in still finding him here when I planned to meet him tonight in Teheran,” said Death.”

Man's Search for Meaning Contents

Man’s Search for Meaning is a short book with only three chapters/parts…

  • PART ONE: Experiences in a Concentration Camp
  • PART TWO: Logotherapy in a Nutshell
  • POSTSCRIPT 1984: The Case for a Tragic Optimism

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Read More: 5 Books Like Man's Search for Meaning

Enjoyed this Man's Search for Meaning summary? You might enjoy the rest of the books on these lists of the Best Biographies and Best Self Help Books of all time.

And in the meantime...

Here are 5 top books like Man's Search for Meaning...

Books Like Man's Search for Meaning: Night  (The Night Trilogy, #1)
1. Night (The Night Trilogy, #1) - Elie Wiesel
A haunting account of the events leading up to and during the author's internment and survival in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps as a young teenager - by author, poet and holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel.
Published 1956 // 115 pages // Rated 4.4 over 1,084,700 reviews on Goodreads
Books Like Man's Search for Meaning: The Hiding Place
2. The Hiding Place - Corrie ten Boom
The Triumphant True Story of Corrie Ten Boom
Published 1971 // 242 pages // Rated 4.4 over 288,200 reviews on Goodreads
Books Like Man's Search for Meaning: The Diary of a Young Girl
3. The Diary of a Young Girl - Anne Frank
The accessible, precocious, heartwarming and deeply tragic memoir of the author's early teens and final years in hiding from Nazi occupation in Amsterdam during the second half of WW2 - by teenager and aspiring writer Anne Frank.
Published 1947 // 283 pages // Rated 4.2 over 3,183,700 reviews on Goodreads
Books Like Man's Search for Meaning: The Pianist
4. The Pianist - Władysław Szpilman
The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939–45
Published 1946 // 222 pages // Rated 4.2 over 74,900 reviews on Goodreads
Books Like Man's Search for Meaning: The Complete Maus
5. The Complete Maus - Art Spiegelman
A clever and haunting Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel that uses zoomorphism (animals-as-humans) to tell the story of the author's father's survival of the holocaust - by cartoonist, Art Spiegelman.
Published 1994 // 296 pages // Rated 4.5 over 169,800 reviews on Goodreads

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Arthur Worsley
I founded TAoL to discover and share the best wisdom on how to live long and prosper. Before that I studied Psychology, Philosophy & Physiology at Oxford and consulted at McKinsey. Still curious? Learn more or take my FREE productivity quiz.

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