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Book Review: Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

“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.”

These words are at the core of “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl, first published in 1946. In preparation for a blog post I was writing on stress, I decided to revisit this profound work and would love to see it more widely read. It is arguably one of the most influential books published since the Second World War. Frankl intended it to answer the question “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” To that end, the first part of the book describes, in harrowing detail, Frankl’s experiences as an inmate of Auschwitz and several other concentration camps.

The second part of the book serves as an introduction to Frankl’s psychotherapeutic ideas about the search for a reason to live. Drawing on his experience as a psychologist, Frankl introduces the reader to ‘Logotherapy’, his own form of treatment. After identifying the main psychological states experienced by his fellow concentration camp inmates, Frankl came to the conclusion that the meaning of life is to be found in every moment of living and that even in the most extreme circumstances life never ceases to have meaning.

If you ever need to have your life put into perspective, or your stressors diminished to their true unimportance, then reading this book is a must!

I found the descriptive writing of part one to be both moving and inspirational in its outlook. One startling observation made by the author was that those prisoners who died were often the ones who had surrendered to despair. The survivors, however, tended to be those who, despite immeasurable suffering and hardship, could still see a future for themselves. Their lives had meaning. Frankl says “We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways (1) By creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take.”

I urge everyone to read this book and to reflect on its wisdom. Some 65 years after first publication of these ideas, psychology has moved on in leaps and bounds but Frankl’s thinking still resonates and his approach fits well with modern therapies. Whatever stress or challenges you might be facing, there are many passages within his writings that will give your problems some perspective. I will end with one of my favourites: Man is ultimately self-determining. That ability to decide is at the centre of our being. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.’

I welcome any comments you might have.

by Tim O’Rahilly

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