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Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl.
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Part I: Frankl’s time in concentration camps

Viktor Frankl survived 4 different concentration camps. He observed that the prisoners went through 3 general psychological phases:

  • When they were admitted into the camps, most of them suffered from shock.
    • Shock manifested as delusions of reprieve, and abnormal reactions to the circumstances, such as humor, morbid curiosity, and lack of fear.
  • Once the prisoners became entrenched in camp life, they fell into a state of apathy.
    • Apathy is the deadening of our emotional responses. This created a protective shell and allowed the prisoners to suffer intensely horrific conditions without losing their minds.
  • After the prisoners were liberated, they experienced depersonalization.
    • During depersonalization, you feel disconnected from your thoughts, your body, and yourself. You view yourself from the outside, or feel as if you’re dreaming and not truly present. The conditions of the camps forced the prisoners to detach from themselves, and it was difficult to repair this even after they were free.

Despite the horrifying environment, Frankl noticed that the prisoners who were more likely to survive the concentration camps had specific psychological methods of resistance: rich inner lives, future-oriented goals, and discovery of meaning in their suffering.

  • Prisoners who were less likely to survive found their suffering meaningless, and eventually succumbed to hopelessness--they weren’t convinced they had any reason to try to survive, so they gave up mentally and physically.

We are all subject to external forces that can change our lives, whether they’re positive or negative forces. But the one thing we always possess, regardless of external circumstances, is our **freedom to choose how we respond...

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Man's Search for Meaning Summary Shortform Introduction

What does it say about us that this book is so popular?

Well, we might be existentially aimless--apparently millions of people are so preoccupied with the question “what is the meaning of life?” that they seek out this book.

This book has existed in many forms. The first part, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” was first published as a standalone narrative about Viktor Frankl’s experiences in 4 different concentration camps during World War II. Other books have covered the horrors, indiginities, and abuse that concentration camp prisoners suffered during WWII from an emotional standpoint. But what about the psychology of those prisoners? Frankl set out to write a book that analyzed the mindset of the average concentration camp prisoner and how it...

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Man's Search for Meaning Summary Chapter 1: The Psychological Journey of a Concentration Camp Prisoner

Frankl observed that the psychological journey of a concentration camp prisoner went through 3 basic phases and 3 accompanying symptoms:

  • Following their admission into the camp, the primary symptom was shock.
  • When they became well entrenched in camp routine, the primary symptom was apathy.
  • Following their release and liberation, the primary symptom was depersonalization.

Phase 1: Admission + Shock

Emotional or psychological shock occurs when we encounter situations that are too stressful for us to process immediately. Shock can manifest in a variety of ways, but the main category Frankl discussed is abnormal reactions.

Humans react abnormally to abnormal situations. In other words, when we encounter a stressful situation, we have reactions that often contradict the situation, like laughing at a funeral. Abnormal reactions to abnormal circumstances are actually normal and expected reactions. In fact, the more normal you are, the more abnormal your reactions to abnormal circumstances are.

Frankl refers to four abnormal reactions: delusions of reprieve, humor, curiosity, and lack of fear.

  • Delusions of reprieve: We hope for a good...

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Man's Search for Meaning Summary Chapter 2: Methods of Psychological Resistance

In the last chapter, we reviewed the prisoners’ psychological phases. In this chapter, we’ll discuss 3 main methods of resisting psychologically difficult circumstances: inner lives, future goals, and the freedom to choose.

Inner Lives

Humans are one of the few creatures on earth who have inner lives--personal, private, intangible thoughts and feelings that make us individuals. Our inner lives are a psychological place we can retreat to when external circumstances become overwhelming.

Our inner lives are where we can find happiness, even in terrible external circumstances. Frankl offers a few examples of inner life categories:

  • Humor: Though humor was one of the abnormal reactions prisoners experienced while in shock, humor could also lift a prisoner’s spirits by allowing them to distance themselves from and rise above the situation, even if only for a few minutes or seconds.
  • Art: There were instances of art in the concentration camps. Prisoners hosted improvised cabarets from time to time, with music, poetry, and per our last point, comedy.
  • Religion: Religious and spiritual interest of the prisoners deepened during their time in the concentration...

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Shortform Exercise: Choosing in the Face of Powerlessness

Discover choices you can make in a situation that feels like it’s out of your control.


Think of a situation in your life where you felt powerless, like there weren’t any choices you could make. Briefly summarize the situation, and write about how the powerlessness made you feel.

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Man's Search for Meaning Summary Chapter 3: Logotherapy and Meaning

We’ve covered Frankl’s time in the concentration camps and the observations he made about prisoners’ psychological phases and methods of resistance. This inspired him to create logotherapy, his own school of psychology.

Logotherapy has a few core principles:

  • Humans are motivated by meaning. We want to know why we’re here, what we’re supposed to do, and if it has any value.
    • Social scientists at Johns Hopkins University asked what college students considered very important to them. In America, you might think money reigns--yet only 16% of the students selected “making a lot of money” as the most important thing to them. 78% selected “finding a purpose and meaning to my life.”
  • You should find the true meaning of your life in the world, instead of in your own mind or psyche.
    • Humans, at their best, are capable of transcending their own wants and feelings to work for things outside themselves--a cause they believe in, or a person they love.
    • From a public opinion poll Frankl conducted in France and Vienna: 89% agreed that humans need a reason to live for, and 61% admitted that in their own lives there was a person or thing/belief that they’d...

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Shortform Exercise: Think On Your Deathbed

Start thinking about the meaning of your life right now.


You’re on your deathbed and looking back on your life. What do you hope to see in your life? Cover all the major areas that are important to you.

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Man's Search for Meaning Summary Chapter 4: Paths to Find Meaning

The last chapter covered the importance of meaning in our lives. But what are some ways we can start to discover our meaning? Logotherapy gives us 3 different paths.

  • By performing a deed or creating something--taking action.
  • By coming into contact with someone or experiencing something.
  • By experiencing unavoidable suffering, and the attitude we take toward it.

The First Path - Actions

We can discover our life’s purpose through the deeds we perform or the things we create, depending on whether we find them to be meaningful.

(Shortform note: Frankl doesn’t spend much time talking about this path, so we’ll fill in the gaps. The rest of this section comes from our research into logotherapy.)

This path focuses on external situations and external realities. We can do things in the world or create things in the world that help us discover and reinforce our meaning.

For instance, usually the people who are happiest in their jobs are the ones who have connected their actions to a meaning that’s important to them, and they usually perform better in their jobs as well.

Let’s use teaching as an example. The best teachers are often the ones who truly believe...

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Shortform Exercise: The 3 Paths to Meaning

Logotherapy lays out 3 paths that can help you discover meaning in your life. Instead of treating them as hypothetical paths, let’s examine them as concrete questions about where you find meaning.


List 3 achievements, accomplishments, things you created, or deeds you’ve done in your life that you’re proud of. Write down why you’re proud to have done those things, and why you believe them to be meaningful.

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Man's Search for Meaning Summary Chapter 5: Challenges in Finding Meaning

The last chapter reviewed a few ways to find meaning in your life. But if it sounds easy, it isn’t--many people get frustrated in their pursuit of meaning. It is, after all, a lot of responsibility to bear, and the responsibility rests solely on your shoulders.

Just as every individual is unique and has her own unique purpose, every generation has its own unique psychological obsession, and for us right now, it’s a form of nihilism, or the belief that life is meaningless.

  • This could be because of determinism: we think our outcomes are already decided for us, so what meaning is there to find in something we can’t change?
  • It could also be because life is transitory--we’re going to die anyway, so what meaning can there possibly be?

Let’s learn more about nihilism, how we suffer from it, and why.

Nihilism

Again, nihilism is the belief that life is meaningless. The nihilism we suffer from today is a personal, private one that each individual suffers alone. After all, there can be little camaraderie in the idea that everything’s meaningless.

Logotherapy calls our specific nihilism existential frustration. People generally get existentially frustrated in...

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Man's Search for Meaning Summary Chapter 6: Using Logotherapy to Combat Anxiety

Feeling like life is meaningless, thinking our choices have already been determined for us, and worrying about death can all cause feelings of anxiety over the meaning of our lives. Anxiety is a difficult feeling to break out of--by its very nature, anxiety is a feedback loop that keeps us fixated on the very thing that’s causing us anxiety. What can we do to face it down and help us break the cycle?

Frankl mentions two specific forms of anxiety, and logotherapy has two corresponding techniques to help you combat these forms.

Hyper-intention anxiety is intense fixation on either yourself or something you want, which usually prevents you from achieving your desired goal precisely because you’re trying to force it to happen.

  • For instance, when you wake up in the middle of the night and try to force yourself to go back to sleep, very often the hyper-intention to sleep causes you to stay up longer.

Anticipatory anxiety is where you fear something bad happening, and the fear itself causes the very thing to happen.

  • For instance, someone who’s self-conscious about sweating too much when they’re nervous...

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Shortform Exercise: Combating Anxiety

Try to break out of hyper-intention or anticipatory anxiety.


What’s something in your life that’s causing you anxiety? Describe how that anxiety feels--is it hyper-intention (focusing on yourself or something you want to do) or anticipatory anxiety (worrying that something bad will happen in the future)?

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Shortform Exercise: Integrate Your Takeaways

Now that you’ve finished the summary of Man’s Search for Meaning, reflect on what you've learned.


What sticks with you the most from the book? What’s your biggest takeaway?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Shortform Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The Psychological Journey of a Concentration Camp Prisoner
  • Chapter 2: Methods of Psychological Resistance
  • Exercise: Choosing in the Face of Powerlessness
  • Chapter 3: Logotherapy and Meaning
  • Exercise: Think On Your Deathbed
  • Chapter 4: Paths to Find Meaning
  • Exercise: The 3 Paths to Meaning
  • Chapter 5: Challenges in Finding Meaning
  • Chapter 6: Using Logotherapy to Combat Anxiety
  • Exercise: Combating Anxiety
  • Exercise: Integrate Your Takeaways