Viktor Frankl survived 4 different concentration camps. He observed that the prisoners went through 3 general psychological phases:
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.
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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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...
Frankl observed that the psychological journey of a concentration camp prisoner went through 3 basic phases and 3 accompanying symptoms:
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.
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.
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:
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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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:
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.
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.
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...
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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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.
Let’s learn more about nihilism, how we suffer from it, and why.
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...
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.
Anticipatory anxiety is where you fear something bad happening, and the fear itself causes the very thing to happen.
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)?
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?