Existentialist Psychologist Viktor Frankl Explains How to Find Meaning in Life, No Matter What Challenges You Face

Free will often seems like nothing more than a cruel illusion. We don’t get to choose the times, places, and circumstances of our birth, nor do we have much control over the state of our states, regions, or nations. Even the few who can design conditions such that they are always secure and comfortable find themselves unavoidably subject to what Buddhists call the “divine messengers” of sickness, aging, and death. Biology may not be destiny, but it is a force more powerful than many of our best intentions. And though most of us in the West have the privilege of living far away from war zones, millions across the world face extremities we can only imagine, and to which we are not immune by any stretch.




Among all of the psychologists, philosophers, and religious figures who have wrestled with these universal truths about the human condition, perhaps none has been put to the test quite like neurologist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz, but lost his mother, father, brother, and first wife to the camps. While imprisoned, he faced what he described as “an unrelenting struggle for daily bread and for life itself.” After his camp was liberated in 1945, Frankl published an extraordinary book about his experiences: Man’s Search for Meaning, “a strangely hopeful book,” writes Matthew Scully at First Things, “still a staple on the self-help shelves” though it is “inescapably a book about death.” The book has seen dozens of editions in dozens of languages and ranks 9th on a list of most influential books.

Frankl’s thesis echoes those of many sages, from Buddhists to Stoics to his 20th century Existentialist contemporaries: “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.” Not only did he find hope and meaning in the midst of terrible suffering, but after his unimaginable loss, he “remarried, wrote another twenty-five books, founded a school of psychotherapy, built an institute bearing his name in Vienna,” and generally lived a long, happy life. How? The interview above will give you some idea. Frankl maintains that we always have some freedom of choice, “in spite of the worst conditions,” and therefore always have the ability to seek for meaning. “People are free,” says Frankl, no matter their level of oppression, and are responsible “for making someone or something out of themselves.”

Frankl’s primary achievement as a psychotherapist was to found the school of “logotherapy,” a successor to Freudian psychoanalysis and Adlerian individual psychology. Drawing on Existentialist philosophy (Frankl’s book was published in Germany with the alternate title From Concentration Camp to Existentialism)—but turning away from an obsession with the Absurd—his approach, writes his institute, “is based on three philosophical and psychological concepts… Freedom of Will, Will to Meaning, and Meaning in Life.”

You can hear how Frankl works these principles into his philosophy in the fascinating interview, as well as in the short clip above from an earlier lecture, in which he rails against a crude and ultimately unfulfilling form of meaning-making: the pursuit of wealth. Even us materialistic Americans, renowned for our greed, Frankl notes with good humor, respond to surveys in overwhelming numbers saying our greatest desire is to find meaning and purpose in life. Like no other secular voice, Frankl was confident that we could do so, in spite of life’s seeming chaos, through—as he explains above—a kind of idealism that brings us closer to reality.

Note: You can download Frankl’s major book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” as a free audio book if you join Audible’s 30-Day Free Trial program. Find details on that here.

Related Content:

Creativity, Not Money, is the Key to Happiness: Discover Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s Theory of “Flow”

Albert Einstein Tells His Son The Key to Learning & Happiness is Losing Yourself in Creativity (or “Finding Flow”)

The Philosophy of Kierkegaard, the First Existentialist Philosopher, Revisited in 1984 Documentary

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


by | Permalink | Comments (3) |

Comments (3)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Julia Richardson says:

    Here is a link to an excellent documented discussion about the poignance of Frankl’s work to contribute as a resource. The individual clip explores a number of subjects, including one of Frankl’s revelations described in “Man’s Search for Meaning.” I work with Darrell Calkins, an educator with CobaltSaffron, an interdisciplinary organization for higher learning with roots in psychology and comparative religion, who has a rare appreciation for Frankl’s work.

    youtu.be/OMvnfkMjqe8

    (On Finding Meaning and Fulfillment: Viktor Frankl – Darrell Calkins)

  • Thomas Roberts says:

    This gentleman’s perspective of our lives is accurate.He has learned much from his life.He has proven himself to be a capable student.He is intelligent with an impressive imagination that allows him perspectives most have no access to.
    HIS UNDERSTANDINGS ARE CORRECT – AND HE IS ABLE TO EXPLAIN AND MAKE SENSE OF THIS EXPERIMENT – OUR LIVES – AS BEST HE KNOWS HOW.
    HE KNOWS THIS IS THE TREASURE HE NEEDS TO SHARE.
    HE UNDERSTANDS HE HAS A RESPONSIBILITY TO SHARE WHAT LIFE HAS TAUGHT HIM -WITH WE WHO ARE LESS EDUCATED.
    HE HAS NO OTHER CHOICE BUT TO TEACH AND EDUCATE US – WITH WHAT HE HAS GROWN AS A TOOLKIT –HIS BEST IS DELIVERED TO US THROUGH THOSE EYES THAT LEARNED HIM TO SEE THE TRUTH.
    HE OPENS OUR MINDS WITH TRUTH AND HONESTY AND CLARITY.
    IF RECEPTIVE WE SEE THROUGH THOSE EYES
    AND THROUGH THAT MAGIC EXPERIENCE WE ENTER ANOTHER UNIVERSE.
    A DIFFERENT DIMENSION.
    A DIFFERENT IMAGINATION – WELCOMING FRIENDLY HELPFUL CARING – CARING ENOUGH TO DELIVER US INTO HEAVENS AND EVEN INTO HELLS WE FIND UNTHREATENING.
    THOSE BITTER HELLS HE KNOWS WE FIND OURSELVES FALLING INTO AS HE DESCRIBES THEM.WE SHOULD BE REPELLED IN FEAR SLIPPING INTO THAT DARKNESS BUT BY HOLDING OUR HAND – THAT GENTLENESS OF HIS MAKES OUR DESCENT AN EASY ODYSSEY WITH A FRIEND.WE KNOW WE WITH A FRIEND – OUR BEST FRIEND – WHO HAS SURVIVED HELL – AND HAS GROWN MATURE FROM THE EXPERIENCE – SO MUCH MORE THAN WE.
    HAS BECOME THE HERO – ITS NO SECRET.
    HE CHANGES EVERYTHING.HEROS DO THAT.
    THEY ARE THE ONLY CREATURES WE CAN COUNT ON AS REAL AND TRUE – DEPENDABLE ALWAYS ESPECIALLY IN TIMES OF NEED.
    EVERYTHING WE FEAR – EVERY THREAT WE FACE AND ARE INADEQUATE TO DEAL WITH
    THEY HAVE SUCCESSFULLY OVERCOME.
    THEY ARE THE LIVING PROOF.
    A REAL TRUE HERO IS SOMEONE WHO IS THE LIVING BREATHING PROOF OF HIS ACHIEVEMENT.
    HIS HOLDING OUR HAND IS A MAGIC NOTHING ELSE CAN MATCH.
    ONLY HEROS CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.
    ONLY HEROS HAVE THOSE BALLS .THEY EARNED THEM.
    AS A DOCTOR – DOLING OUT HIS KNOWLEDGE UNDERSTANDINGS AND WISDOMS IS A MEDICINE – HIS LIFE GIFTED HIM THIS TREASURE.
    HIS INTENTION IS TO HELP US UNDERSTAND WHAT SEEMS COMPLETE INSANITY.
    HE KNOWS WHAT WE ARE DEALING WITH – HE LIVED IT AND WORSE.
    BUT HE SURVIVED AND IT DID NOT DESTROY HIM.
    IT GREW HIM.
    HIS SHARING THIS UNDERSTANDING OF LIFE THAT HE STRUGGLED TO GRASP AND SUCCEEDED IN WRESTLING FROM IT IS A MAGIC – AN IMAGINATION GROWN FROM THE FIRES OF HELL THAT DELIVERED HIM TO FREEDOM – TO HEAVEN.
    NO EXAGGERATION TO SEE HE IS GODLY.HIS UNDERSTANDING HAS DELIVERED HIM TO DIMENSIONS BEYOND THE ROLLER-COASTER RIDE WE ARE STLL STRUGGLING IN – LOST – HELPLESSLY IN ITS CHAOTIC GRIP – IT VICTIMS.
    HE HAS GROWN BIGGER WISER THAN ALL OF US STILL STUCK ON THAT RIDE.
    HE LIVED IT – AND LET IT TEACH HIM.
    HE IS DESPERATELY TRYING TO HELP GROW US INTO MATURE MEN AND WOMEN.
    HE KNOWS WE ARE LIKE HELPLESS IGNORANT INFANTS LOST AND STUPID.
    BUT HE LOVES US TOO MUCH TO NOT WANT TO HELP US IN OUR CONFUSION AND PAIN.
    HE KNOWS HOW THAT FEELS.
    HE HAS A MEDICINE- A MAGIC POTION – THAT CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
    IN THIS INTERVIEW HE IS REALLY USING THIS MAGIC WITHOUT ACTUALLY MENTIONING IT OR DIRECTLY TELLING US WHAT IT IS.
    IT IS THE SOURCE AND FOUNDATION OF EVERYTHING HE IS AND SAYS.
    ALL HE SAYS IS A KIND OF MIRAGE – A COVER – AN ILLUSION – A DELUSION – A MAGIC SHOW THAT MESMERIZES AND CAPTURES US.HE TRAPS US IN WEB CLEVERLY BUT TRUTHFULLY SPUN.
    THIS MAN KNOWS WHAT LOVE IS AND WHAT ITS ALL ABOUT.HE IS BECOME A MAN WHO HAS THE POWER OF LOVE AND WORKS WITH IT WISELY.IT AND HE ARE ONE.
    HAVING GROWN THE MOST CLEVER AND SUBTLE MIND THAT IS A FRIEND WITH HIS IMMENSE HEART – IS A COMBINATION NOTHING IN THIS WORLD HAS YET KNOWN.
    SUFFERING AND PAIN IS NO MATCH FOR HIM.HE HAS BEEN HERE AND DONE THAT.HE IS NOT IMMUNE BUT HAS DEFEATED IT.DEATH IS NOT A THREAT TO HIM.
    HE KNOWS FREEDOM.HE LIVES IT.
    A HUMBLE MAN WHO IS FEARLESSLY FULLY ALIVE
    A GOD.

  • Thomas Roberts says:

    SIMPLY PUT

    THIS MAN KNOWS

Leave a Reply

Quantcast