Renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived the Nazi death camps as a prisoner. His years of suffering, experiences and insights led him to develop logotherapy, a branch of psychology built on the belief that humans are primarily driven by meaning. In this book, he chronicled his camp experiences and how logotherapy can be used to help people overcome anxiety and find happiness and fulfillment in life. In this Man’s Search for Meaning summary, we’ll briefly outline the physiological journey of a concentration camp prisoner, and the key ideas/approach behind logotherapy. For the full details, examples and tips, do get a copy of the book, or get a detailed overview with our complete book summary bundle.
In a concentration camp, all meaning and life goals are stripped away. When left with nothing but the skin on their backs, why do some prisoners persevere and survive while others collapse or give up? Viktor Frankl believed that man’s search for meaning is a powerful driving force that allows mankind to overcome extreme odds and achieve extraordinary feats. His experience in the concentration camps reinforced his beliefs and inspired him to develop logotherapy.
A Concentration Camp Prisoner’s Psychological Journey
During WWII, Frankl spent 3 years (1942-1945) in Auschwitz and other concentration camps as a prisoner. During this period, he observed that the prisoners went through 3 psychological phases with corresponding symptoms: shock, apathy and depersonalization:
Here’s a quick overview of the 3 phases. Do get a copy of our full 13-page summary for more details.
Phase 1: Admission to Camp => Shock
When the prisoners entered the camps, most of them went into shock, and reacted in ways that would’ve seemed abnormal under normal circumstances, including (i) delusions of reprieve, (ii) humor, (iii) curiosity, and (iv) a lack of fear. We elaborate on each of these reactions in detail in our complete Man’s Search for Meaning summary (click here for the full summary).
Phase 2: Routine => Apathy
New prisoners missed their loved ones and felt disgust, horror, and pity at the level of death and suffering. Yet, the initial shock of Phase 1 eventually wore off as the prisoners settled into a routine and transited to their grim new reality. In Phase 2, apathy set in, i.e. they became numb to the physical and psychological pain of the daily beatings and abuse. Learn more in our complete book summary.
Phase 3: Liberation => Depersonalization
After the prisoners were liberated, they entered a 3rd Phase: depersonalization. They felt disconnected from their own bodies, thoughts and feelings, as if they were observing their life from the outside in a dreamlike state. Many liberated prisoners also suffered from a need for vengeance, bitterness and disillusionment. Learn more about the adjustment difficulties in our full summary.
Despite the horrifying camp life, many prisoners managed to retain their sense of self, find psychological relief and even inner peace. Frankl observed that survival and self-preservation depended much more on mental-emotional strength than physical strength. Specifically, the survivors demonstrated at least 3 sets of key coping mechanisms:
• Rich inner lives. No matter how unbearable our external circumstances, humans have the ability to retreat into an inner psychological space of peace and safety. Prisoners who had rich inner lives coped much better than those who didn’t. This includes humor, appreciation for art and beauty, religious/spiritual beliefs, imagination, and love.
• Goals for the future. As a prisoner in a concentration camp, you have no identity, no possessions, and no idea if/when you’d ever be free. It’s like being stuck indefinitely in a “provisional existence”. Many prisoners committed suicide since they felt they had nothing to live for. Yet, those with life goals somehow found a way to persist. Once you know your “why”, you’ll find the “how”.
• Perception of Choice. Despite the suffering in a concentration camp, prisoners still had choices. Prisoners constantly decided if they’d push to survive another day or simply give up. They chose whether to let the camp degrade them to an animal, or stay true to their human values and sense of self. Their daily choices, including how they chose to interpret their situation and respond to them, defined who they were as a person.
Logotherapy and Man’s Search for Meaning
What is Logotherapy?
Viktor Frankl’s experience in the concentration camps inspired him to develop logotherapy.
“Logos” stands for “meaning” in Greek, and Logotherapy is a psychological approach that focuses on the meaning of human existence. It’s built on the principle that humans are motivated by meaning. We want to know why we exist, what we’re supposed to do, and that there’s value in our existence. [Read our Drive summary to learn the key ingredients behind human motivation].
In our full Man’s Search for Meaning summary (click here for full summary), we break down the approach further, including:
• Other related surveys/research and case studies;
• The difference between psychoanalysis and logotherapy;
• How logotherapy helps us to deal with inner conflict, “existential frustration” and nihilism
Basically, instead of treating man’s search for meaning as an illness or focusing on the past, logotherapy focuses on introspection and helping people to define what they want to fulfill in the future. Instead of assuming that human behaviors are pre-determined by biology and external conditioning, logotherapy assumes that mankind is self-determining, i.e. matter what happened in the past, what we decide now will shape what happens next, and thus redefine our existence, who we are and who we’re becoming.
Find The Meaning of Life
There’s no universal definition for the meaning of life. Such such meaning varies from person to person and from moment to moment. It’s just like how there’s no such thing as the best chess move in the world—the “best” move will depend on the specific game, players and their respective strategies and counter-strategies. What truly matters is the meaning of your life right now.
In our complete 13-page summary, we elaborate on:
• How to assess if you’re making a right decision;
• The 3 paths to find meaning in your life and achieve self-actualization;
• Why people in modern societies feel so lost and unhappy, and what can be done about it; and
• How to use Logotherapy to counter anxiety in daily situations.
Fundamentally, you can’t force happiness. Instead of directly searching for happiness, it’s much more effective to search for a reason to be happy. It’s like how you tell a joke to make someone laugh, rather than force him to laugh. By finding meaning in your life, you automatically bring hope, motivation and happiness, actualize your potential and create an upward spiral.
Other Details in “Man’s Search for Meaning”
This book is actually a combination of several of Frankl’s works, including a narrative of his concentration camp experiences, an overview of logotherapy and an elaboration of its philosophy and practices. It includes many detailed narratives, examples and discussions about life, meaning, logotherapy and its applications. For more details, please visit .
[Find out how to align business profits, passion and purpose in Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness.
Or if you’re a Christian, check out our summary on A Purpose Driven Life to find out how to live your purpose on Earth according to God’s words.]
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