There are some books which you read and after which you know your life will never be the same. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl was the book like this for me. I will cover a few points that were the most mind-changing for me, and you can judge for yourself after you have grabbed your copy.
Essentially, the book is divided into two parts. The first one is about the author’s personal experiences in the concentration camps and the observation of the mind state of the prisoners in the camp. The second part explains the essence of the logotherapy – a movement in psychiatry that deals with the meaning of human life.
I am not going to review the two parts in details but only to write down here the most important points for me from which I learned and which changed/influenced my life. Let’s dive in.
On Attitude towards a Given Situation
One of the biggest takeaways for me was that a human always has a choice in any situation, even in the horrifying conditions of the concentration camp, to decide how they are going to react to a situation. For instance, if you find yourself in a difficult situation, you can either give in and feel depressed or to rise above the circumstances, endure the hardships and live the situation through with the highest dignity. The choice is yours!
I find this extremely applicable to my everyday life. We all from time to time receive negative feedback, for example, from our friends or from our colleagues at work. There are two options to deal with it: either to start thinking that you are a bad employee or a bad colleague and to get depressed or to take a feedback with dignity and to start working on amending the things that you would like to improve. I find that the second option always takes me further.
The paradoxical intent is a way to deal with pre-anticipatory anxiety. To explain, I can give an example from my own life – whenever I try to drive a car, my hands start shaking and I start feeling anxious. It is not that bad after I practised for a while but I still occasionally get this feeling.
How can paradoxical intent be applied to this situation? Once you get in the car, you need to tell yourself something like “I am going to be as freaked out as possible while driving; I will be stressing myself to the highest degree possible. My legs and my hands will be shaking like those of a crazy man”. What is the result? Paradoxically, your brain stops stressing out. If you intentionally try to stress out while driving, you do not stress anymore.
Apparently, this technique works for sleeplessness (Just tell your brain that you can not sleep), public speaking and stressing when meeting new people.
Existential vacuum is a state when you feel bored because it seems to you like there is no meaning to your life and no higher purpose.
To be honest, I felt this way many times. One of them is when I was in a job that was neither satisfying nor fulfilling. Interestingly, Frankl mentions the case study of people who were unemployed and felt in this way. To them, work equalled purpose and usefulness, and the lack of work meant that they can not be useful or do not have a purpose.
What Frankl suggests in these cases is to find an activity where your skills can be applicable. It could be volunteering or community engagement, for instance. These are just some of the examples. What about me? I started learning the code because I thought that computer skills could contribute to society in some way. What now? I am starting tomorrow as a Happiness Engineer at Automattic with the purpose to help millions of people to share what they have to share. And with the purpose to rock my funky John Lenon glasses which I bought today at Automattician’s meetups!
On the Meaning of Life
The meaning of life for Frank is relative to the situation and to the person. There is no definite general answer that would apply to everyone. The meaning of life is defined in every specific situation for every man. The meaning of life is similar to a puzzle that comes together only when one is on a deathbed. Every situation in one’s life gives a man an opportunity to find a meaning and to live through that situation with the highest dignity. At the end, the collection of all these situations comes together and creates the meaning of life for every human being. Is it not wonderful that we have a chance to find a meaning of life (this mysterious meaning we are looking for!) in our every action?
A Few More Thoughts
A few more inspiration thoughts that Frankl mentions are that man can find the meaning in:
- creative work
- meeting something or someone e.g. through love to the another person
- through enduring the suffering with dignity when suffering is unavoidable
- through nature, art and beauty
And so much more…
I am sure I will come back to this book probably several times throughout my life. This is a story which turns your life to a different course forever. There is still so much to find in the depth of Frankl’s writing and I encourage you to do so.