Viktor Frankl's 'Search for Meaning' in 5 Enduring Quotes

By: Dave Roos  | 

Viktor Frankl
A 1994 portrait of Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl. Imagno/Getty Images

Viktor Frankl was a young and successful Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938. Frankl was Jewish, and in 1942 he and his family — his pregnant wife Tilly, his parents and his brother — were deported from Vienna to a Nazi-run "ghetto" in Czechoslovakia and then to concentration camps.

Separated from his wife, and stripped of his identity and humanity, Frankl spent three years in four different concentration camps, including Auschwitz, the notorious death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. He suffered daily degradation, deprivation and violence and witnessed countless friends and fellow prisoners succumb to disease, starvation and despair. Frankl credited his own survival to a method of psychoanalysis that he had begun to develop before his ordeal.

Frankl called his approach logotherapy or "meaning therapy," which centers on the belief that humans can overcome the inherent suffering and disappointments of life by finding meaning and a sense of purpose in every moment. Throughout his intense and prolonged suffering in the camps, Frankl was forced to put his theory to the ultimate test. He credited his survival to grasping tightly to the meaning he found in the love of his wife and the satisfaction of his work.

When the camps were liberated at the end of World War II, Frankl returned to Vienna, where he learned that his entire family, including his beloved Tilly, had been murdered by the Nazis. Inconsolable, he turned again to his work, and in 1946 he anonymously published, in German, "A Psychologist's Experiences in the Concentration Camp," which was later translated to English and republished as "Man's Search for Meaning."

"Man's Search for Meaning" has sold more than 16 million copies in 50 languages and is considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century. We spoke with Alexander Batthyány, director of the Viktor Frankl Institute in Vienna, to discuss five quotes from "Man's Search for Meaning" and other writings that illustrate the power of Frankl's hard-won psychological insights.

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1. "What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him."

As a student and young practitioner, Frankl studied under the leading psychological minds of Vienna, notably Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler. But Frankl grew disillusioned with psychological models that were focused on internal neuroses, like Freud's obsession with libido, or Adler's "inferiority complex."

"Frankl said that these theories describe man as an island solely interested in 'How do I feel?' and ignoring the most important questions: 'Why am I here and what am I good for?'" says Batthyány. "If we know the answer to these, many of the other problems are solved."

When Frankl says that man doesn't need a "tensionless state," he's saying that the goal of life isn't to attain happiness or comfort, which is often the focus of today's "self-help" and "self-improvement" culture.

"The primary motivation for living is to find meaning," wrote Frankl. The goal is to figure out how to live in such a way that gives purpose and meaning to existence, often by serving or sacrificing your own desires for the benefit of others.

Bonus quote: "The more one forgets himselfby giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to lovethe more human he is and the more he actualizes himself."

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2. "In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice."

Viktor Frankl and Tilly Grosser
The wedding photo of Viktor Frankl and Tilly Grosser, 1941.
Imagno/Getty Images

When Frankl was first brought to the camps, he was carrying the unfinished manuscript for a book about logotherapy hidden in his coat. The manuscript, like all his personal possessions, was taken from him and destroyed.

In "Man's Search for Meaning," Frankl described how, in the midst of his torturous existence in the camps, he would occupy his mind with thoughts of his wife Tilly, and with the task of remembering his book, page by page, chapter by chapter. His "why" for staying alive was twofold: to see his Tilly again, and to finish his book. That was the sense of purpose that Frankl needed to survive.

In logotherapy, the psychologist tries to help his or her patients identify their own sense of purpose, even in the midst of significant suffering or sadness.

Batthyány tells a story of an elderly doctor who had just lost his wife of 60 years and was so crushed by her death that he could barely get out of bed. Frankl asked him, "What would have happened if you had died first instead of your wife?" The doctor replied, "My God, she would have suffered so. It would have been awful for her." Frankl then said, "You see? Your suffering is painful, but isn't it good that you took it away from her?" The man had found his reason for living.

"He was ready to suffer out of love," says Batthyány, "and that's the difference between suffering and desperation. Desperation is meaningless suffering, but suffering is part of life."

Bonus quote: "Nietzsche’s words: 'He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,' could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners."

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3. "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."

Frankl's greatest trial and lowest low didn't happen during his three years in the concentration camps, but after he was liberated. That's when he learned that his beloved wife was dead, as were the rest of his family and many close friends.

"So now I'm all alone," Frankl wrote a friend in 1945. "In the camp, we believed that we had reached the lowest point — and then, when we returned, we saw that nothing has survived, that that which had kept us standing has been destroyed, that at the same time as we were becoming human again it was possible to fall deeper, into an even more boundless suffering."

Frankl was close to experiencing that raw desperation that Batthyány called "meaningless suffering." But as Frankl expressed in the above quote, even when life strips you of everything, you still have your freedom. Even in the camps, where Frankl and his fellow prisoners were denied all basic freedoms and human rights, they could still choose how to respond.

Frankl often said that "the best among us didn't return," meaning that those prisoners who chose kindness, who gave their last crumbs of bread so that another person wouldn't starve, were the ones who didn't make it home. They chose a responsibility to something beyond their own survival, and that gave them meaning.

Writing to his friends, Frankl admitted that life had lost all pleasure after his wife's death, but he didn't turn his back on his core beliefs: "I see increasingly that life is so very meaningful, that in suffering and even in failure there must still be meaning."

Frankl still had his freedom to choose, and he chose to focus on his unfinished book about logotherapy, which would become "Man's Search for Meaning." And in time, Frankl met another wonderful companion, his second wife Elly with whom he had a daughter Gabriele, and wrote another 39 books.

"We have an enormous amount of freedom, but that's only half of the story," says Batthyány. "Freedom has a certain dignity and value, but responsibility is everything. How do I use my freedom? How does it impact others? How does it impact the world? And that leads us back to meaning."

Bonus quote: "It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us."

Viktor Frankl and his wife Eleonore
Viktor Frankl and his wife Eleonore visit the U.S., circa 1995.
Imagno/Getty Images

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4. "No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same."

Frankl was an outspoken critic of the concept of "collective guilt," which said that the entire German or Austrian people were guilty of the crimes committed by the Nazi regime. Since Frankl believed in freedom and responsibility, he believed that only those who directly participated in the crimes were guilty and deserved to be punished.

"It's not that Frankl came out of the camps ready to forgive and forget everything," says Batthyány, "But he made a strong differentiation between guilt, responsibility and liability."

The above quote comes from "Man's Search for Meaning." Taken out of context, it sounds like Frankl is talking about reserving judgment on the Nazi guards at Auschwitz, but that's not true. Here he's referring to his fellow prisoners who "snitched" or colluded with the guards to ensure their own survival. People in desperate situations do desperate things.

Bonus quote: "It is a prerogative of being human, and a constituent of human existence, to be capable of shaping and reshaping oneself. In other words, it is a privilege of man to become guilty, and his responsibility to overcome guilt."

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5. "No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him."

Frankl taught that every human being is unique and irreplaceable. Logotherapy, unlike other schools of psychology, acknowledges the existence of a soul, the true essence of an individual that exists beyond body and mind. Within the soul of every person lies their unique nature and untapped potential. It's the goal of a therapist, as well as friends or family members, to help others actualize their full potential.

And the key to that actualization, for Frankl, is love.

"There's a saying by Dostoevsky: 'To love somebody means seeing him or her as God intended them to be,'" says Batthyány. "Love means connecting on such a level that you see the personhood of the other. You don't just see the group that he or she belongs to — their religion, nationality or political affiliation — what you see is something far beyond any of these conditions."

Because Frankl believed in freedom, he believed that anyone could change. Batthyány says that Frankl maintained a long correspondence with a Holocaust denier, hoping to convince the man that the horrors he had experienced and witnessed with his own eyes were indeed true. For Frankl to see the potential good inside that man required a higher degree of love than most of us are capable of.

Bonus quote: "The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire ... The salvation of man is through love and in love."

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