Man’s Search for Meaning

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Man’s Search for MeaningViktor Frankl

On existential frustration, from a man who would know.

Viktor Frankl was, as he put it, “a professor in two fields, but a survivor of four camps — concentration camps, that is”. Already a renowned psychotherapist, Frankl’s experiences at Auschwitz and other concentration camps provided him profound and striking insights into human psychology. He sets them out in this brief and elegant book.

Firstly, when put in a situation of extreme adversity or deprivation human personalities do not blur into one “uniform expression of the unstilled urge”, as Sigmund Freud had supposed they would but, on the contrary, true personalities are accentuated.

Secondly, despair and depression are not at all correlated with the experience of adversity, but if anything inversely so: in our modern, plentiful and comfortable times, neuroses are legion. By contrast, on the whole they weren’t in Nazi death camps. Frankl was uniquely placed and qualified to comment on this; Freud was not: “Thank heaven,” Frankl remarks dryly, “Freud was spared knowing the concentration camps from the inside”.

This seems right: I dare say you don’t see much neuroticism in modern day Somalia either (though I do quite like the idea of obsessive-compulsive Mogadishan parents pushing their kids into extra cello lessons.)

Frankl uses his anecdotal observations to propose what was in its day a revolutionary psychology: it isn’t our primal physical urges which determine our behaviour, with intellectual constructions being mere epiphenomenal by-products (Freud would have it that love, for example, was a spin-off of the deeper primal sexual urge), but the other way round: it is the intellectual content — the *meaning* of our lives that shapes and drives our behaviour and, crucially, our happiness.

The more profound and compelling you find the meaning in your own life, the less neurotic you’re likely to be.

This leaves open the question of what “meaning” might be, and what might make a profound and compelling one. This question Frankl doesn’t answer, rightly I think, other in rather an airy fashion. Anecdotally, meanings are more likely to count as profound and compelling the more gravely connected with the “tragic triad” of pain, guilt and death they are (no shortage, therefore, at Auschwitz). But beyond those axes, the implication will be that we, the users, determine our own meaning.

This may perhaps be a little self-fulfilling, and neurosis may be a product of existential frustration (in other words the confounding of one’s own quest for meaning through preoccupation with things you don’t truly value): Frankl cites a senior American diplomat who sought treatment from depression arising from discontent with his working life. Frankl’s advice was not undergo psychotherapy, but to change his job to something he cared more about!

But all the same this seems to me a plausible explanation for modern melancholy: who, these days, isn’t continually and forcibly preoccupied with things she doesn’t truly value? That seems to perfectly capture the “asset rich, time poor” existence.

This is a short book, but it’s a gem: the message of plurality and self-determination are ones which should strike harmonious chords in the ears of those, like this reviewer, who are nudging into middle age and wondering if it is quite all what it cracked up to be.

See also