In Viktor Frankl’s moving book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he talks about his several year experience as a concentration camp prisoner during the Holocaust. He noticed that when his surrounding comrades no longer could find solstice in the small things — the joy of an extra piece of bread, the comforting melody of song, or a daydream about one day reuniting with their spouses — then there was little hope they would survive; having already forfeited bodily comfort, letting go of spiritual and mental purpose was their inevitable spiral into death.
He concluded that the only thing that we control in our lives is our reaction to things. And that ultimately, the pulse of life depends on finding meaning in the mundane (he went on to start a branch of psychology called logotherapy based on this notion). Imagine how pleasant our life would be if we could find meaning in everyday mundane activities…like doing the dishes.
- Finding meaning even in the most mundane of tasks is a basic psychological driver for us to find joy in life.
- The better we get at doing difficult things, the better we can do other difficult things. That’s ‘work ethic.’
This is one of the books that changed my life and that I’ve probably seen referenced more than any other by leaders, entrepreneurs and people from all over the world. While Viktor wasn’t Buddhist, there’s a lot of Buddhist philosophy in what he says, and you get a sense that his experience transcends and pierces a lot of philosophies, religions and ideas that have percolated throughout history; and, amidst immense suffering, he breaks through and finds the common thread that links what it means to be human and our ongoing quest for meaning.
Big ideas from the book
The relativity of suffering
To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.
Logotherapy focuses rather on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future. (Logotherapy, indeed, is a meaning-centered psychotherapy.) At the same time, logotherapy defocuses all the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms which play such a great role in the development of neuroses. Thus, the typical self-centeredness of the neurotic is broken up instead of being continually fostered and reinforced.
Logotherapy, keeping in mind the essential transitoriness of human existence, is not pessimistic but rather activistic. To express this point figuratively we might say: The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back.
On the search for meaning
I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis,” i.e., a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.
The existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom.
Spoiler Alert: The meaning of life
What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. To put the question in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.
How to find that meaning
And how does a human being go about finding meaning? As Charlotte Bühler has stated: “All we can do is study the lives of people who seem to have found their answers to the questions of what ultimately human life is about as against those who have not.”
“Let us be alert—alert in a twofold sense: Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”
Man’s Search for Meaning-Notebook