Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. I’ve recommended it, as “bibliotherapy,” to clients in my clinical practice more than any other book, by far. I recommend it too you as a book of useful philosophy. Its conclusions resonate with cognitive therapy, Buddhism and the Serenity Prayer.
Dr. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychotherapist and a survivor of a Nazi death camp. The first part of the book isn’t an easy read, as it recounts the hellish circumstances of daily life in a death camp and the heartbreaking choices people were sometimes forced to make. Frankl had studied to be a doctor before he and his wife were arrested for the crime of being Jewish, and sent by train to separate death camps. He never saw her again.
In his book he separates his fellow prisoners into two categories: those who continued to fight for survival, and those who lost the will to live. There were many ways to die in a death camp. Just refusing an order from a brutal guard could get you beaten to death. Giving away your bread to others would hasten death by starvation. Some chose death over life in Hell.
A philosopher by nature, Frankl sought to determine what made the difference for those who fought to live, rather than surrendering to circumstance. His conclusion was that those who lost the will to live were those who could no longer find meaning in their suffering. Frankl found meaning in hope for survival and of possible reunion with his wife. His love for her was alive, as well as his hope. He knew he had something to live for, even if he couldn’t specify what it was, even if there were no guarantees.
Viktor Frankl asserted that we have a choice that nobody can take away from us, regardless of our circumstances. We are always free to choose our attitude toward whatever situation we find ourselves in. If I’d heard this from someone else I might not have given it much weight, but I learned it from Viktor Frankl. I’m unlikely to ever find myself in a situation nearly as dire as what Frankl lived through. If he could apply this wisdom in a Nazi death camp, surely I can apply it to any circumstance I find myself in.
Any fortunate circumstance can be sullied by a negative attitude, and any unfortunate circumstance will inevitably be made worse by negative thinking and expectations. A positive attitude, on the other hand, can make good situations even better, and a positive attitude opens the possibility that an otherwise intolerable situation can be made bearable. We find – or create – the meaning of our life circumstances by our choice of attitude. A negative attitude cannot improve anything.
Frankl called his approach to psychotherapy “logotherapy,” from the Greek word for meaning. In his professional practice, he tried to help his patients discover or create meanings that helped them in their struggles. Exercising your freedom of attitude allows you to re-frame your experience. What does it mean? Are you suffering because that’s what you deserve? Or is your suffering a test, an ordeal from which you can emerge, a better person? Nobody can decide the meaning of your life experiences but you.