I often find biographies of accomplished leaders or thought pioneers inspiring and instructive. Having read the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl’s, classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning years ago I recently came across his autobiography Viktor Frankl Recollections. I enjoyed reading about his story and it drew me back to reread Man’s Search for Meaning. Meaning is far more inspiring and relevant than his meandering, disconnected, and poorly written autobiography. Maybe something was lost in translation.
The first part of Man’s Search for Meaning focuses on the horrific ordeals he suffered in Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War. He witnessed humankind at its very worst and its very best. After suffering severe starvation, beatings, back-breaking labor, freezing temperatures with no shoes or warm clothing, and nearly being sent to the gas chambers a few times, he emerged at the end of the war to learn most of his family including his wife had been killed.
The second part of his book outlines the thinking that kept him from joining the many prisoners who died of despair or committed suicide in the camps. In an inspiring example of turning tragedy into triumph Frankl emerged to find a new form of psychotherapy called “logotherapy.” Logos is a Greek word denoting “meaning.”
Building on Nietzsche’s words, “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,” Frankl advises “we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
This search for meaning is very consistent with the most recent research on positive psychology as outlined by the movement’s founder, Martin Seligman, in his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, “Human beings, ineluctably, want meaning and purpose in life. The Meaningful Life consists in belonging to and serving something that you believe is bigger than the self.”
A key part of logotherapy that Frankl first practiced in the Nazi death camps was focusing on the future through visioning or positive imagery. He imagined himself speaking in a lecture hall about his experiences and sharing the key lessons he learned to help others alleviate their suffering.
A major message woven through Frankl’s powerful personal example and this book is that life is all about choice. It’s not what happens to us as much as what we do about it.