Hey Readers!

I’ve recently finished reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl for the second time, and it has not failed to blow me away once more. This is one of those books that instantly made my list of favourites. I’d even go so far to say that this book has changed my life, or at least, how I view life.

Viktor Frankl was the founder of logotherapy, which is a form of existential analysis. He was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist, as well as a holocaust survivor. Man’s Search for Meaning illustrates some the most dreadful accounts of the Nazi concentration camps I’ve seen in literature, but it is also one of the most hopeful. It delves into how we can find meaning in our lives even in the most terrible and hopeless circumstances, and what that meaning is.

The book itself has had a tremendous influence on the world so far. More that 10 million copies have been sold worldwide in more that 24 different languages, with many readers saying that it has changed their lives and the way they view the world.

Needless to say, the message this book gives is important.

Dr. Frankl finished Man’s Search for Meaning in 1946, over 70 years ago, so I found myself wondering how I can directly relate his message to my life today; and, more specifically, my experience as a student. Although I highly recommend giving the book a read yourself (yes, there’s an audiobook!), I’ve given a quick breakdown of how we can relate it to our crazy, busy student lives.

What is Meaning?

How many times have you heard the question, “what is the meaning of life?”.  Nearly every religion and philosophical school of thought has attempted to answer this question. It has even been asked so much it’s become a joke in popular culture. But jokes aside, most of us have probably asked ourselves this question at some point in our life. Everything around us has a purpose, except for life itself.

Dr. Frankl however thinks that we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking life, “what is your meaning”, we should change our positions and imagine life asking us that same question. The responsibility of meaning should ultimately be on ourselves, which is both liberating and terrifying at the same time.

As a student, we so often get caught up in our work that the moment we have a chance to breathe is often when mental illness hits us the hardest. We start to ask ourselves why we are putting ourselves through such hardship when we don’t even know the actual purpose of it all, and find ourselves lost in setting priorities and figuring out what’s important in life.

According to Dr. Frankl, the trick to this question is that no single meaning exists. There is no general meaning to life, not even to your own life right now. Instead, your life’s meaning goes through endless stages. Dr. Frankl gives the metaphor of asking a chess champion what is the single best move in chess. Obviously, the answer is that there is no such move! The single best move changes on a moment-to-moment basis.

Right now, your meaning to life may be to finish your degree to the best of your ability, or to build a strong relationship with your family or friends, and that’s okay! We can set our own meaning to life right now, and we’re allowed to change. If you find yourself changing your goals, such as switching majors or starting a new relationship, it doesn’t set you back at all and degrade your previous goals. It is these moment-to-moment decisions that bring meaning to our lives in the end.

Meaning in Hardships

Viktor Frankl suffered through arguably one of the ugliest times in human history; living through a Nazi concentration camp. Not only was he still able to find meaning in his life during this period, but was able to point out fellow inmates who still had meaning in theirs. In fact, he said that an inmate who had meaning in his life was more likely to survive than then healthiest, strongest inmate who had no meaning. The difference between the two people was how they chose to approach their suffering.

One of Dr. Frankl’s key themes in Man’s Search for Meaning is that we have the freedom to choose our attitude towards suffering. We can choose to view unavoidable suffering with direction and achievement. When we have a channel to aim our hardships towards, it becomes bearable and meaningful. Dr. Frankl himself chose to see his inescapable suffering as meaningful by imagining himself writing and lecturing on these very ideas. He used his hardships as learning experiences to inspire him and to one day help millions of others. He channeled his burden towards a specific purpose, and in doing so, overcame it. As Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.

He uses an example of an elderly man who came to his clinic one day. The man’s beloved wife had just recently passed away and the man was not only heartbroken, but had lost hope for his future. Dr. Frankl recognized the man’s intense grief, but also tried to instill meaning back in his life again by asking what would have happened if the man had died before his wife. The man replied that she would have felt the exact same, if not worse. Dr. Frankl then explained that this man’s grief could now be meaningful because realized that his suffering meant his beloved wife was spared from the same grief she would’ve felt if her husband passed away first.

However, I want to emphasize this is unavoidable suffering. This does not mean someone should stay in a position of suffering for no reason. If we can, we should still try to avoid unnecessary suffering.

But if you do find yourself in a position of hardship that seems absolutely unavoidable, remember that you have the freedom to decide how you will approach it. Humans are not just the result of their environment and circumstances. We may never be free from our conditions, whether those conditions be environmental, biological, psychological, or sociological. But we will always have the freedom to choose our own attitudes towards those circumstances.

In Frankl’s own words, “When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”

How Do We Find Meaning?

In our world today, it may seem as though there is no source for meaning. We are beyond the days of living based on natural human instinct and are also moving past simply living according to tradition. Today, many people, particularly students, find themselves in a state of boredom that Frankl calls an ‘existential vacuum’. We experience this most when we take a step back from our constant overworking and look back to find no true meaning to our business. Frankl claims that this state existential frustration may sometimes be the underlying cause of anxiety, depression and addiction.

As a result, we turn to other desires to fill our time. We may turn to Alder’s ‘will for power’, or, more specifically, the ‘will for money’ and focus all our energy on making money. Or, we may turn to Freud’s ‘will to pleasure’ through sexual compensations or other desires. Both are very relevant in student’s lives today but unfortunately only get us so far. It’s impossible to stay motivated and healthy through the motivation of money and pleasure alone.

Frankl’s logotherapy offers a third school of thought, which, as you can probably guess, is the ‘will to meaning’. We can achieve meaning through three sources:

  1. Doing a task that is important to us
  2. Fully encountering and loving someone
  3. Taking an attitude of dignity and achievement to unavoidable suffering

So, I want to challenge you to look at your life and decide what is the meaning of it here and now. It may be to complete some task you believe is important, or it may be to love someone so completely and truly that they will make a difference in the world. It may even be a combination of those two.

If you find yourself in unavoidable suffering, however, then meaning can still be found by changing your attitude towards your hardship. Remember that there is still hope and you do still have control over how you will stand against the burden, and maybe someday make it into something meaningful.

There are so many more inspiring ideas this book has to offer and, again, I highly encourage you to read it yourself. But for now, I’ll leave you with this video…

Love always,


The views expressed in this blog are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of the University of Victoria. I monitor posts and comments to ensure all content complies with the University of Victoria Guidelines on Blogging.