Book Review Finding Meaning (a book by Viktor Frankl)

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This article was edited and updated on November 10, 2015.

Viktor Frankl's Book

Many years ago I read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, and I have read it several times since. There is no other non-fiction book I have read that has had more influence on me. 2

Frankl, who died in 1997, was a well-known neurologist and psychiatrist who endured the Nazi death camps of World War II. Experiencing great suffering, and watching others suffer, Frankl eventually developed a new approach to psychotherapy; he called it logotherapy. (It is often referred to as Existential Analysis.) Complex yet simple, the core of his theory is that the primary motivation in our lives is a search for the meaning of life itself.

Three things give life meaning, According to Frankl

Frankl was constantly amazed at the strength and courage of those in the death camps. No matter how terrible the suffering, he found people who had hope, who had will power — who found meaning in their suffering.

Ultimately, he decided that there were three actions that give life meaning and therefore a reason to live. All three do not have to occur in our lives every day or all the time, but in any given day or even within any given hour, probably at least one will.

Below are those all-important activities we need:

#1: Creating a work or doing a deed

It almost sounds like something that would be listed among the expectations of a group of Girl Scouts, but simple though it may sound, it can bring us great satisfaction when we achieve it. Whether we finish a short story or a painting, babysit our grandchild, prepare a meal for our family, volunteer at the hospital, or assist a friend in a move, it enriches our lives. We feel useful and valuable to others.

#2: Experiencing someone or encountering someone

Our lives are impacted daily by the “others” in it: family, friends, colleagues, teachers, sales clerks, strangers. They may inadvertently teach us something — anything from humility to how to do a math problem. They may make us laugh; they may make us cry or, unfortunately, even make us angry. But the contact with them gives reality to our existence and each encounter requires a response from us, always an opportunity to learn something about ourselves. Consider how meaningless our lives would be if there was no one else to share it with.

#3: The attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering

Life brings us tragedy and pain on a nearly daily basis. We see loved ones die; we watch the illness of a friend; we watch our children deal with hurt or sadness; we cope with our own illnesses. Most of us have a myriad of issues to cope with every day. How we deal with this unavoidable suffering gives meaning to life. Do we curl up into a ball and pull the shades? Or do we give solace to those in pain and try to keep our own mental health in balance?

In Ernest Hemingway’s novella, The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago is an old and tired fisherman. He’s poor and he struggles each day to make a living that will feed himself and his family. He goes out in his boat, day after day, and tries to catch fish. It is a harsh existence, and he doesn’t always succeed in finding food for his family, but he tells himself (and he believes) that he is “the best fisherman” he can be. In making use of Viktor Frankl’s Existential Theory, we must all be like Santagio: Despite suffering, we must be the best that we can be.

What's the connection to fitness?

Physical and mental health are inextricably entwined. By taking care of our physical health through fitness and exercise, it will inevitably improve our emotional status. 3

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I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

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  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. 

  2. With perhaps equal influence from Paul Erhlich’s The Population Bomb and Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World. Ok, and also Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. 

  3. For more about Viktor Frankl and his life, read the Wikipedia article on him — or get a copy of his book.