Tim O'Rahilly Life Coaching

Book Review: Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

(Note: This review and the comments that follow it were originally published on The Coaching Academy Website in their magazine/blog PS Online.)


“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

These words are at the core of “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl, first published in 1946. In preparation for a blog post I was writing on stress, I decided to revisit this profound work and would love to see it more widely read. It is arguably one of the most influential books published since the Second World War. Frankl intended it to answer the question “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” To that end, the first part of the book describes, in harrowing detail, Frankl’s experiences as an inmate of Auschwitz and several other concentration camps.

The second part of the book serves as an introduction to Frankl’s psychotherapeutic ideas about the search for a reason to live. Drawing on his experience as a psychologist, Frankl introduces the reader to ‘Logotherapy’, his own form of treatment. After identifying the main psychological states experienced by his fellow concentration camp inmates, Frankl came to the conclusion that the meaning of life is to be found in every moment of living and that even in the most extreme circumstances life never ceases to have meaning.

If you ever need to have your life put into perspective, or your stressors diminished to their true unimportance, then reading this book is a must!

I found the descriptive writing of part one to be both moving and inspirational in its outlook. One startling observation made by the author was that those prisoners who died were often the ones who had surrendered to despair. The survivors, however, tended to be those who, despite immeasurable suffering and hardship, could still see a future for themselves. Their lives had meaning. Frankl says “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.”

I urge everyone to read this book and to reflect on its wisdom. Some 65 years after first publication of these ideas, psychology has moved on in leaps and bounds but Frankl’s thinking still resonates and his approach fits well with modern therapies. Whatever stress or challenges you might be facing, there are many passages within his writings that will give your problems some perspective. I will end with one of my favourites: Man is ultimately self-determining. That ability to decide is at the centre of our being. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment.’

1 | Amanda Stearn

April 27th, 2011 at 11:09 am

As a consultant who works primarily to help organisations learn to ‘live’ their vision and values, I discuss Frankel’s priniciples a great deal within group coaching sessions. They form a hugely powerful set of ideas, especially when combined with some reflections upon Frankel’s own life journey.

Thank you for bringing this work to wider attention – a valuable and well-written article describing some eternal and empowering truths.

2 | Anita Mattu

April 27th, 2011 at 11:40 am

Hi Tim,
Thank you for your book review, really enjoyed it. I do have the book and only have dipped in and out of it. Now I am Going to make the time to read it. Thanks for refreshing my mind to it.

3 | Tim O’Rahilly

April 27th, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I was pleased to see that on the Coaching Academy’s wonderful CPD day ’3D Stress Coaching’ this book was recommended as the one to read!

4 | Malcolm Lugton

April 27th, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Hi Tim – thanks for sharing! your finnal comment also reminds me of the basis of Goal Mapping with Brian Mayne a couple of weeks back…

5 | Zophia Newborne

April 27th, 2011 at 5:46 pm

It’s important to remember not to TRIVIALIZE the sheer misery and degradation of these camps, and of how many people, indeed very brave and positive beings, did NOT come out alive, no matter what their ‘attitude’ was. It is too easy to forget this.

Nowadays there seems to be a rather easy attitude to accepting ongoing ‘horrors’ elsewhere (all types of economic and social oppression as ENTRENCHED lifestyles, even, for example, 3 generations of refugees living in tents and without passports, during 5 decades in some regions), and saying that we can just ‘choose our attitudes’…. there is really no excuse for letting some situations get so bad in the first place. It can be temptingly easy to fit Frankl into the ‘feel-good’ school of positive thinking. I just want to point out that the whole rationale of ‘death-camps’ and deliberate ‘extermination’, torture, starvation and so on goes a lot deeper than that. And it kills a lot more than just a handful.

6 | Elizabeth Milton

April 28th, 2011 at 4:31 pm

I had to do a presentation on this book last year for part of my psychotherapy training. I was blown away by the impact the book had on my life. It really is about life whittled down to the bone, and shows that even when confronted with life-threatening situations, we do still have a choice: a choice how to “be”. It certainly does put our own problems into perspective and Frankl is a truly inspirational human being. When I am feeling really down, or overcome by life, I try and remember what he wrote; “Where there is life, there is hope”.

7 | Nelun Barrow

April 28th, 2011 at 11:29 pm

Hi Tim
As a general reader, this is a book that has made a difference in my life. Frankl’s optimism, his constant exuberance about life even when he was faced with so much loss and sadness is remarkable and truly inspirational. Thank you for sharing your comments.

8 | Tim O’Rahilly

April 29th, 2011 at 4:42 pm

It has been heartening to read so many thoughtful responses to my review and I thank all of you for those! I would like to respond to Zophia’s passionate comment as I would certainly not want to be thought of as trivilalising the situation in any way.
I wholeheartedly agree with everything you say. Since I have found Coaches in general to be both intelligent and caring about all people, I assumed that readers here would take all that as read.
Throughout my long career as a school teacher I did my best to pass on to my pupils a respect for all life. In fact I clearly recall one history lesson where I invited an elderly Death camp survivor to come and talk to my class of 11 year olds about her experiences. It was a moving and at times harrowing afternoon and she argued powerfully about developing a respect for human life.
It is important to remember the relevant context here. This was a BOOK REVIEW and was written with a specific audience in mind on this site. As such it would have been wrong to enter into any political or moral discussion which might have diluted the intention of the author. After all he was there and it was he who placed himself firmly into what you call ‘feel-good’ school of positive thinking.
If you have not read the book I hope you will. As you are a person who clearly cares about our world I hope it will inspire you to continue to do your bit to make it a better place.

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