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Man's Search for Meaning

by Viktor Emil Frankl

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Man's Search for Meaning Themes

The three main themes in Man’s Search for Meaning are finding meaning, meaninglessness, and survival.

  • Finding meaning: Frankl believes that finding meaning—whether through work, love, or facing unavoidable suffering—is the central motivation in every individual’s life.
  • Meaninglessness: Frankl writes of the despair that results from a lack of meaning in one’s life and how logotherapy can address this “existential vacuum.”
  • Survival: In his descriptions of life in a Nazi concentration camp, Frankl emphasizes the importance of a sense of meaning and purpose to his own and other prisoners’ survival.

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Finding Meaning

The central theme of Man’s Search for Meaning is the possibility of finding meaning in life regardless of circumstances. According to Frankl’s theory of logotherapy, finding and fulfilling meaning is the primary motivation in every individual’s life, and it is the task of the logotherapist to awaken his or her patients to the hidden meaning in their lives. It is the “will to meaning” that drives humanity, Frankl believes, rather than Sigmund Freud’s “will to pleasure” or Alfred Adler’s “will to power.” He writes not of a universal meaning to all of human existence but of the unique meanings to be found in the real situations in which people find themselves. There are three main routes, he writes, to finding meaning: through work, through love, and, most importantly, through facing unavoidable suffering with dignity and using it as an opportunity for personal growth. Particularly in “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” Frankl emphasizes the importance of finding meaning in the form of a future goal to achieve or task to fulfill. It was the meaning Frankl found in the thought of continuing his work as a psychiatrist and being reunited with his wife that kept him from despair during his imprisonment.


As he makes his case for the unconditional meaningfulness of life, Frankl also takes on the sense of meaninglessness and emptiness he sees as pervading society and which he terms the “existential vacuum.” This lack of meaning, Frankl believes, is a kind of personal nihilism and has begun to manifest itself in industrialized societies across the world in the form of a widespread existential despair. His purpose in writing Man’s Search for Meaning and in practicing logotherapy is to combat this despair by helping people to fill this existential vacuum with meaning and purpose.


Man’s Search for Meaning—particularly the section titled “Experiences in a Concentration Camp”—is, in large part, about survival. Frankl describes how all of a prisoner’s energy became focused on the daily struggle to endure the horrific conditions of the Nazi concentration camps, conditions which included starvation, cold, beatings, disease, and the ever-present possibility of being sent to the gas chambers. In Frankl’s view, it was primarily the ability to find meaning and purpose in even these seemingly hopeless circumstances that gave him and his fellow survivors the will to go on living.


Love is one of the three ways of finding meaning acknowledged by logotherapy. While Frankl says the first way—creating or accomplishing something—is self-explanatory, he does delve into an explanation of how meaning can be found by “encountering someone” to love. By loving another person, Frankl says, one can help the beloved to see and actualize the potential meanings in his or her life. He writes that meditating on the image of his wife and imagining conversations with her kept him from despair in the concentration camps and of how, from this experience, he came to the realization that love is “the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.”


For Frankl, the most significant way in which individuals can find meaning is by facing suffering with dignity, courage, and the willingness to look upon the situation as an opportunity for personal growth. Frankl is careful to point out, however, that this only applies to suffering that cannot be avoided. If it is possible to remove the source of one’s suffering, he says, then that is the meaningful thing to do. But when it is unavoidable, as in the camps where Frankl was imprisoned before writing Man’s Search for Meaning, human beings’ ability to find meaning in suffering can be seen as evidence of the unconditional value and meaningfulness of life.

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