Back in 2011, I found a great book:
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
I don’t remember how I found this book, but I’m really glad I did; reading it was a life-changing experience for me. It’s only 165 pages long, short and easy enough that I read through it in two sittings. Last nite I saw the book in my closet and re-read most of it.
Viktor was a Jewish man practicing psychiatry in Vienna, Austria before World War 2. He was working on a book which argued that a search for meaning is essential to one’s mental health. In 1942, he and his family were arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. His personal belongings (including his book) were confiscated, he was separated from his family, and spent the rest of the war moving between death camps (including Auschwitz, Kaufering, and Türkheim) working as a psychiatrist and physician. He survived the experience and rewrote his book, continuing to be involved in the psychology field until his death in 1997.
Viktor breaks down his entire experience at these death camps psychologically in extreme detail. This was clearly a disgusting and hopeless situation that folks were forced into. When having their human dignity taken away from them and being told they were simply objects to be exterminated, some prisoners gave up completely; thinking of themselves only as part of a mass of people being herded around the camp like an animal, ultimately to their death. But some people were able to find a reason, despite everything, to continue wanting to live and dream. Still finding some form of beauty in the world.
He shares the words of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
This ties really well into what he outlines as three ways you can discover your meaning in life:
1) by creating a work or doing a deed; there are things that ONLY YOU can and will do
2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; the reward of the experience (for example, love), being an achievement
3) turning unavoidable suffering into a triumph; using the challenge as a personal growth experience
I really like the overall message he discovers and shares… that no matter how hopeless or bad a situation is, you always retain your individuality. You can choose how you decide to react to this situation and what you’ll do to cope with it. And he recognizes that each meaningful achievement you accomplish in life… a project you finish, a relationship you cherish, an experience you overcame… is a tangible asset that you own permanently, something which nobody can take from you.
Viktor’s book really struck a chord with me because I’ve struggled quite a bit with mental health in the past. Being successful at your job or having material goods is not enough to make you happy. You can’t just order someone to “be happy”. Things get much clearer and there’s a definite path to happiness once you think about and identify what you want to accomplish in life (and what you’ve already accomplished). Understanding your own meaning is key to a healthy mental state.