I first read Man’s Search for Meaning by the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl when I was about sixteen. It had a profound impact on me – back then, I couldn’t stand the education system I was stuck in, and Frankl’s words helped me get through it.
As someone who was sent to a concentration camp during the Holocaust and lived to tell the tale, Frankl survived the worst sufferings imaginable.
Obviously, my distaste for dysfunctional education structures seemed like an absolutely trivial thing in comparison. But that’s not what makes Frankl’s story so impactful.
It was his wisdom, courage, and endless determination that opened my mind to new perspectives and changed me as a person.
I no longer felt lost. I knew what to do.
Here are the 7 lessons from Viktor Frankl that will help anyone feeling lost in life.
1) You are always free to choose your own way
Let’s start this off with the most famous quote by Frankl:
“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.”
You might get stuck in the worst situations known to man, but you can always remain free.
Because your mind belongs to you. Your thoughts are yours only, and the attitude you choose determines the outcome of your material circumstances to a large degree.
Frankl himself said that in the concentration camp, “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”
But rising above suffering, choosing to turn a tragedy into a triumph… that’s what Frankl calls finding your meaning in life.
You can be in chains and still be free. All that matters is your attitude.
2) Success is a by-product, not a goal
“Don’t aim at success,” Frankl says. “The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself…”
He goes on to add, “I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”
This one’s about the power of mindful work. It’s not the goal that matters – it’s the daily activities you do that draw you in, filling you with a sense of purpose and happiness.
If you do what you love as often as you can, you have a purpose. You have something to wake up to.
There is nothing greater than dedicating your whole self to an activity that sets your soul on fire. If you want a definition of success…that’s it right there.
3) Responsibility is at the core of meaning
Moving on to another amazing quote:
“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.”
In other words, stop riding shotgun. Take the driver’s seat. Meaning is born from an active approach to life, from the decision to take charge and accountability, from the choice to dedicate yourself to someone or something.
If you’re feeling lost, it may be because you’re still relying on the river’s current to carry you with it.
But you’re in stagnant water, my friend. You’ve got to paddle to get out of there.
Frankl agrees: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”
4) Don’t measure your value by your usefulness
You’re not less valuable just because you’re feeling lost. Your worth isn’t measured by your productivity, achievements, or contributions to society.
You’re valuable just as you are. You’re valuable because you exist.
Frankl’s commentary goes along the same lines:
“Today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young. It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness.”
If you haven’t yet found your meaning, that’s okay. It’s normal to dabble your toes in different hobbies, to try out different venues of interest. You don’t have to have it all figured out.
You are important because you are here. Your purpose is not to tick off achievement boxes; it’s to experience life in your own unique way.
5) You have your own unique journey in life
We might all be here for a specific reason or we might also be here for…literally no reason at all. Coincidences happen, after all.
No matter. What counts is what you make of this whole “life” business.
You’re going down a path that belongs solely to you. No one else can replace you – you’re simply too unique.
As Frankl puts it:
“Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life; everyone must carry out a concrete assignment that demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”
Don’t measure yourself by the successes or failures of others. If you’re lost, it’s because you’re meant to feel this way at this point in time.
Follow your own timeline.
6) Life is ridiculous, so laugh all you can
Remember how Frankl talks about rising above one’s suffering and choosing one’s own attitude?
Humor is an excellent way to do just that. He says:
“It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”
Life is absurd, therefore there’s humor in basically everything. Humor is what allows you to take a step back and view your life from a fresh perspective. It’s your zoom-out option.
Use it to its full potential.
7) Love is the highest form of meaning
This post wouldn’t be complete without a final note on the importance of love.
Yes, it’s cliché to talk about how amazing love is. But it’s cliché precisely because it’s true, and it absolutely bears reminding, so let’s hear what Frankl has to say:
“The truth – that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.”
Think back to a moment when something bad happened to you. Where did you seek support? What did you think of?
Chances are, your loved ones were on your mind. You missed your parents, worried about your partner, or immediately called your best friend.
The meaning of life is found in the connections we form with other human beings. Love gives us something to live for, something that provides hope and comfort even in the most insufferable of conditions.
In the end, love truly is all you need.