I recommend Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning to a fair number of people in a wide array of contexts, and one of my students asked why I included him in a short list of books at the back of the syllabus. Though I’ve mentioned him on blog a number of times (see here for one example), I hadn’t really considered why I admire his book and so wanted to take a shot at doing so.
As Frankl says, we’re suffering from a bizarre dearth of meaning in our everyday lives. One can see this in the emptiness that a lot of people report feeling and, more seriously, in suicide rates. In material terms, people in Western societies have never been as well off as we are today—and most of Asia and Latin America, along with much of Africa, are catching up with surprising speed. Yet in “spiritual” terms (I hate that much-abused word but can think of no better one—metaphysical, perhaps?) many of us aren’t doing so well, which is odd, given the cornucopia of goods and opportunities around us. I think Frankl tries to teach us how to better actualize our lives—we truly don’t live by bread alone—and I think he has a keen sense of the malaise many of us feel. I’ve struggled with these issues too and think Frankl’s treatment of them is a good one.
One can see another version or statement of this general problem in Louis CK’s much-linked bit “Everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy.” It has 7 million views, and while YouTube views are hardly a good metric for importance or content, I think CK’s bit has gone viral because he’s touching a profound problem that many people feel, even if they don’t articulate it, or usually won’t articulate to themselves or others.
Many people also seem to feel isolated (see Putnam’s possibly flawed Bowling Alone for one account). Yet because they feel isolated, they have no one to talk to about feeling isolated! The paradox worsens isolation, and there isn’t an obvious outlet for these kinds of feelings or problems. Plus, technology seems to enable crappier and more tenuous relationships, when many of us really want the opposite. That’s partly a problem of the person using the technology—we can talk to anyone, anywhere despite many of us having nothing to say—but technology also pushes use to use it in particular ways, which is one of my points about how Facebook is bad for relationships.
And people are mostly on their own in dealing with this. Schools, as they’re widely conceived of right now, are largely seen as job-training centers, rather than as places to figure out how you should live your life. So they’re not very helpful. Religion or religious feeling is one answer for some people, but religious thinking or feeling isn’t very satisfying for me and a growing number of people.
I don’t know what is helpful—problems are often easier to see than solutions—but Frankl offers a framework for thinking about leading a meaningful existence through attempting to do the best with what you’ve got and choosing an aim for your life, however small or absurd (Hence: “Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why—an aim—for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence”).
Frankl and Louis CK are hardly the only people to notice this—All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age is a contemporary example of a book tackling similar basic concepts from a different angle. Stumbling on Happiness and The Happiness Hypothesis are others. The fact that this problem persists across decades and arguably becomes more urgent means that I don’t think these books will be the last. As Frankl says in a preface:
I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book so much an achievement and accomplishment on my part as an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under the fingernails.