Viktor Frankl Quotes on the Meaning of Life, Love, and Suffering
“Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.” – Erich Fromm
When we intuit authority or truth to someone else’s words of wisdom, we could say that we are instinctively judging them on three things.
Firstly, the validity of their experience. We need to know that they have firsthand experience with the peaks and troughs of life, that they haven’t been sheltered from either the extreme good or bad sides of human nature. We also consider the context within which their ideas are being expressed, and try to gauge if they’re still relevant for us.
Secondly, we look at their motives. What do they stand to gain from the wisdom that is being shared? Is there a monetary incentive? Do they have a heavy cultural or experiential bias in favour of the view that they’re sharing?
Finally, we consider their history and relationship with suffering. Suffering is the common thread which ties together any searches for meaning and resulting wisdom. The seeking in and of itself to be said to a universal reaction to the tension of human existence.
When we consider these three criteria, Viktor Frankl is one man who manages to tick all boxes.
An Austrian Psychotherapist, Frankl was the found of logotherapy, a method of existential analysis that placed meaning and suffering as the cornerstone around which much psychological dysfunction could be assessed and treated.
Frankl’s ideas can be summarised in three points:
- Our primary motivation is our will to find meaning in life
- Meaning can be found in any circumstances when we give ourselves over to something greater than our self, whether that is a cause or another person
- We always have the freedom to find meaning, even in the face of unchangeable suffering
However, Frankl’s psychoanalytic views were not merely theory. In fact, they were practical in every sense, as in 1944 he was sent to the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz, and forced to explore his beliefs right down to their core.
A combination of luck and will allowed him to survive the experience, and he went on to write his seminal work ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ which has sold over 10 million copies and been translated into 24 languages.
When we look at his life in context, Frankl’s ideas emerge from a compelling experience, his motives are pure – he originally intended to publish the book anonymously – and his relationship with suffering unquestionable. To that end, the wisdom he offers transcends his time, and his books are incredibly valuable.
I strongly recommended anyone to read Man’s Search for Meaning, and for any who has an interest in existentialism, to pick up any one of his other books.
So, without further ado, here are 21 quotes by Viktor Frankl on meaning, living, love, suffering, and compassion.
“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.”
“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct.”
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
Though he underwent horrific life circumstances, Frankl’s drive to find meaning was insatiable. He was a firm believer in the ability for human beings to act with a degree of dignity regardless of their circumstances.
“The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. Yet it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent.”
“Don’t aim at success. 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 or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“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.”
“I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.”
“The consciousness of one’s inner value is anchored in higher, more spiritual things, and cannot be shaken by camp life. But how many free men, let alone prisoners, possess it?”
“I do not forget any good deed done to me and I do not carry a grudge for a bad one.”
Frankl’s commitment to personal responsibility and commitment to a higher cause was profound, and reflects an attitude of a lot of existential thinkers. Though a scientist, he deeply valued the spiritual nature of life, and took to it with a gratitude and a humor that we often find in eastern traditions.
“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.”
“Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self.”
“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is able to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized.”
Frankl’s belief in the importance of love was a result of the unbelievable sustenance that his own love for his wife gave him during his time in Auschwitz. He saw love as a key ingredient that fuelled meaning, and found in his own experience that it made him more resilient than he could have imagined.
“To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.”
“But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”
“What is to give light must endure burning.”
Suffering, life love, was to Frankl another aspect of the human condition that was both fundamental and infinitely flexible. He noticed not only how far suffering could go, but also how human beings could respond to it and what could be learned from it.
“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 doing so blurs the decisive difference being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness. If one is not cognizant of this difference and holds that an individual’s value stems only from his present usefulness, then, believe me, one owes it only to personal inconsistency not to plead for euthanasia along the lines of Hitler’s program, that is to say, ‘mercy’ killing of all those who have lost their social usefulness, be it because of old age, incurable illness, mental deterioration, or whatever handicap they may suffer.”
“No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honest whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”
“If we take man as he really is, we make him worse. But if we overestimate him…we promote him to what he really can be.”
Reading Frankl’s words, you understand that he was a deeply compassionate person. He was able to express sympathy for not only his fellow prisoners of war, but also his captors. This echoes ideas that have been explored in religions all around the world, particularly long-term meditators in the East, and is a direct result of his contact with such extreme aspects of human nature.
BONUS: 3 Amazing Viktor Frankl Speeches
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What is healthy self-confidence?
Self-confidence is the belief in oneself and abilities, it describes an internal state made up of what we think and feel about ourselves. This state is changeable according to the situation we are currently in and our responses to events going on around us. It is not unusual to feel quite confident in some circumstances and less confident in others. It is also influenced by past events and how we remember them; recalling a former success has a very different outcome in terms of our confidence levels than thinking about an occasion when we failed.
Confidence and self-esteem are terms which are often used interchangeably, but although there is over-lap perhaps there are also subtle differences. Self-confidence can refer to how we feel about ourselves and our abilities whereas self-esteem refers directly to whether or not we appreciate and value ourselves. We may have been discouraged from being boastful but a healthy amount of self-liking and self-approval is necessary if we are to have the confidence to meet life's challenges and participate as fully as we wish to in whatever makes life enjoyable and rewarding for us. In a sense, we could say that having healthy self-esteem leads to being self-confident.
Where does self-confidence come from?
Early experiences are influential in achieving a healthy level of self-esteem.
If we are fortunate and had relatively favourable conditions and experiences whilst we are growing up, we are likely to develop a healthy self-esteem and become confident people. However, if conditions and experiences are mainly negative we are more likely to experience difficulties developing our confidence. Some of the negative messages we have received will have been internalized and become part of what we think and feel about ourselves.
Here and now
A person lacking in self-confidence who receives a low mark for an assignment may think, "What else could I expect? I'm stupid, this proves it, and I might as well leave." A person with healthy self-esteem who receives a low mark may think, "I wonder where I went wrong? I'll find out so that I can do better next time." Although this person may feel disappointed, s/he does not feel diminished as a person, by the low mark.
If we have little self-confidence then the ‘low mark' scenario may trigger memories of similar events in the past and then lead to a cycle of negative thinking in the form of self-critical put-downs. This is how we intensify and perpetuate a lack confidence. When we feel low like this our expectations about the future tend to be negative and this discourages us from really trying. Then we experience another disappointing result and feel negative about ourselves again.
Why are confidence and self-esteem important?
The impact of having low confidence and self-esteem varies greatly and can range from only impacting in one specific setting to being very restricting and debilitating. Low self-confidence can result in:
- communication difficulties
- social anxiety
- lack of assertiveness
What would improve my confidence and self-esteem?
- Learn to be more assertive and not feel guilty about saying no
- Give yourself at least equal priority as those you love
- Examine why you feel bad about yourself and what you can do to change this
- Monitor your self talk and question your negative statements about yourself
- Stop focusing on yourself too much and try to help others
- Make time for yourself and treat yourself often
- Don't be afraid to ask others for what you want
What strategies could I use to improve my self-confidence?
1. Practicing self-acceptance
We can improve our self-confidence in a number of ways. One of the most important ways is to become more accepting of ourselves. Look at your strengths and achievements and put a plan in place to address areas of weakness.
We can start by noticing situations which increase our self-confidence, and those which diminish it. By consistently taking notice of our fluctuating levels of self-confidence we may discover important information about ourselves.
We need to practice self-acceptance, feeling OK about ourselves and others regardless of the existing conditions. If we make mistakes, hurt or offend other people, it may be appropriate to make amends but it need not lead to low self-confidence. In this way, we may sometimes think it is reasonable to be critical of our behaviour and try to change it but without being critical of ourselves. This attitude helps maintain a healthy level of self-confidence.
2. Focus on your achievements
If you take time to think you will realise that you have achieved so many things in your life. It doesn't matter what these achievements are only that they are important to you. List them and remember what they meant to you. It doesn't matter what you think about your life at present if you are honest with yourself you will make a long list and that will make you feel good. Every small thing you are proud of should be added to your list. The fact that you are focusing on positives will also help you to increase your level of self esteem.
3. Making personal changes
If, as a result of monitoring your self-esteem and confidence, you decide that you want to change, it is best to identify some specific goals. What can you change that will make you feel better about yourself? There are two kinds of changes you may wish to focus on. The first are changes in your life and how you live it. Ask yourself are you happy in your job? Is it satisfying? Is there something else you'd rather do? What about your relationships or your social life? If you would like to be more assertive for example then start working on that immediately.
Having done that, it is necessary to make sure that they are manageable; break it down into smaller steps or identify a less ambitious change to attempt first. For example, in order to be able to speak up in seminars, it may be easier to begin by expressing opinions more often with friends. Becoming comfortable with this can make the next step, contributing in a seminar, easier.
4. Seeking out positive experiences and people
We can give ourselves positive experiences as a way of increasing our self-confidence. Also, spending time with people who like us for who we are is helpful. Surround yourself with positive influences and avoid those who are constantly being negative. Being around critical people most of the time or withdrawing from genuine social contact can have a detrimental effect on how we feel about ourselves and our self-confidence.
5. Positive affirmations
Use positive self-talk and affirmations to reprogram your thinking. "I am a good and worthwhile person". Way too often we are uncaring and unsupportive of ourselves. We can be very generous and loving towards others, but sometimes we forget to be loving and kind to ourselves. Monitor your self-talk and eliminate negative
6. Rewards and support
Give yourself rewards as you practice building your self-esteem. It doesn't really matter what the reward is as long as it is something you value. It may be a night out, a bar of chocolate, or watching your favourite TV programme.
If you can, tell a good friend what you are doing; their encouragement and feedback on the changes you are making could be invaluable support.
Workbook for developing Assertiveness Skills
Develop greater Self-confidence and Quiz
Online Self-confidence Workbook
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Should you feel you need further help with your confidence and self-esteem building contact Student Services for individual counselling.