Viktor Frankl: Logotherapy and Man’s Search for Meaning

“The truth is that as the struggle for survival has subsided, the question has emerged: survival for what? Even more people today have the means to live but no meaning to live for.” (Viktor Frankl, The Unheard Cry for Meaning)

These are the words of Victor Frankl, a 20th century Viennese psychiatrist most famous for his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”. In that book Frankl details his time spent as a Nazi concentration camp prisoner and reflects on how one can find meaning in life even in the harshest of conditions.

Frankl, whose interest in the topic of life’s meaning began as a teenager, came to the realization that while ever more people in Western nations were living lives of material comfort, all too many lived in a detrimental psychological state he called the existential vacuum. As he explained:

“The existential vacuum is a widespread phenomenon of the 20th century. This is understandable; it may be due to a twofold loss which man has had to undergo since he became a truly human being. At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal’s behavior is imbedded and by which it is secured. . .In addition to this, however, man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

The preponderance of people living lives absent of meaning led to the emergence of what Frankl called the “mass neurotic triad”. This was a term he coined to describe the three most common symptoms associated with lives lived in the existential vacuum, namely depression, aggression, and addiction.

To help counter the dire effects that accompany a life without meaning Frankl founded a school of psychiatry called logotherapy which in Frankl’s words,

“considers man as a being whose main concern consists of fulfilling a meaning and in actualizing values, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

In the remainder of this video we will outline some of the key insights of logotherapy, insights Frankl believed could greatly assist one in living a more fulfilling life.

A key tenet of logotherapy is that the pursuit of meaning, or what Frankl sometimes referred to as the will to meaning, is the primary motivational factor in humans. This can be contrasted to other schools of psychiatry which maintain that the pursuit of pleasure (Freud) or the will to power (Adler) are the primary factors. According to Frankl, it is when individuals fail to find meaning in their lives that they turn to the dogged pursuit of pleasure or power in the false belief that doing so will fill the void that an absence of meaning has left in them.

For those who decide to pursue a more meaningful existence, Frankl emphasized that doing so did not mean searching for the ultimate meaning of life, as he put it:

“This ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man…What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.”(Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

While the ultimate meaning of life is unknowable, Frankl held that each person had the opportunity to realize meaning in their life at a personal level, and so doing would greatly improve the quality of their life.

It should be noted that Frankl did not believe that individuals created such meaning, rather he believed that it was discovered and was present in every living moment whether one was aware of it or not, as he put it:

“I am convinced that in the final analysis, there is no situation that does not contain within it the seed of a meaning.” (Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

In order to discover and realize these personal seeds of meaning, Frankl suggested that for most people a change of attitude is required:

“We [need] to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who [are] being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”(Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

Frankl stressed that as unique individuals, meaning will present itself in different ways to each person. Each of us face different situations in our lives, some of which are more, and some of which are less, under our control and influence. Frankl’s belief was that no matter what fate brought, if one took appropriate action and adopted the right attitude to the situation, a meaningful life could be realized. In a passage in Man’s Search for Meaning Frankl nicely distinguished how actualizing personal meaning differs from the search for abstract answers to life’s meaning:

“To put the question [of the meaning of life] in general terms would be comparable to the question posed to a chess champion: “Tell me, master, what is the best move in the world?” There simply is no such thing as the best or even a good move apart from a particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent. The same holds for human existence. One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.”(Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

As Frankl notes often the best way to live a life rich with meaning is to find one’s unique vocation. Nothing contributes more to the feeling of a meaningless existence than boredom, and nothing counters feelings of boredom better than having a specific mission to carry out in one’s life. In this respect, Frankl was fond of quoting Nietzsche’s famous passage that “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Finding one’s ‘why’ was, according to Frankl, the best way to live a meaningful and therefore fulfilling life.

However, for some adopting a vocation and striving to achieve the goals associated with it is beyond their reach. Instead some people face situations which they have little control over, situations which can cause immense suffering, such as being diagnosed with a terminal illness or, as in Frankl’s case, being imprisoned in a concentration camp. But even in such situations, as Frankl discovered first-hand, one has the opportunity to find meaning. And we will conclude this video with a passage which reflects this important belief of Frankl’s:

“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation. . .we are challenged to change ourselves.”(Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

Recommended Readings:
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Prisoners of Out Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work by Alex Pattakos
The Unheard Cry for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
The Will to Meaning by Viktor Frankl
The Doctor and the Soul by Viktor Frankl