Logotherapy as Viktor Frankl’s Guiding Principle of Life
North Park University
Psychology and its many branches strive towards improving the quality of life for the individual. Logotherapy is one of the practices that primarily focuses on the human condition—that is, the search for understanding of one’s life, purpose, and meaning. Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, claims that when the meaning of life is lost, there is no hope in living. He relates a purpose to living, to there being a purpose to suffering (Frankl, 1984, p.9). Frankl calls this idea of finding meaning as it applies to psychology and therapy: logotherapy. Frankl’s life experiences led him to believe that a person can gain unconditional meaning through transcendence of any given life situation (Frankl, 2000, p.122).
Before the Nazis deported him to his first concentration camp, Viktor Frankl, a small Austrian man, had already written most of his first book, The Doctor and the Soul. During his two years in that camp, Frankl continued to secretly work on his manuscript. Just before his transfer to Auschwitz, he attempted to keep the papers by sewing them into the lining of his jacket. However, his coat was confiscated for a lesser cloth, and all of the pages were lost (Klingberg, 2001). It was this very collection of writings that indirectly became the basis for logotherapy.
Frankl was a major voice in humanistic psychology. He moved away from psychoanalysis and behaviorism and moved towards a less deterministic and more optimistic view of human nature. The “human potentials movement” asserted that humans have the right to personal happiness. To Frankl however, this was a way to brush past the death and guilt that come with being human—to ignore one’s responsibilities to others and the world, by looking past the fact that all human beings are capable of being extraordinarily good and extraordinarily evil (Klingberg, 2001).
When Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna, Austria in 1905, the city was still one of the majestic capitals of Europe. It was this same year that Sigmund Freud had published his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, and Alfred Adler was in close association with psychoanalysis. Adler was living in Leopolstadt, with Frankl directly across the street. Another resident of Leopolstadt at the time, was twenty-two year old Adolf Hitler. When he left for Munich to begin his political rise to power, Frankl was only eight (Klingberg, 2001).
By the time Frankl was fifteen, he was already formulating his own philosophies. He began corresponding with Freud, and when he was seventeen, sent him a paper he had written for school. It contained a great deal of psychoanalytic content. Freud sent his paper onward to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis and it was published two years later in 1924. Frankl was drawn to Freud’s psychoanalytic approaches, but when he met Alfred Adler as a senior in high school, his writing shifted schools (Klingberg, 2001). Frankl though, eventually moved away from reductionism.
In 1930 Viktor Frankl received his MD degree and continued with his practices in neurology and psychiatry. He took a job at the University Psychiatry Clinic and was allowed to practice psychotherapy on his own. He tried to forget what he had learned from Freud and Adler, and ended up just listening to everything that his patients would tell him. Frankl would then point out self-curing mechanisms that the patients unknowingly told him, and ask them how they were able to overcome such adverse situations? He would then encourage his patients to go and attack their fears and expect to suffer from it, and by taking this rather courageous and somewhat humorous step, Frankl developed the idea of logotherapy—that instead of fighting a fear, welcoming it and thus deflating the anxiety (Klingberg, 2001). Frankl’s unique use of humor allowed his patients to transcend through their predicaments.
“By 1938, Viktor Frankl’s promising career was sidetracked by Nazi policy” (Klingberg, 2001). Vienna’s tranquility was long gone, and the Nazi regime dominated the Austrian capital. The horror of persecution of the Jews and other “enemies” of the Third Reich were without limits. By 1941 there was virtually no way for the Frankl family to leave Austria. On September 22nd or 23rd, 1942 Viktor and his family were notified to pack for “processing” and then for transportation to the East. They were first sent to Theresienstadt in northwest Czechoslovakia. Less than six months after their arrival, Viktor’s father Gabriel passed away. While in the camp, Frankl worked and applied his own logotherapeutic technique when he could. In October of 1944, Viktor was listed for transport. His wife Tilly volunteered to be with him on this next journey—a 250 mile journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
It was at this first unloading and selection process that Frankl’s manuscript of The Doctor and the Soul was stripped from him. When he put on his “new” coat, in the pocket he found a small scrap of paper from the previous owner. It was a single torn page from a Hebrew prayer book , containing the main Jewish prayer the Shema Yisrael, or the commandment to “Love thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy might,” (Klingberg, 2001, p. 133). Frankl took this as a commandment to say “yes” to life, despite the pain and suffering that one may endure. “Thus in that single page which re-placed the many pages of my manuscript I saw a symbolic call henceforth to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper,” (Klingberg, 2001, p. 133).
Frankl struck out his former life and let fate, or providence take control (Frankl, 1984). He knew that he had no control over his life situations, but instead could only change his response to life. “The last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way, (Frankl, 1984). Through the nights Frankl spent in Birkenau, Dachau, Kaufering and finally in Turkheim he used his life’s work and philosophies to stay alive—to find a reason to stay alive. Despite the death surrounding him, Frankl would think of his wife and of his book. He endured the horror of the holocaust only because he found meaning in his suffering. Little speeches he gave to himself, parts of his book that he was able to recall, new philosophies that needed to survive kept him strong until the day of his liberation Friday, April 27th 1945 (Frankl, 1984). These philosophies that gave him life were then composed into Man’s Search for Meaning.
The first concept of logotherapy, is finding meaning in one’s life. Each person must find this purpose for themselves and it will be different for everyone. Frankl uses his experiences in the concentration camps to illustrate his extreme discovery of this reason for existence. Everyone needs a motivation or a reason to do anything. Without this reason we wouldn’t see a point to suffer through the pains of life. He labels the concept logotherapy “from two Greek words therapeuo—to heal or to make whole—and logos. Logos has many meanings in Greek, including word and statement, but Frankl chose it because it also means reason, meaning. So logotherapy is ‘healing through meaning’ or ‘becoming whole through meaning’,” (Klingberg, 2001, pp. 2–3). This therapeutic approach focuses on the future and on the idea that the primary motivation in life is to find personal purpose (Frankl, 1984). It simply tries to make the person find their responsibility to living. Once a person realizes that there is meaning and a purpose for their suffering, they can begin to heal. They have a responsibility to heal and achieve their potential. In The Will to Meaning, Frankl illustrates the choice a person makes about whether to pursue meaning, or to live in despair.
While many other therapies seek to find a balance or equilibrium, logotherapy believes that mental health is based on a certain amount of tension between what one has accomplished and what one could potentially accomplish (Frankl, 1984). The tension gives a person a meaning to keep trying and keeping reaching toward a goal that isn’t impossible but is in fact achievable with work. It is this will to meaning that enables humans to choose how they respond to adversity. Frankl sets humans apart by touching on the characteristics that make us distinctly human—humor and one’s ability to transcend above oneself (Frankl, 1988).
Frankl believes that man is in a constant battle to find inner peace—to alleviate the stress that life brings (Frankl, 1988). During this battle, a person is trying to find the meaning to their life, and a meaning to the suffering that comes. In this pursuit of meaning, Frankl feels that happiness and contentment with life will be a side effect (Frankl, 1988). Some believe that the search for meaning would be an easy one, but more often than not it brings hardships, disappointment and strain. This loss of meaning is what Frankl refers to as the existential vacuum, or the frustration of the will to meaning (Frankl, 1988). The goal of logotherapy is to help the client deal with this existential vacuum and to find purpose in their life rather than giving up their will, by living on apathy (Frankl, 1988).
In the text by Murphy and Dillon (2003) Interviewing in Action: Relationship, Process, and Change, the idea of helping people to relieve the tension in their life is broken down into multiple steps. In this counseling process, the clinician uses multiple skills to establish a good and empathetic rapport, so that they can help the client problem solve (Murphy & Dillon p. 52). This clinical relationship is more facilitation and guidance rather than a question and answer time. The clinician helps to support the client as they are telling their story, and seeking meaning in the trials they are dealing with (Murphy & Dillon p. 87). Empathy plays a large role in helping support the client, and also helps the exploration and elaboration of the problem (Murphy & Dillon p. 88). Frankl (1988) feels that when it comes to psychotherapy, it’s not necessarily the technique used that is most important, but rather the general feeling behind it. Counseling recognizes that when people are in the world, they are sometimes entangled in the world, and need help finding their way through. Logotherapy hopes to aid people in reconstructing their view of the world through transcendence, humor, or even tangible help (Frankl, 1988).
When a person strives to reach their fullest potential, they look for their ultimate meaning. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s search for the ultimate meaning reveals ideas in regards to attaining the ultimate meaning for one’s life, and the possibility of tapping into and taking responsibility for the desires of our unconscious that bring significance to our everyday existence. There is a fine line between conscious and the unconscious and when a force brings a desire across that line to our conscious, we can choose to become responsible for that drive as a means to fulfill our existence (Frankl, 2000).
Humankind has drives and instincts that come from our unconscious, but it is when we take responsibility that our existence becomes authentic. It is when we are in control rather than when we are being controlled that we become fully human (Frankl, 2000). Our meaning is centered around our core, which is in the depths of our unconscious. This “depth” is the spirit that lies hidden in the unconscious. Because this means of existence, our spiritual basis, lies so far inside of us, it cannot be fully reflected on (Frankl, 2000). Frankl explains that the depth of the human spirit, which is the raison d’être of our lives cannot be in the conscious just as the origin of sight that is the blind spot cannot be seen (Frankl, 2000)
Since our essence cannot be fully reflected upon because it is in the unconscious, Frankl views it as our responsibility to recognize when it, the depths of our spirit, moves into our conscious. To look at things such as love and artistic drive that Frankl mentions (and also used to stay alive in the camps), leads one to believe that these are from the irrational depths of the unconscious, and when we focus on them, we realize that they come from a place in us that can’t ever be fully focused on. One can, however, grasp their presence and appreciate the artist’s creation or the love aimed at the hidden qualities in another person (Frankl, 2000). Meaning always subsists—it just needs to be found and noticed.
Our conscious can be the method to which we discover our meanings. It can help us to arrive at things that have been present yet asleep in ourselves (Frankl, 1997, p.114). Logotherapy focuses on the will to meaning, a meaning in suffering and a freedom of this will. These make up the human existence and greatly impact the potential meaning that we have in the living situations that we can both control and cannot (Frankl, 2000).
Tolerance is not the goal of any person’s life—we want to be happy. “What is my purpose?” is a question that undoubtedly crossed everyone’s mind at one point. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs after all of our basic needs are taken care of, we strive towards self-actualization (Weiten, 2002). He argues that that we have an innate need to reach our potential to find our meaning. People would rather search for ultimate meaning than believe that there is no purpose to existence. It’s not that we seek happiness as our purpose—it becomes the side effect of living out our purpose. Frankl believes that the effect of serving a cause or loving another person can bring happiness out by itself (Frankl, 2000). This happiness is produced through fulfillment of potential.
A doctor cannot give his or her patients meaning, but they can however, be an example of a personal commitment to search for truth in life. If we believe that truth will give us meaning, won’t this search help to give us the opportunity to be responsible for fulfilling this drive for existence? Thus logotherapy does not attempt to give meaning to the patient, but to rather facilitate the discovery and support the choice for responsibility (Frankl, 2000).
Each man’s life is unique and will in turn have a unique meaning and purpose to it. Viktor Frankl feels that even though each life will eventually be over forever, there are opportunities given to reach fulfillment (Frankl, 1988). The human condition—the striving to find these meanings, is shared between humans across society. Through the loss of everything he loved and knew—his family, home, work and life before the war, Viktor Frankl was able to find a reason to continue on. He was able to transcend his situation, and find meaning in his existence. Logotherapy is based on three concepts that make up an individual. These are the freedom of will, the will to meaning, and the meaning of life. We will not find peace when we strive for happiness—it is when we strive for purpose, and transcend our adversities that happiness and meaning come as a side-effect.
Dillon, C. & Murphy, B. C. (2003). Interviewing in action: Relationship, process, and change (2nd ed.), Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy (3rd ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc..
Frankl, V. E. (1988). The will to meaning: Foundations and applications of logotherapy. New York: Meridian Published by the Penguin Group.
Frankl, V. E. (2000). Man’s search for ultimate meaning. New York: Perseus Publishing.
Klingberg, H., Jr. (2001). When life calls out to us: The love and lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl. New York: Random House, Inc..
Weiten, W., (2002). Psychology themes and variations(5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Group.