A Review of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning
For three years under Nazi rule during the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl was a prisoner of the Kaufering, Dachau, Theresienstadt, and Auschwitz concentration camps. Frankl experienced unimaginable trauma and witnessed horrific tragedies, including the death of his parents, only brother, and his wife (Frankl thought his wife died after the war) at the Auschwitz camp. Out of the suffering endured as a prisoner, Viktor Frankl developed a book whose fundamental point was survival. Despite the numerous heart-rending incidences Frankl experienced, Man’s Search for Meaning focuses more on how to survive the most challenging life situations and little on the torturous events often spoke about, of concentration camps.
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In the first part of the book, the pivotal point is to answer the question “How was everyday life in the concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” (Frankl, 2006, p. 3). In an attempt to provide clarity and answer to this question, Frankl gave numerous examples of the once hopeless prisoners being restored with hope and faith, no matter how hard the journey was. The purpose of each anecdote was to highlight Frankl’s point of the importance of finding meaning amid unbearable circumstances. Frankl contribute his survival to finding personal meaning in his circumstance which in turn gave him a will to live.
Viktor Frankl’s passion for psychotherapy was evident by his persistence in practicing a profession taken from him by the Nazi regime. That he derived his purpose while facing the horrid conditions of the Nazi concentration camps is a testament to his absolute faith in his own theories. Essentially, Viktor Frankl was his own patient.
The book ends by focusing on Frankl’s therapeutic philosophy. Victor Frankl called his theory logotherapy. Frankl coined his therapeutic doctrine from the Greek word “logos”, which translates, “meaning”. Frankl’s approach centers around the meaning of human existence and man’s search for meaning (pp. 98-99).
This paper will explore how Viktor Frankl has influenced the counseling profession, compare the experiences and subsequent viewpoints of Viktor Frankl with my own, and my own personal thoughts and perceptions of Man’s Search for Meaning.
Viktor Frankl’s Influence on Counseling
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychologist developed logotherapy out of his experience as a prisoner at Nazi concentration camps. Logotherapy, also known as the “Third Viennese School of Psychology” according to Frankl focuses on the meaning of human existence and one’s pursuit of such meaning. Frankl contends that his theoretical doctrine is different than psychoanalysis; being less retrospective and less introspective (Frankl, 2006). Instead logotherapy focuses on the future that can be had by searching for meaning in even the harshest of circumstances. That man’s outlook and attitude can determine his place within the realm of his given possibilities. These views laid the foundation of logotherapy, amidst the conflicting viewpoints of both Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler which had previously influenced Frankl.
After studying under Freud and finding his teaching a little myopic, Frankl found the teachings of Adler’s individual psychology more to his liking. He agreed with many of Adler’s theories as they both emphasized the theory of self-transcendence. Where Adler fell short in Frankl’s eyes was the neglect of the spiritual dimension of human psychology (Devoe, 2012). Where Alfred Adler and Viktor Frankl’s trains of thought diverged was in the three life tasks. Adler stressed work, love, and society as a will to power, whereas Frankl’s theories hinged on work, love, suffering, and life/death as a will to meaning. These ideas were the cornerstone of logotherapy as we see today.
Dr. Frankl’s impact can be seen throughout all modern facets of psychotherapy. His explanation of “paradoxical intention” can be seen as an extension and translation of the cognitive behavior therapy practices; exposure and flooding. This therapy technique seeks to distance oneself from the situation through the use of humor or absurdity and thereby induce an attitudinal change towards the anxiety causing intrusive thought or behavior (Ameli & Dattilio, 2013).
The ideal that, as human beings, with a fully evolved consciousness and the ability to transcend not only the intrinsic, instinctual responses believed to be driving forces for the human psyche but also the adverse environmental influence present in everyday life. Frankl’s transition from Freud’s teachings then on to the teachings of Adler almost seem to mirror his own theory that beyond the biological and the psychological there is a third dimension to the human experience, the Noological. The Noological dimension is the desire of human beings to find and work towards fulfilling a purpose in life (Cite Inquiries). The life tasks of work and love when measured against the inevitable specters of suffering and life/death is the impetus for seeking and fulfilling a purpose.
This break in what was the dominant theories at the time shows an insightfulness that can only come from using this theory in a personal way. “Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything”, the title of one of Frankl’s books (translated from German) (Marseille, 1997) is a testament to the tenacity of a beleaguered spirit that finds the determination and willpower to exist through the fulfillment of purpose and achieve resolution of an existential crisis (i.e. survivors’ guilt). The suggestion of a force outside the physical and psychological points to another source that, when neglected, might be the source of emotional distress.
Further validity is lent to Frankl’s theories by studies into the rates of retirement mortality rates, the occurrences of depression, addiction, and suicide among the unemployed or underemployed population. With the rise of recently recognized addictions such as sexual addiction and even video game addiction. Frankl’s supposition that each generation suffers from their own maladaptive behaviors, or things that human beings try to use to fill the theoretical “existential vacuum” (Frankl, 2006). Even the ideas that one Hyper-intention and hyper- reflection can be seen mirrored in the ideas of “self- fulfilled prophecy” the idea that the fear of an outcome can cause one to behave unconsciously in a way that causes the unwanted outcome to manifest.
Logotherapy is used in conjunction with other cognitive behavior therapies and through guided reflections to find a path towards leading a purposeful life. The dichotomy with other established means of psychotherapy. Victor Frankl’s theories and desire to take an individualistic approach to psychotherapy is at the forefront of what modern therapy is evolving into (Ameli & Dattilio, 2013). Just as mankind evolves into a new creature, influenced by the impact of our ever-changing environment and the rapidly changing landscape of our socio-economic systems the need for a focus on the person and not the mechanics of mental disease is apparent. A focus on a means to persist through and despite adversity, that is representative of a person’s choice in attitude and decision to not let adversity define our experience but to extract a useful medium for advancing our particular journey from it.
Frankl’s View of Behavior Compared to My Own
As I sat down and began reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, I pondered what I would intellectually and or emotionally acquire from a memoir of atrocities so far away from anything I have ever experienced. I have no real experience in the scale of brutality that this man faced. The horrors that he (and other prisoners) faced would hopefully far outweigh any tragedy that could ostensibly happen to myself, or anyone I may know for that matter.
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The only anchor that I have to identify with that gives me insight into Frankl’s perspective is to measure things with relativity. I mean to say that in my time, the dehumanizing of minorities through racism, loss of a loved one, and being intimately and spiritually connected with someone serving time in prison are examples of suffering that I personally experienced.
What comes to mind as I read Dr. Frankl’s memoir is the famous scene in Hamlet when he asks the question “To be or not to be”. Human beings, when faced with suffering and the looming inevitability of death must ask themselves this very question. Dr. Frankl often asked his patients the same thing when he inquired why they choose not to commit suicide (Frankl, 2006, p. Preface). Each of us individually must ask ourselves at what point does the cost of living become too high and at what point does a person’s tethers to this life become too frail to bear.
Dr. Frankl’s theoretical doctrine to me, simply put, is the application of hope in our daily lives. I find that it has permeated the collective consciousness of society and finds us by way of a million clichés and quotes. Beyond the lustful urges of the subconscious mind, and the desire for status and ambition; the desire to have a reason, a purpose to persist through suffering and to overcome adversity is the strongest pull to remain living. The vitality lent to us by having a place in this universe is almost gravitational to the deepest part of our spiritual selves. This drive for purpose grounds humanity like few forces could. When faced by the deepest and darkest despair this “noological dimension” holds all the other parts of our psyche together. Fredriech Niestche is attributed with saying “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How” (Frankl, 2006). These tenets of Frankl’s are some that I whole-heartedly agree with and find the most agreeable to my core values and beliefs.
There are relatively few of Frankl’s teachings that I disagree with. Mainly I find conflict with the thought he expressed “That the more you strive towards a goal the more it will elude you”; this thought seems counter-intuitive to me. That success or happiness only ensues in the natural process of pursuing your purpose in life seems too serendipitous. I believe that sometimes you need to work to create your own success and happiness and even though most people are born within a certain set of circumstances that doesn’t always determine where they end up. Plenty of choices are limited in life but the boundaries are evolving as fast as our society and the only way to press these bounds is by determination and hard work and the idea that success will one day show up at one’s doorstep without one seeking to achieve it is a little too optimistic for me. I believe that in some cases the pursuit of success and happiness could in fact, be the “Why” in a person’s existence.
Without reservation “Man’s Search for Meaning” is a harrowing account of one of the most darkest times in mankind’s history. A memoir of this typewould be a memorable read when viewed as the accounting of a groundbreaking psychologist, who went on to practice the lessons that he drew from his own firsthand experience, elevates both the written work and the credibility of the author I was drawn in by vivid recall of Dr. Frankl. The presence of mind that he maintained while recounting his tragic journey is one, I find unimaginable for myself. I felt this was a man that truly put his desire to have his work help others and enrich people’s lives take precedence over any personal agony that he felt. Which is truly admirable.
Of all the unforgettable parts the book I find the beginning scenes of his admission and the consequent actions of himself and fellow prisoners very telling about the mind of a person thrown into such an absolutely unimaginable situation. That Dr. Frankl had the presence of mind to mentally document the stages (albeit informally) of acceptance of his own and his fellow prisoners plight highlights a keen sense of observation. The determination and resolve to survive seems like a monumental commitment to a life that was systematically stripped of all outside meaning. That poignant truth is telling of his absolute his belief in work simply because he knows that when all else fails one’s meaning, and purpose must reside within oneself. This realization is one that will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Another section that will remain in my mind and heart is a passage that deals with two men, both contemplating suicides. One man was a father and the idea of his child waiting for him is what sustained him, the other was a scientist with a lifetime’s unfinished work that only he alone was able to finish. The importance this held for me was the realization that both things held the same weight in the minds of the two men. The drive to create was just as valid as the drive to nurture a beloved child. As someone who has no children in a family where being fruitful is highly associated with fulfillment, I realize that my life has no less meaning than someone who does. My need to succeed and my desire to help others is what sustains me. Even more, it gave me a deeper desire to complete my legacy, which I alone can do.
- Ameli, M., & Dattilio, F. M. (2013). Enhancing Cognitive Behavior Therapy With Logotherapy: Techniques for Clinical Practice. Psychotherapy, 387-391.
- Devoe, D. (2012). Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy: The Search For Purpose and Meaning. Inquiries, 2-3.
- Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Marseille, J. (1997). The Spritual Dimension in Logotherapy: Viktor Frankl’s Contribution To Transpersonal Psychology. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1-12.
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