Man's Search For Meaning

By

Viktor Frankl

My Thoughts

Split into two parts. The first is a moving account of Frankl's time in Nazi concentration camps. The second is an explanation of how these experiences led him to develop the theory of logotherapy — a belief that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning in life.

Highlights & Summary Notes

This was an unrelenting struggle for daily bread and for life itself, for one’s own sake or for that of a good friend.

Experiences in a Concentration Camp

Every man was controlled by one thought only: to keep himself alive for the family waiting for him at home, and to save his friends.

I saw the plain truth and did what marked the culminating point of the first phase of my psychological reaction: I struck out my whole former life.

I had been convinced that there were certain things I just could not do: I could not sleep without this or I could not live with that or the other.

If someone now asked of us the truth of Dostoevski’s statement that flatly defines man as a being who can get used to anything, we would reply, “Yes, a man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.”

The prisoner of Auschwitz, in the first phase of shock, did not fear death. Even the gas chambers lost their horrors for him after the first few days—after all, they spared him the act of committing suicide.

We all had once been or had fancied ourselves to be “somebody.” Now we were treated like complete nonentities. (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?)

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.
“There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” — Dostoevski

It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man—his courage and hope, or lack of them—and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

Apart from the moral deformity resulting from the sudden release of mental pressure, there were two other fundamental experiences which threatened to damage the character of the liberated prisoner: bitterness and disillusionment when he returned to his former life.

Logotherapy in a Nutshell

In comparison with psychoanalysis, logotherapy is a method less retrospective and less introspective.

Logotherapy focuses rather on the future, that is to say, on the meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future. At the same time, logotherapy defocuses all the vicious-circle formations and feedback mechanisms which play such a great role in the development of neuroses. Thus, the typical self-centeredness of the neurotic is broken up instead of being continually fostered and reinforced.

The Will to Meaning

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalisation” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.

Existential Frustration

The term “existential” may be used in three ways:

  • To refer to (1) existence itself, i.e., the specifically human mode of being;
  • (2) the meaning of existence;
  • and (3) the striving to find a concrete meaning in personal existence, that is to say, the will to meaning.

Noögenic Neuroses

Denotes anything pertaining to the specifically human dimension.

Noögenic neuroses do not emerge from conflicts between drives and instincts but rather from existential problems.

Suffering may well be a human achievement, especially if the suffering grows out of existential frustration.

A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.

There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” — Nietzsche

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.

The Existential Vacuum

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. Such security, like Paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices. 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).

Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money. In other cases, the place of frustrated will to meaning is taken by the will to pleasure.

The Meaning of Life

What matters is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.

Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfilment.

The Essence of Existence

Nothing stimulates a man’s sense of responsibleness more than this maxim, which invites him to imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may yet be changed and amended. Such a precept confronts him with life’s finiteness as well as the finality of what he makes out of both his life and himself.

“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

Logotherapy tries to make the patient fully aware of his own responsibleness; therefore, it must leave to him the option for what, to what, or to whom he understands himself to be responsible.

It is, therefore, up to the patient to decide whether he should interpret his life task as being responsible to society or to his own conscience.

The true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.

It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualises himself.

Self-actualisation is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.

According to logotherapy, we can discover this meaning in life in three different ways:

  • (1) by creating a work or doing a deed;
  • (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone;
  • and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

The Meaning of Love

In logotherapy, love is not interpreted as a mere epiphenomenon of sexual drives and instincts in the sense of a so-called sublimation.

The Meaning of Suffering

When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves.

In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

It is one of the basic tenets of logotherapy that man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life.

In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end.

A Logodrama

After a while I proceeded to another question, this time addressing myself to the whole group. The question was whether an ape which was being used to develop poliomyelitis serum, and for this reason punctured again and again, would ever be able to grasp the meaning of its suffering. Unanimously, the group replied that of course it would not; with its limited intelligence, it could not enter into the world of man, i.e., the only world in which the meaning of its suffering would be understandable. Then I pushed forward with the following question: “And what about man? Are you sure that the human world is a terminal point in the evolution of the cosmos? Is it not conceivable that there is still another dimension, a world beyond man’s world; a world in which the question of an ultimate meaning of human suffering would find an answer?”

Life’s Transitoriness

The only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but as soon as they are actualised, they are rendered realities at that very moment; they are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved from transitoriness.

Logotherapy, keeping in mind the essential transitoriness of human existence, is not pessimistic but rather activistic.

On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back.

What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? “No, thank you,” he will think. “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered.

Logotherapy as a Technique

Ironically enough, in the same way that fear brings to pass what one is afraid of, likewise a forced intention makes impossible what one forcibly wishes.

Logotherapy bases its technique called “paradoxical intention” on the twofold fact that fear brings about that which one is afraid of, and that hyper-intention makes impossible what one wishes.

Gordon W. Allport’s book, The Individual and His Religion: “The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure.”

As soon as the patient stops fighting his obsessions and instead tries to ridicule them by dealing with them in an ironical way—by applying paradoxical intention—the vicious circle is cut, the symptom diminishes and finally atrophies.

Psychiatry Rehumanised

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining.