Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. His ideas on finding meaning amidst suffering revolutionized psychology. He established the field called logotherapy that focused on mankind’s core search for purpose and meaning.
Frankl’s inspirational life story and profound concepts continue to resonate today.
Born in 1905 in Vienna, Frankl earned his MD and PhD from the University of Vienna in the 1920s-30s. As a psychiatrist, he specialized in suicide prevention and treating depression.
But Frankl’s promising career was upended when the Nazis came to power. In 1942, Frankl, his wife Tilly, and his family were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Over three nightmarish years, Frankl was subjected to dehumanizing conditions at Auschwitz, Kaufering and Türkheim. His wife, mother, father, and brother all perished, leaving Frankl completely alone.
Amidst the suffering, Frankl observed his fellow prisoners struggle with hopelessness. He began informally counselling them and realized that those focused on finding meaning and purpose were most resilient.
Frankl drew upon his determination to survive and formulated a new philosophy of psychology based on the human quest for meaning.
After being liberated in 1945, Frankl returned to Vienna and published his famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” In this memoir and psychological study, he outlined his theory of logotherapy. Logotherapy posited that the primary motivation in life is not power, pleasure or material goods, but rather fulfilment through meaning. This meaning could be discovered in all circumstances, even extreme suffering.
Frankl’s radical concepts, forged in the crucible of the Holocaust, resonated with the post-war public. He became a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School, and director of Vienna’s Neurological Policlinic. Over the next forty years until his death in 1992, Frankl lectured worldwide about logotherapy and penned over 30 books. His work significantly shaped humanistic psychology.
Frankls Key Concepts
The existential vacuum—a feeling of emptiness and meaninglessness. Logotherapy helps patients fill this void and find purpose.
The will to meaning—positing that finding meaning is the primary human drive, more important than drives like pleasure.
Paradoxical intention—overcoming anxiety and phobias by intentionally exaggerating the feared outcome.
Dereflection—redirecting focus away from your problems towards service to others.
Frankls Legacy—a Life of Purpose
Frankl’s legacy continues to inspire people confronting adversity. His central message—that life always has meaning if we have the courage to seek it – remains a beacon of hope for humanity. His existential therapy approach serves as an invitation to explore the deepest questions of human existence—offering a pathway to understand oneself and lead a life of purpose.
By asking essential questions, individuals can carve out a life filled with meaning, purpose, and authenticity.
His book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” is a testimony of his life and how he put his experiences into a broader context.
In a world where external influences often dictate choices, Frankl’s humanistic approach empowers people to take control of their lives. It serves as a reminder that our lives are a canvas, and we are the artists, free to create a masterpiece filled with meaning.
Few psychologists combined rigorous theory with such passion and empathy for the suffering individual. Frankl’s life story is a testament to the human capacity to rise above even the bleakest circumstances.
Frankl believed that the primary human drive is not pleasure but the pursuit of meaning.
What Is Existential Therapy?
Existential therapy focuses on existential questions that arise from human experiences. The focus typically involves topics like freedom, responsibility, meaning, and isolation. Existential therapy encourages individuals to think about their existence, choices, and the meaning of their lives.
By thinking about the most substantial questions, we allow ourselves to focus on what really matters instead of being caught up in the trivial. It offers a holistic perspective that allows individuals to free themselves from the daily chatter and align their values to what is meaningful in their lives.
Frankl’s approach places responsibility on the individual to create meaning and to make choices that align with authentic living. Therapy often involves helping clients recognize and confront anxieties related to mortality, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.
Existential Therapy in Real Life
Consider a woman in her mid-30s, feeling stuck in her career and experiencing a lack of fulfilment. Through existential therapy, she begins to ask profound questions about her existence, her values, and what truly matters to her.
She realizes that her current career does not align with her authentic self, and she’s been avoiding her passion for helping others. With guidance from her therapist, she confronts her fears and decides to change careers to become a social worker. This significant change brings a newfound sense of purpose and satisfaction in her life.
Why we should ask the tough questions
People can benefit from exploring existential questions as it helps them understand their values, purpose, and authenticity.
Some benefits include:
- Enhanced self-awareness
- Emotional healing through confronting existential anxieties
- A deeper connection with one’s values and beliefs
- A sense of empowerment in shaping one’s life
Gain self-awareness, clarify your values, and align your actions with your authentic self. Take charge of your decisions, make intentional choices, and find fulfilment in your unique journey. Ask yourself these questions and implement Frankls therapy approach into your life:
- What brings you joy and a sense of fulfilment in your life? Frankl would ask this question to help patients identify and connect with activities, relationships, or experiences that bring them genuine happiness and a sense of purpose. By understanding what brings joy, individuals can align their lives with these sources of fulfilment.
- What challenges or obstacles have you overcome in the past? By asking this question, Frankl aimed to help patients recognize their inner strength and resilience. Reflecting on past challenges and triumphs can provide a sense of empowerment and remind individuals of their ability to overcome difficulties.
- What do you value most in life? Frankl would ask this question to encourage patients to reflect on their core values and beliefs. Understanding one’s values can guide decision-making and ensure that actions align with what truly matters to them.
- What are your passions and interests? By exploring this question, Frankl aimed to help patients identify activities or pursuits that ignite their enthusiasm. Engaging in activities aligned with one’s passions can bring a sense of purpose and fulfilment.
- How do you handle adversity or setbacks? This question allows individuals to reflect on their coping mechanisms and resilience when faced with challenges. Understanding one’s response to adversity can help develop healthier coping strategies and build emotional strength.
- What relationships in your life are meaningful to you? Frankl recognized the importance of meaningful connections with others. By asking this question, he aimed to help patients identify and nurture relationships that bring support, love, and a sense of belonging.
- What are your aspirations and goals? By exploring this question, Frankl encouraged patients to articulate their dreams and aspirations. Having clear goals can provide a sense of direction and motivation in life.
- How do you find meaning in difficult or painful experiences? Frankl emphasised the importance of finding meaning even in challenging circumstances. By asking this question, he prompted patients to reflect on how they can derive lessons or personal growth from difficult experiences.
- What legacy or impact do you want to leave behind? This question invites individuals to contemplate their long-term impact and the mark they want to leave on the world. It encourages them to consider how they can contribute to something greater than themselves.
And, the most important question of them all—and one to ask yourself daily:
How can you live a life of meaning and purpose?
This fundamental question challenges individuals to reflect on their overall life philosophy and how they can infuse meaning into their day-to-day existence. It encourages them to take responsibility for creating a life filled with purpose and authenticity.
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Viktor E. Frankl