Viktor Frankl and the Human Search for Meaning

Maritha Pottenger

Viktor Frankl’s base is Adlerian, but his imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps had profound impact on his theories. Singled out among his incoming group, by an older, experienced prisoner as the most likely to die, Frankl nevertheless managed to survive, and even grow and develop in a living hell.

He attributes his survival to finding meaning in life: day to day helping other inmates medically and psychologically and a long-range goal of living to re-write a book whose manuscript was destroyed at Auschwitz.


Frankl calls his approach Logotherapy (from the Greek “logos” which he says can mean both “meaning” and “spirit”). Logotherapy bears some resemblance to Psychosynthesis in its emphasis on the reality of the spiritual. In many ways, Logotherapy is a life philosophy as well as a healing approach.

Like any formulation which attempts to explain life, human nature, and the world, Logotherapy makes certain assumptions. One is that people consist of body, psyche AND spirit. The spirit is assumed to supply those resources which maintain health and can help restore health to the ill (in body, mind and/or soul).

The spiritual dimension is assumed to include our will to meaning, creativity, orientation towards goals, imagination, a conscience more inclusive than Freud’s super-ego, faith, love (above and beyond the physical and sex), capacity for commitment, ideals, responsibility, self-transcendent potentials, and the ability to choose freely.

Frankl refers to three pillars on which Logotherapy rests:

1) Life has meaning under all circumstances.

2) Everyone has a will toward meaning.

3) Human beings have freedom of choice, over attitudes, even if over nothing else. (p.33, Logotherapy in Action, edited by Joseph Fabry, et. al.)


Frankl stresses heavily people’s will to meaning. He notes that some people see values and meanings only in terms of defense mechanisms, sublimation, and reaction formations. Frankl comments wryly: “But for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my ‘defense mechanisms,’ nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my ‘reaction formations.’“ (p.154, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl)

Frankl acknowledges the influence of social, biological and psychological forces, but emphasizes the human power of choice and personal responsibility. He maintains that, no matter how restrictive our circumstances, we have an area in which we can determine our actions, experiences, or at the very least, our attitudes. He ascribes this freedom to self-determine as lying in the spiritual realm.

This personal power includes the possibility of change: resisting environment and instinct; rising above any conditions fate may deal to us. Frankl has referred to “the defiant power of the human spirit” (p.23, The Pursuit of Meaning by Joseph Fabry, et. al.) We can choose not only what we are, but what we become. Healthy people believe they can change.

Frankl’s conception of meaning includes both ultimate meaning and day to day meaning. The ultimate, he suggests, we never reach, although we get fleeting moments through peak experiences. But life is a constant search, despite knowing we never find the ultimate in its totality. We can recognize a flow to life and ignore it, fight it, or go with it. Frankl emphasizes that absolute truth is unattainable. People who claim to have it are often dangerous. Traditions can turn into dead weights. Fabry (who promotes Logotherapy in the United States) notes that blindly accepted values are especially catastrophic in times of rapid change.



We are also each individuals, living moment to moment, going through a unique set of life circumstances from birth to death. Each situation, each unrepeatable moment offers another potential meaning. Any present meaning for the individual will often not remain the same later.

Frankl and Fabry quote Hillel: “If I don’t do it, who will do it? If I don’t do it now, when shall I do it? And if I do it for myself, what am I?” (p.39, The Pursuit of Meaning) These questions illustrate Logotherapy assumptions:

(1) Each individual is unique and irreplaceable.

(2) Each moment is unrepeatable.

(3) Being human entails doing things not just for ourselves. Frankl stresses going beyond one’s self, especially through love.


Frankl does value, like Freud, love and work. We are responsible, Frankl believes, for “what we do, whom we love, and how we suffer.” He feels people find meaning through action, love and suffering. People need tasks to keep life worth living. He considers love “the ultimate and highest goal to which one can aspire,” and says, “The salvation of man is through love and in love.” (p.59, Man’s Search for Meaning) Frankl on love: “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the inmost core...become fully aware of the very essence.” (p.176, Man’s Search for Meaning) This includes awareness of potentialities and helping the beloved actualize them. Frankl emphasizes that love is NOT a “mere epiphenomenon of sexual drives and instincts.” Rather, sex is a way of expressing the “experience of ultimate togetherness that is called love.” (p.177, Man’s Search for Meaning)


Frankl believes suffering can lead to growth. He does not encourage it, noting that needless suffering is merely masochistic, but he suggests finding meaning in suffering. Our attitude remains under our own control, even when our life circumstances are not. Suffering has meaning, in Frankl’s view, if it “changes the sufferer for the better.” (p.51, The Pursuit of Meaning)

Frankl sees life’s purpose as self-transcendence (becoming more) rather than self-actualization (which he sees as allowing what one IS). “...happiness, contentment, peace of mind and self-actualization are mere side products in the search for meaning.” (p.9, The Pursuit of Meaning) Frankl envisions health NOT as a tensionless equilibrium, but a striving and searching. In this process, we may confront conflicts between values. Sometimes, that is an issue in therapy.


Frankl might have people make lists as one way to clarify their value hierarchy. Like Jung and Assagioli, he is also eclectic in methods and may have clients paint a picture, read a poem, etc. if it seems that might be helpful. Frankl suggests many value conflicts can be resolved if we bring in the spiritual dimension. We look to what is highest on our scale. He gives as an example his exhortations to his first wife when they were separated at Auschwitz. He stressed: “Stay alive at all costs. Go to any length to survive.” He wanted her to feel free, despite marital vows, to survive through her beauty if an SS officer became interested in her, or through whatever means were necessary. For Frankl, living had priority over, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” (p. 61, The Pursuit of Meaning) Frankl suggests questions such as “Who (or what) is replaceable?” and “Who (or what) is unique in this situation?” can help resolve value conflicts.

Other specific tools include improvisation and psychodrama. Painting, fantasizing and dream interpretations may be used. Three methods developed by Frankl are Socratic dialogue, paradoxical intention and dereflection.


In Socratic dialogue, the therapist poses questions in such a way that clients become more aware of their repressed wishes, unconscious hopes and desires. The dialogue can explore the past and fantasies for the future. It may revive peak experiences and bring attention to ignored achievements. Situations which appeared meaningless may be re-examined. The Socratic dialogue helps clients get in touch with unconscious goals. Socrates’ view of teaching was not to insert information into students, but to help students realize what they already know deep within.


Frankl uses paradoxical intent particularly with phobic and obsessive-compulsive clients. It can be used to alter unwanted behavior patterns: fear of public speaking, blushing, sweating, etc. Frankl ties into the human capacity for humor and self-detachment. He encourages clients to do exactly what they fear, even if only briefly. This breaks the cycle of anticipatory anxiety (which tended to increase the discomfort and fear). Humor might be used, exaggerating and lampooning the fear: “Go on, show us just how much you can stutter!” (As Haley and others who use similar methods have pointed out, such paradoxes also illustrate to clients that they ARE in control of their symptoms.) Frankl teaches the theory of paradoxical intent and urges clients to learn formulations. E.g., “I’ll show my boss how much I can stutter!” Such rehearsals, if done before the situation, tend to defuse the fear, and aid the client’s sense of power and control. Frankl appreciates humor and quotes Gordon Allport: “The neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure.” (p. 139, The Pursuit of Meaning)

Frankl warns that paradoxical intent must be used with care. It can be helpful to a person obsessed (unrealistically) with the thought of killing himself to tell himself: “I’ll go home and shoot myself enough times to look like a sieve.” It would be highly dangerous for a depressive person with actual suicidal tendencies to follow this formulation!


A third technique of Frankl’s is de-reflection which is utilized when the problem is an excessive focus of attention on one thing, often a bodily function. Frankl uses it considerably in sex therapy. He points out (and is supported by Masters’ and Johnson’s work) that many sexual dysfunctions are due to anticipatory anxiety, excessive attention to some details of the sexual experience (and screening out other parts of the experience), often due to an over-concern with performance. Frankl changes the focus. Clients are led away from this self-observation. A common technique is to have a client focus on the partner. Spontaneity is often easily restored.

It is an interesting polarity that de-reflection works by lessening a person’s ability to watch him or herself, by cutting off excessive self-observation, while paradoxical intent utilizes the ability of an individual to not only observe, but laugh at his or her own foibles.


The first step is to help separate clients from symptoms, assist them in realizing that they are NOT their inferiority complexes, depressions, or whatever. As the therapist and clients hook into the spiritual side, the defiant power of the clients’ spirits are raised. They can move from the position of helpless victims.

The relationship between therapist and client must be an “I-Thou” one in Martin Buber’s terms. Empathy and caring by the therapist for clients are essential. Within that supportive context, the therapist emphasizes that we always have choices, even if only choices of attitude. Clients are encouraged to make choices, take steps—no matter how small, accept responsibilities and commitments, and makes changes.

Step two is a modification of attitudes. Once clients have gained some distance from their symptoms, this is easier. Frankl emphasizes staying within the world view of the client—not forcing attitudes upon a client, but alert for subtle and unconscious cues regarding directions a client might wish to take, changes a client might want to make. All the techniques mentioned can be used to assist in attitude change.

Step three is the disappearance or reduction of the symptom(s). With new attitudes, what had appeared unbearable now seem manageable to the client. Clients tend to get much positive feedback from their attitude shifts, which help solidify the changes.

Step four Frankl considers enhancing future health. Potential meanings in clients’ lives and particular situations are discussed. World views may be extended and enriched. Clients come to a clear value hierarchy which helps by-pass further value conflicts and frustration. Clients learn to accept responsibility. Clients who feel power and responsibility for their lives, and who look for meaning in their world and circumstances are more likely to cope effectively with the world.


Logotherapy has been used successfully in dentistry, with doctors and nurses, in religious counseling, groups, marriage counseling, with the young, with the old, with emotionally disturbed people, with addicts of various kinds, with criminal offenders, on the job, and in a variety of community arenas. For a survey, see Logotherapy in Action edited by Joseph Fabry, Reuven P. Bulka, and William S. Sahakian.

Frankl feels Logotherapy is especially needed now because much of materialistic science has promulgated the world view of a random universe of people controlled by outside forces. Frankl notes that 40% of his students at the University of Vienna Medical School feel a sense of meaninglessness to life. 80% of his American students feel this meaninglessness. (p.25, Logotherapy in Action) Frankl’s goal is to defeat such nihilistic thinking and oppose a “science” which tries to reduce people to machines or defense mechanisms or large, white rats.

To such a sentiment, I can only say, heartily, “Amen!”


Fabry, Joseph B., et. al., Logotherapy in Action, New York, Jason Aronson, 1979.

Fabry, Joseph B., The Pursuit of Meaning, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1980.

Frankl, Viktor E., Man’s Search for Meaning, New York, Washington Square Press Inc., 1963.

Copyright © 1982 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

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