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Celebrating Man’s Search for Meaning

By Rodney B. Dieser and Cynthia Wimberly June 7, 2021

Viktor Frankl was born in Vienna, Austria, on March 26, 1905, and died in that same city on Sept. 2, 1997. Frankl wrote the celebrated Holocaust testimony Man’s Search for Meaning and is widely known as the founder of logotherapy/existential analysis, which is a form of existential counseling. 

Logotherapy, sometimes referred to as Franklian psychology, has been called the “third Viennese school,” after Sigmund Freud’s school of psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler’s school of individual psychology (Freud, Adler and Frankl were Jewish, all three lived in Vienna, and for a time Adler lived across the street from Frankl’s birth home). Just as Adler left Freud’s school of psychoanalysis over conflict related to differing theoretical perspectives, so too did Frankl leave Adler’s school of individual psychology. Frankl rejected Adler’s doctrine of “will to power” and Freud’s “will to pleasure” as the main motivation for living and instead argued that a “will to meaning” was humans’ main motivation. 

The American Medical Society, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association officially recognized Frankl’s logotherapy as a scientifically based school of psychotherapy. The Association for Humanistic Counseling, a division of the American Counseling Association, explicitly identifies Frankl (along with Adler, Carl Jung and Karen Horney) as a pioneer who was influential in the development of humanistic counseling. 

This year marks the celebration of the 75th anniversary of Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This acclaimed book recounts Frankl’s experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. It also describes the concepts of logotherapy/existential analysis (as do the other 38 books that Frankl wrote). In a 1991 Library of Congress survey, American readers voted Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in their lives. It currently appears on the “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime” list curated by the editors at Amazon Books. In 1997, when Frankl died, Man’s Search for Meaning had sold over 10 million copies and been translated into 24 languages. 

Still, few counselors, and few other people for that matter, understand the story of this best-selling book. As such, the purpose of this article is to tell the history of this influential treatise and to highlight the mental health counseling contributions of Frankl and logotherapy in the contemporary period as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Man’s Search for Meaning. 

The history of Man’s Search for Meaning

Because Man’s Search for Meaning was Frankl’s first book to receive national attention in the United States, many assume it was his first book. Likewise, many readers believe that Frankl developed the underlying principles of logotherapy during his 2.5 years (1942-1945) as a prisoner in four concentration camps, including Auschwitz. (Frankl’s father, mother and brother were all killed in concentration camps.) 

In reality, the major concepts of logotherapy/existential analysis were developed before World War II began. Between 1928 and 1930, while still a medical student in Vienna, Frankl helped create youth counseling centers because he wanted to serve adolescents. He was specifically focused on preventing suicide among teenagers. After Frankl completed a doctorate in psychiatric medicine in 1930, he worked at Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital (in Vienna), where he became director of the department for female patients who were suicidal. 

In 1940, Frankl joined the Vienna Rothschild Hospital as head of the neurology department and was working on his first book that outlined his thoughts and theories on logotherapy, titled at the time (in German) Medical Ministry. When Frankl entered his first concentration camp in 1942, he attempted to smuggle a copy of his manuscript in the lining of his coat, but it was confiscated and destroyed. While sick with typhoid fever, and with only a pencil and some stolen scraps of paper, Frankl focused his mind on the future goal of publishing his book. During this time, he began to reconstruct the main ideas of Medical Ministry in shorthand and was able to hide these notes until he was freed. This book, Frankl’s first, was published in 1946 in German, and in 1955 it was published in English with the title The Doctor and the Soul.  

The first version of Man’s Search for Meaning, the book for which Frankl is most widely known, was also published in 1946, after Medical Ministry/The Doctor and the Soul. Frankl later explained that the book detailing his experiences in the concentration camps seemed to pour out of him. Originally, it was meant to be published anonymously. Only after much urging from his friends did he allow his name to be associated with it, and then he added an explanation of logotherapy. 

Logotherapy is based on the idea of identifying meaning in life and then imagining and working toward that purpose-outcome or future goal. Frankl self-discloses in Man’s Search for Meaning a time when he was depressed and in physical pain in a concentration camp and “forced” his thoughts to a future purpose where he saw himself standing on the platform of a well-lit and pleasant university lecture room. In front of him, Frankl saw (in his imagination) an attentive audience listening to him give a lecture on the psychology of concentration camps. Just as he found a future purpose in writing Medical Ministry/The Doctor and the Soul while enduring great suffering, Frankl also found a future purpose in writing Man’s Search for Meaning while enduring great suffering. The book’s original title, written in German, was A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. The title of the first English-language version, translated by Ilse Lasch in 1959, was From Death-Camp to Existentialism: A Psychiatrist’s Path to a New Therapy. 

The major antecedent to the publication of Man’s Search for Meaning took place in 1957, when the Religion in Education (RIE) Foundation sponsored Frankl to visit American universities as part of a lecture tour. RIE director Randolph Sasnett and his wife, Martena, scheduled a meeting in which Frankl met Harvard University’s Gordon Allport, a prominent psychologist who is today considered a founding figure of personality psychology. Sasnett persuaded Beacon Press to publish Frankl’s book, but it was Allport’s endorsement that provided a major push for the book to be printed. When Frankl revised his book for Beacon Press in 1962, its titled was changed to Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. 

Allport wrote in the preface that one of Frankl’s great contributions to mental health counseling was to ask clients, “Why do you not commit suicide?” From their answer, Frankl assisted clients in finding their logos (a Greek word for “meaning”) and built therapy around it. Allport also noted that unlike many European existentialists, Frankl was not pessimistic. Allport remarked that Frankl, a person who had experienced so much suffering, took a remarkably hopeful view of people’s capacity to transcend their predicaments and quandaries.   

Frankl’s experiences in the Nazi concentration camps that he described in Man’s Search for Meaning were a validation of the concepts of logotherapy that he wrote about in Medical Ministry/The Doctor and the Soul. In essence, the camps were qualitative research and fieldwork observations for the three basic tenets of logotherapy. First, that meaning exists and is discoverable, even under the most overwhelming and distressing life events. Second, the will to meaning is a human’s main motivation for living and a sturdier and healthier motivator than the will to pleasure and the will to power, as suggested by Freud and Adler, respectively. Third, no one and no thing can take away the human freedom to find meaning. Regardless of circumstances, people can change their attitudes (reframe) toward an unchangeable fate (e.g., choosing how to die, and modeling it, when a person has a terminal illness). 

After World War II ended, Frankl was hired at Poliklinik Hospital in Vienna as head of the neurological department. During this time, he earned a (second) doctoral degree in philosophy from the University of Vienna. His dissertation was an examination of the relationship between psychology and religion. In it, Frankl encouraged the use of Socratic dialogue (self-discovery discourse) with clients to help them interact with their noetic (spiritual) unconscious. This dissertation eventually became a book published in German in 1948, with the English-language version published in 1975 as The Unconscious God: Psychotherapy and Theology.

Frankl continued his professional and academic labor in logotherapy throughout his life. He was rooted in a scholar/researcher-practitioner model, with one foot squarely set on scholarship and research and another foot firmly planted as a psychiatrist and counselor working with clients. Frankl wrote close to 40 books and became the first non-American to receive the American Psychiatric Association’s prestigious Oskar Pfister Award for important contributions to religion and psychiatry. He was a visiting professor at Harvard, Stanford and many other American universities. 

Contributions to the modern era of mental health

Frankl’s paramount contribution to the field of mental health is the development of logotherapy, which postulates that people are motivated by a will to meaning, or an inner pull to find and discover a meaning in life.

 Three basic principles of logotherapy are:

1) Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.

2) The main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.

3) People have freedom to find meaning in what they do and what they experience, or at least in the stance they take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering. 

As Frankl stated in many of his writings, lectures and presentations, people can discover meaning in life in three ways: 

1) Through creativity — by creating a work or doing a deed

2) By experiencing something or encountering someone

3) By the attitude they take toward life and unavoidable suffering

As Frankl outlined in Man’s Search for Meaning, and as based in his concentration camp horrors, everything can be taken from a person but one thing — the ability to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances. Frankl referred to this as the last of the human freedoms. 

Although Frankl warned against “prescribing” meaning to clients, and was criticized by both Rollo May and Irvin Yalom for being too authoritarian with clients (possibly a cross-cultural misinterpretation between American and European culture made by May and Yalom), his work has continued to provide insight for those searching for meaning. Throughout his writings, Frankl stressed that counselors could help clients imagine three future areas where meaning can be discovered. 

The first area is creative activities, which can occur in work, leisure and volunteer spaces. Frankl listed hobbies and centripetal leisure — leisure values that move a client toward core values and meaning — as untapped resources to engage in meaning. Second, experiences in life, such as encounters with art, nature and other people (especially people whom you love and who love you back) can reveal meaning. Throughout his life, Frankl wrote often about his love of nature, both his quiet time in nature and his serious leisure endeavor of mountain climbing. Third, the attitudes taken toward an unchangeable fate, often referred to as “attitudinal change intervention” by logotherapists, can provide meaning. In essence, this is a type of attitudinal reframing based on finding meaning in the moment and finding meaning in future actions. 

This is what Frankl demonstrated when he “forced” his thoughts to a future purpose when abused in the Nazi concentration camps (e.g., imagining himself giving a future lecture on the psychology of concentration camps at a university setting) and when he was deeply ill with typhoid fever (e.g., working on, and imagining, his future book Medical Ministry/The Doctor and the Soul). It is why Frankl wrote, in Man’s Search for Meaning, that logotherapy focuses on the future or the meanings still left to be fulfilled by the client. It is also why he would ask his clients the specific question “Why do you not commit suicide?” and from their answer locate their meaning and then build therapy around future endeavors related to that meaning. It is why Frankl would have clients write their eulogy or view themselves from their death bed so they could, in an imagined state, look over their life to discover meaning or future purposes.  

Connected to the development of logotherapy, Frankl also pioneered theoretical frameworks and interventions that contributed to the broader professions of counseling and psychotherapy. For example, Frankl’s academic focus on self-transcendence, explained in his book Will to Meaning, aids in helping clients surpass or go beyond the self. Frankl defined self-transcendence as the human capacity to reach out beyond oneself toward a meaning to fulfill, people to love and causes to service. Today, the idea of serving something larger than the self, which can result in an abundance of positive emotion, is a core axiom of positive psychology. Frankl suggested this more than 50 years ago, before positive psychology existed. 

Connected to self-transcendence, Frankl also wrote about self-distancing, which is the capacity to step away from ourselves and look at ourselves from the outside, such as using humor and laughing at ourselves instead of being too serious about ourselves. Frankl is also a pioneer in creating the intervention of paradoxical intention, which he described as a self-distancing technique. During a paradoxical intention, a counselor intensifies the client’s emotional state and dysfunctional behavior to help the client understand the irrationality of the behavior or emotional reaction. This can include, for example, suggesting that a client who has insomnia stay up all night long or asking a client who has a pleasing personality to exaggerate pleasing other people (sometimes in a humorous manner) in a role play with the counselor or as a homework assignment. 

In the 1980 book Existential Psychotherapy, considered a classic for students studying existential counseling, and his recent memoir, Becoming Myself, Irvin Yalom outlines Frankl’s fundamental and groundbreaking contributions to existentialism linked to therapy. More recently, logotherapeutic concepts, sometimes referred to as “meaning-centered counseling,” have been integrated into cognitive behavior therapy and positive psychology (see the academic work of Paul T.P. Wong, president of the Meaning-Centered Counselling Institute in Canada and editor of the International Journal of Existential Positive Psychology).  

Seventy-five years after Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, his influence is still felt worldwide, with logotherapy training centers in Canada, Israel, Great Britain and Vienna. In the United States, the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy (headquartered in Texas) offers continuing education hours and training that can result in the academic associate, diplomate clinician or diplomate in logo-philosophy (outside of the health care profession) credential (see viktorfranklinstitute.org/education).

Conclusion

At the end of the preface of Man’s Search for Meaning, Gordon Allport called the book a “gem” and wrote that it provided a compelling introduction to the most significant psychological movement of that era. As mentioned earlier, Allport commented that Frankl, a person who experienced so much suffering, took a remarkably hopeful view of people’s capacity to transcend suffering and pain. To this end, and not to trivialize the suffering and death that occurred, we end this article by sharing a hopeful thought that Frankl wrote about in Man’s Search for Meaning:

“One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly ground and see the wonderful sunset. … After minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, “How beautiful the world could be!”

 

In addition to the books mentioned throughout this article, information was drawn from the following sources: 

  • Stephen Kalmar’s “A Brief History of Logotherapy,” from Analecta Frankliana: Proceedings of the First World Congress of Logotherapy, 1982
  • Robert Leslie’s “The Story of a Bestseller,” published in The International Forum for Logotherapy, 1990
  • The Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy in America website (viktorfranklinstitute.org/about-viktor-frankl)

Jorm S/Shutterstock.com

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Rodney B. Dieser is a licensed mental health counselor and certified therapeutic recreation specialist. He is a professor in the Department of Health, Recreation and Community Services and affiliated faculty in the Department of Counseling at the University of Northern Iowa. Contact him at rodney.dieser@uni.edu.

Cynthia Wimberly is vice president and teaching faculty in the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy. She is a licensed professional counselor supervisor in Texas, a national certified counselor and a national certified school counselor. Contact her at cynthia.wimberlyphd@gmail.com.

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, visit ct.counseling.org/feedback.

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5 Comments

  1. Buddy Hammil

    Thank you so very much for posting this about Viktor Frankl. Viktor Frankl and Martin Buber remain the leading thinkers/ writers guiding my work even today. I am so appreciative of seeing this in writing. Sometimes I worry (or at least wonder) if over the generations, we have lost some of the great founding influences. Thanks so much for highlighting Frankl’s work and life.

    Reply
  2. Ira BIndman, PhD

    I read Man’s Search for meaning 40 years ago, shortly before I trained to be a therapist. It had a profound influence on me, especially so because I was suffering from a terrible accident in childhood that led to my being depressed thrombosis life. Frankl’s book and ideas regarding logotherapy allowed me to look beyond myself and my trauma to see the meaning my suffering could have-helping others go past their own suffering. His personal example as a prisoner in Nazi death camps exemplifies how one can overcome even the most barbaric circumstances and stay positive by focusing on future service to humanity.

    Reply
  3. Emily Lasinsky

    I always felt deeply drawn to Frankl, even during my undergrad work. His writing is an example that suffering and hope can co-exist. I plan to share this article with my students.

    Reply

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