Viktor Frankl and the simple secrets to living a meaningful life

Viktor Frankl Photo
This photo of Viktor Frankl was taken shortly after his liberation from the Nazis in 1945.

Renowned psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer Viktor Frankl stands as a giant among 20th century thinkers. The Austrian-born Frankl (b. 1905, d. 1997) was a psychiatrist whose life was transformed by his experiences as a Jewish prisoner who survived the Holocaust and internment at the Auschwitz death camp and three other German concentration camps.

With the exception of a sister, all of his immediate and extended family and his beloved wife were murdered by the Nazis. From the aftermath of this horrific experience, he embarked on a life’s work that provided deceptively simple but remarkably clear ideas that literally provide a framework on how all people can live meaningful lives.

Frankl survived his brutal internment, which should have killed him, by seeing a purpose in his ugly reality and by taking control of his responses to that experience with positive actions and a mental attitude that ensured his survival and also his outlook on life and his fellow man and woman. His simple ideas offer no shortcuts, and they uncomfortably place each person in control of how they choose to respond to life’s challenges, even ones as unforgiving as genocide and mass murder.

Frankl proposes all of us are motivated to seek a higher purpose, even when our circumstances are as cruel as a death camp surrounded by barbed wire and vicious men armed with machine guns. Frankl writes: “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone… .” More than pleasure, more than material things, meaning motivates us all. It is our purpose for being.

Man’s Search for Meaning, a book that changed modern thinking

Cover Man's Search for Meaning
Viktor Frank’s seminal 1946 Holocaust memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning, has been translated into more than 20 languages, has sold more than 10 million copies, and is considered one of the most influential books among American book readers.

Frankl published those principles in his highly acclaimed and influential 1946 memoir, Man’s Search from Meaning, which today has been translated in more than 20 languages and has sold more than 10 million copies. It is considered among the most influential books in the United States, according to a Library of Congress survey.

He originally developed the framework for his sparse set of powerful ideas when he was practicing psychiatry in Vienna before the Nazi occupation and saw how he could help patients overcome their suffering by making them aware of their life’s calling. His treatise, stashed in his coat, was literally lost when he was imprisoned.

Later in his life, when he had achieved global recognition because of the widespread popularity of his bestseller, he was asked by a university student: “…so this is your meaning in life… to help others find meaning in theirs.” His reply was as clear and direct as the theory behind his therapy, “That was it, exactly. Those are the very words I had written.”

As one writer influenced by Frankl, Genrich Krasko, points out, Frankl’s ideas are more prescient today, given millions have no meaning in their lives, particularly in affluent societies: “Viktor Frankl did not consider himself a prophet. But how else but prophetic would one call Frankl’s greatest accomplishment: over 50 years ago he identified the societal sickness that already then was haunting the world, and now has become pandemic? This ‘sickness’ is the loss of meaning in people’s lives.”

Logotherapy, Frankl’s foundational theory

Frankl called his system logotherapy, derived from the Greek word “logos,” or “meaning.” It has been called existential analysis, which may over-simplify its scope. The philosophy and medical practice boils down to providing treatment through the search for meaning in one’s life. Its utterly basic but ultimately powerful foundational ideas are easily summarized:

  • Life has meaning in all circumstances, even terrible ones.
  • Our primary motivation in living is finding our meaning in life.
  • We find our meaning in what we do, what we experience, and in our actions we choose to take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

Frankl notes, “Most important is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into triumph.” This latter point is particularly poignant, as it calls out the role that adversity can have in shaping us and our destinies and improving our character and our life’s narrative.

In short, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves, so long as we have a purpose, we can find fulfillment. What’s more, we are fulfilled by right action and by “doing,” not through short-term pleasure or narcissistic pursuits.

Frankl argues that meaning can be found in meaningful, loving relationships, in addition to finding it through purposeful work or deeds. In fact, it was the strong love of his first wife that kept him alive amid the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz. He felt her presence in his heart and it literally let him live when others around him perished.

Frankl’s core ideas at odds with more ‘accepted’ health and mental health paradigms

Frankl’s ideas collide with behaviorist models, which show that conditioning will determine one’s responses—the proverbial Pavlovian dog or Skinnerian lab rat. By contrast, through his own experiences and those he observed treating depressed and suicidal patients before and after the war in Vienna, Frankl claims that “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.”

When faced with a situation, we all chose. But our power is defined by our actions. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” he claims. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

The concept of personal choice conflicts with extensive research that clearly documents how one’s environment, race, socioeconomic status, and more—the so-called social determinants of health (SDOHs)—shape one’s life more than one’s individualistic decisions.

A model explaining the social determinants of health.
A model explaining the social determinants of health.
Viktor Frank photo 1947
This photo of Viktor Frankl was taken two years after his liberation from the Nazis, when he returned to psychiatric practice to help people through his principles called logotherapy.

For two years, while earning my MPH at the University of Washington School of Public Health from 2010 to 2012, I found myself frequently and painfully at odds with current research and literally thousands of studies that proved to me that SDOHs will impact our lives in the most profound ways.

Yet I found the field and its most ardent practitioners lacking an explanation that showed the real power people have in controlling their personal outcomes. This is something that the public health field and my faculty sharply criticized by showing the medical model, which tells persons to control their health, has largely failed to promote wider population health metrics.

While I do embrace a “policy and systems” approach, I even more strongly believe that every person has the ability to make life-changing choices, every minute of every day—from the food they put in their mouth, to devices they watch daily, to the people they associate with, to the jobs they take or do not take (however awful often), to the way they manage their personal emotions. They have choices, and often they are cruel and brutally unfair choices, which often favor the privileged.

Frankl was famous for meeting with some patients, asking them to reflect on finding meaning in their lives over their entire life span, and providing the mental treatment they needed to take control of their lives without future interventions or drugs, which predominates the American model of mental health treatment. Some of his patients only required one session, and they could resolve to deal with life’s circumstances without any further intervention.

This is a radically and in fact dangerous model that challenges how the United States is grappling with mental illness nationally, though many practitioners use Frankl in their work. One psychiatrist I tweeted with wrote me back saying, “I’m far from the only one [using Frankl]! There’s a large humanistic community in the counselling/psychotherapy world.”

Frankl’s ideas continue to be studied, refuted, debated, and argued by learned and well-intentioned academics, which I think would amuse Frankl. He was more interested in the practical work of day-to-day living and less with becoming the subject of a cult following.

As one commentator I saw in a documentary who knew Frankl noted, Frankl was not interested in fame, otherwise he would be more famous today.

Paul Wong is one of many academics who have analyzed the ideas of logotherapy and mapped them in published work.
Paul Wong is one of many academics who have analyzed the ideas of logotherapy and mapped them in published work.

Here is just one example showing how theorists explain logotheraphy; see the table by Paul Wong on life fulfillment and having an ideal life.

Why Frankl’s thinking profoundly inspired me and thousands of others

For more than three decades, I have been wrestling with the concept of personal responsibility and the influence of our environment and systems that impact our destinies. Such factors include one’s family, country, religion, income, the ecosystem, our diet, and political and economic forces, among others.

I also have been fascinated by examples of people choosing hard paths in dire circumstances as the metaphor that defines successful individuals’ life narratives. In Frankl’s death camp reality, this ultimately boiled down to choosing to be good, and helping fellow prisoners, or choosing to partake in evil, which many prisoners did as brutal prisoner guards called kapos.

No one gets a free pass in this model, and all people in all groups can be one or the other, Frankl says. “In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints,” writes Frankl. “Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.”

I had not been able to order these two lines of thinking into a coherent set of principles, as Frankl so perfectly did. When I stumbled on him quite by accident or maybe design this summer, while reading books by Robert Greene and even management guru Stephen Covey, I had that most rewarding and delicious feeling of “aha.” It was more like, “Wow, what the hell was that!”

It felt like a thunderclap. I almost reeled from the sensation. I then began to tell every single person I know about Frankl, and I learned many of my colleagues had already read him. I felt robbed not one teacher or academic, at three respected universities I attended, had covered or even mentioned Frankl, when his ideas are foundational to our understanding of the fields of psychology, public health, business, organizational behavior, religion, and the humanities in the 21st century.

Frankl deserves vastly more attention then he is given by health, mental health, and social activist thinkers. That is a shame too, because as a speaker, Frankl brimmed with enthusiasm and could convey complex ideas in the simplest ways to reach his audience. Watch his presentation at the University of Toronto–a brilliant performance.

Frankl’s ideas matter to each of us, in everyday life

Photo courtesy of PBS, showing a pensive and thoughtful Viktor Frankl (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod/voices/frankl.html)
Photo courtesy of PBS, showing a pensive and thoughtful Viktor Frankl. Click on the photo for a link to the web site.

One my most satisfying feelings is discovering that one’s personal life experiences and ideas on issues as big as the meaning of life also resonate profoundly with millions of others—those who have read his work. Even more gratifying is discovering that the core principles to living life amid hard choices can be grounded in principles that can help everyone, even in the most dire of personal experiences.

My own travels in the developing world stand out for me. I met countless people facing vastly more painful, difficult, challenging lives than I have faced. Yet, the wonderful people I met had nothing but smiles and treated me with genuine sincerity. I had to ask myself, why is it that so many people are clearly content when their surroundings indicate they should be experiencing utter despair and even violent rage. Why is there kindness in their hearts and peace with their reality.

Photo of Coptic Youth, Egypt by Rudy Owens
These young men, all Copts, a persecuted minority, highlight for me the depth of goodness one finds in the world, even when many have no material foundation that suggests they should be happy.

I understood at all levels what I was experiencing. But Frankl’s framework ties this rich set of personal experiences to all of us, and to larger existential ideas of what we are meant to do with our time.

For Frankl, the answer is just doing what life needs us to do. As Frankl wrote nearly 70 years ago, “Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the task which it constantly sets for each individual.”

With that point, I now must ask you, the reader, What are you doing with your life, and are you doing what you are being asked to do? You cannot escape this question, and if you avoid it, you will always have the pain and emptiness of not listening to your own calling. The choice of course is your own.

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The wisdom of adversity and misfortune

“But despite what you may think, good luck is more dangerous than bad luck. Bad luck teaches valuable lessons in patience, timing, and the need to be prepared for the worst; good luck deludes you into the opposite lesson, making you think your brilliance will carry you through. Your fortune will inevitably turn, and when it does you will be completely unprepared.” … Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power

During a recent outing to one of Seattle’s many brewpubs, I swapped stories with my good friend about hospital visits. Most people I know have had them, and a rarefied few have not. In my case, I have been hospitalized at least a half-dozen times, mostly for stitches, but also worse.

I told my friend some of my greatest learning moments came with contemplation lying in a hospital bed. There is nothing like pain one feels in the ugliness of a hospital room to focus the mind and to allow one to make sense of all the things that preceded the unforgettable trigger moments.

South African born psychiatrist and author Norman E. Rosenthal
South African born psychiatrist and author Norman E. Rosenthal

South African born psychiatrist Norman E. Rosenthal has written a book on this theme called the Gift of Adversity. Thinking back on his own Apartheid-era life, surviving a near fatal stabbing, and his professional experiences, Rosenthal argues that innovation, resilience, and understanding emerge  from our own adverse experiences and by gaining wisdom from those hard times. Writ large, economists will even refer to collective behaviors among entire generations, such as young people who came into adulthood in the Depression era, and whose lifelong buying patterns and decisions to live more austerely can be quantitatively measured.

Using examples of individuals who endured suffering yet who came out stronger, Rosenthal sees opportunity in these struggles for all of us. “Well, when adversity comes, the last word that comes to mind is gift, because it just looks like an unmitigated disaster. But, how many times have you heard a friend or somebody say, ‘You know, at the time, it seemed terrible, but in retrospect, it was for the best.’ … The first step is really to accept that the adversity has happened. … We have to somehow come to terms that it really has happened. Then, we have to analyze the situation, every adversity is different, and respond accordingly.”

My own experiences mirrored these points, almost too perfectly. Both involved small misfortunes with lifelong rewards.

Lesson No. 1: When I was 14 and not fully mature, I did something that was likely one of the dumbest acts of my life. I will not say exactly what it was, but it substantially disrupted life at my often-violent and chaotic junior high school, in University City, Mo. I was soon on my way for an expulsion as the second-to-last-day of classes was ending in June 1979.

Coming back to campus I encountered four guys who I did not know. At least three were students. The other may have been a high school student. He was older, a guy with a cast. They were tough. I was not. They were experienced in the art of violence. I had few such fighting skills. They were skillful manipulators, and I fell for small talk that drew me close. It turns out one of them had been blamed for the incident. That is the story I heard second-hand, and the group was bent on physical vengeance.

I do not remember everything that happened, but I do remember feeling a floating feeling. I was cold-cocked in the face by one of the four wearing a cast. I was bleeding profusely from a cut on my eyelid and could not see out of my left eye. I was lying on the ground not sure what had happened. I felt warm blood on my hand.

I remember the four of them mocking me and telling me if I was happy now about having the heat fall on them. It was a perfect example of the violence I had witnessed many times before at this school, often with the tense black-white racial undertones, and I am sure that tension influenced this assault too. They walked away, never having been arrested, never having been questioned by anyone, ever.

Insult piled upon injury. I had to go back to school, get kicked out by a furious principal who did not express any concern about me having just been assaulted on school grounds, and then have teachers sign my expulsion papers. One thug laughed at me in the hall and yelled, “What happened to you.” I shot back, in my un-masculine voice, “What do you think happened.” He turned cold, came close, and threatened, “Yo, want another one, mother fucker.” Luckily I walked away from that one.

I stayed at this hospital for nearly a week after I was assaulted and nearly blinded in my left eye, which proved to be a great learning moment.
I stayed at this hospital for nearly a week after I was assaulted and nearly blinded in my left eye, which proved to be a great learning moment.

My mom, a new teacher that year in the same district, took me to the emergency room in Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, where I was put into a shared room and monitored. My eye pressure was dangerously high because vessels were ruptured from blunt trauma, and I was at high risk of blindness in my left eye. The doctors prescribed having both eyes covered for more than a week to keep them from moving, lying in a bed, and having no physical activity.

I remember the slow passage of time and mostly the sounds of the ward, the voice of my few visitors, and the stories of a young man next to me going into eye surgery, not sure what would happen.

The school principal came once, talked briefly, and somehow waived my punishment as a result of being a violent crime victim. He never told me or my mom what the school or school district had done to investigate the assault. My mom told me years later she was too afraid as a new teacher to make waves with her new employer. No police officer ever took my story. The whole thing was wiped under the rug.

Lying there, in a flimsy hospital gown, feeling like needles were piercing my eyeball, I came to the realization of how precious my sight really was, and how close I had flirted with genuine disaster.

Lesson Learned: This was the clearest teaching moment ever in my life. Never, ever, do stupid things. Such acts have unforeseen consequences, particularly things that put you in a weak position with uncaring bureaucracies and with men who use violence to settle a score. If you act badly and unwisely without thinking, the sword of blunt justice will be swift, and it will be lasting. Also, without any allies or friends, one can be quickly abandoned by any organization if you are perceived as lacking advocacy skills and are vulnerable. So, do not present yourself as weak or easily exploited. Finally, and most importantly, always know exactly who you are dealing with when you confront strangers in strange circumstances. Trust your instincts, and keep your wits about you, always. Your instincts will always know who is a friend and who is a foe. Worry about bruised feelings later, from a safe distance.

It took me a whole summer to recover, and I could not engage in full physical activities for three months. I wore an eye patch half the summer. Decades later, I still have damage to the back of my eye that my most recent visit to an optometrist confirmed. He could see the damaged areas after my pupil was dilated.

Lesson No. 2: In my last month of my journalism master’s program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in July 1993, I was playing pickup soccer at the UNC-CH campus. It was supposed to be friendly, but of course men are fiercely competitive. A guy who I was marking intentionally head-butted me with the back of his head into my face. He broke my nose instantly, and it began to bleed profusely. I walked myself to the UNC-CH hospital, as it was close by.

This is how I looked shortly after my nose was broken and then reset in July 1993.
This is how I looked shortly after my nose was broken and then reset in July 1993.

I waited about three hours for a resident to attend to my situation. The plastic-surgeon-to-be had been up about 28 hours and was in a terrible mood. After shooting cocaine painkillers into my nasal cavity area, he stuck a metal rod up my nose and proceeded to move things back into place. I recall screaming like a wild animal so loudly that it clearly disrupted patients in the entire wing. The exhausted and overworked resident was furious with my uncooperativeness, as he called it. He stuck the rod back in and went back to work.

A nurse came in and saw the procedure. She simply held my hand. I stopped crying. I instantly calmed down. My level of pain subsided dramatically. The compassionate act of human touch proved more powerful than any medicine. After the resident stuffed both of my nasal passages with some sort of medical gauze, I thanked the nurse. She gave me a caring look that said, everything’s going to be OK.

That night I wrote a poem about the war in Bosnia, then raging at the time, and I put my small problem into a larger perspective of suffering felt more severely by others around the world.

Lesson Learned: Human compassion and human touch are among the most powerful healing agents in the world, often more powerful than medicine and actions of medical specialists. The mind, when it needs to, can calm down and can process a stressful situation. Set the calming effect in motion, and show mindfulness of yourself and others who may be less fortunate.

Comment: Author Rosenthal, who sees the importance of adversity, profiles the late Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He was the only member of his family to survive the genocide, staying in four different camps, and went on to receive acclaim for his widely read treatise called Man’s Search for Meaning, original published in German in 1946 Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager.

Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author Viktor Frankl
Holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, and author Viktor Frankl

Frankl’s own horrific experience taught fellow psychiatrist Rosenthal critical lessons also, that one can find meaning even in the midst of terrible adversity and that no single group of people is pure good or evil. Both types of people can be found in all groups, everywhere.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us,” wrote Frankl. “Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

In no way did anything I experience come close to the challenges Frankl and other tough and lucky individuals have endured from such crimes.

I do know that in my case, my invaluable teachers came disguised as sterile wards and rooms of hospitals, giving me opportunities to contemplate larger truths. In one case, I created my own folly but could use my intellect to evaluate my mistakes. I also benefitted from being in hospitals, where I seldom felt kindness and felt great stress and also fear. This was clearly a place to avoid at all costs. I was doubly motivated to stay healthy—mind, body, and soul.

The wisdom I gained at those small junctures far exceeded anything I received in any university setting. As Robert Greene’s opening quote aptly notes, our bad luck prepares us for misfortune and gives us the strategies to overcome the roadblocks we build for ourselves or encounter from others. Those who are blessed mostly by good luck will eventually see their luck change, and when they do, they will be overtaken by those who have adapted and learned already.

So be thankful for those learning moments. They are your teachers, and you profit immensely by employing that knowledge wisely in the future.