What Can We Learn From Viktor Frankl Today?
Who is he?
Viktor Frankl knew the agony of being powerless. In September 1942, Frankl, then a prominent psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his family. When the liberation came three years later, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had died.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
In 1946, Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days. The seminal work is a reflection on his experiences in the camps, with his conclusion being that the difference between those who lived and those who died came down to one thing: meaning.
How did his philosophy evolve?
More on psychology
Frankl had been studying meaning in life since he was a teenager, when he took night classes on applied psychology. After graduating, he studied neurology and psychiatry, focusing particularly on depression and suicide.
While in the camps he used his expertise to work as a psychiatrist for the prisoners, which reaffirmed his beliefs. It was not the physically strongest who survived, he found, but those who were able to act for a cause beyond themselves – “the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.”
What are his core beliefs?
Frankl believed that the search for meaning “is the primary motivational force in man.” He believed that meaning came from three possible sources: purposeful work or creativity, love, and finding courage in the face of adversity.
Yet a meaning does not dispel difficulty. Frankl believed that suffering is not only an inevitable part of life, but that finding meaning in suffering is essential.
“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”
Frankl argued that in the absence of meaning, hatred and hedonism rush to fill the space, leading to depression and a dependency on crime and addiction.
What impact have his ideas had?
Frank’s development of logotherapy has been highly influential to the field of mental health—its key emphasis being that individuals always have the freedom to find meaning in the world, even in the most dire of life events.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” he writes, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
There has been growing interest in Frankl’s ideas in work-related contexts, with organisations realising that the value of their work cannot be defined by conventional metrics of profit. Alex Pattakos, coauthor of Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work, writes:
“The need to continue to humanise work and the workplace is a quest in and of itself. The meaning paradigm and formula that Viktor Frankl espoused not only underscore the importance of this quest but also provide practical, empirically grounded guidelines for pursuing it successfully.”
- The Unheard Cry for Meaning: Psychotherapy and Humanism – Viktor Frankl (1978)
- Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl (1992)
- The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy – Viktor Frankl (1988)
- Recollections: An Autobiography – Viktor Frankl (2000)
- Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work – Alex Pattakos & Stephen R. Covey (2010)
- Meaningful Work: Viktor Frankl’s Legacy for the 21st Century – Beate von Devivere (2018)