Viktor Frankl - Psychotherapy - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Viktor Frankl
The Canon


BORN 1905, Vienna, Austria-Hungary


DIED 1997, Vienna, Austria


Educated at the University of Vienna



Victor Frankl had quite a life story. Not often do you see someone whose extreme experiences, part of a history that defined generations, have so clearly inspired his or her professional work and development.

In 1942, Frankl was a recently married doctor, living in Vienna, when he, his wife, his brother, and his parents were arrested and taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Frankl had already spent a couple of years in quiet defiance of the Nazi regime; he had begun giving patients false diagnoses to prevent them from being euthanized, per the Nazis’ mandated policy toward the mentally ill (the Nazis’ mentally sound targets were sent to concentration camps instead of being put to death). What happened next is tragic and all too familiar: All of Frankl’s family members (except his sister, who had escaped Austria before the arrest of the others) died in concentration camps over the next few years. He learned this fact only upon his own liberation, in 1945. The horrors that he witnessed, and the pockets of hope that he occasionally experienced, helped inspire his most famous work, Man’s Search for Meaning (originally published in 1946 in a German edition whose title was roughly “Nevertheless Saying Yes to Life”).

Man’s Search for Meaning has been a cultural touchstone for seven decades, and it continues to attract a vast audience. In the book, Frankl explores the horrors of his experiences in the concentration camp, his readjustment to life after his liberation, and his philosophy about states of mind. He consolidated these ideas into the foundation of a new type of therapy that he called logotherapy. Logotherapy involves the search for meaning, whereas Frankl felt that previous schools of psychotherapy had focused too much on the search for pleasure or the search for power.

In the most profoundly horrific of times in the concentration camp, Frankl was struck by the resonance of future-oriented thinking and by the lifeline that hope provided. He posited that being able to think of reuniting with loved ones or to dream of fulfilling some future goal is often the only thing that can keep a person’s spirit from cracking. He asserted that to divide the world into good versus evil is misguided; those concepts overlap and exist everywhere, and he noted that he saw occasional kindness even in some of the guards at the concentration camp.

Sometimes, Frankl theorized, an existential vacuum is responsible for particularly unhealthy types of behavior. Things like boredom—the malaise we might feel during times of leisure, which he termed Sunday neurosis—can lead us to want to fill up those holes with material possessions, power, or superficial pleasures. But these don’t provide relief, he argued, as they don’t provide real meaning.

Meaning, Frankl posited, can emerge from three different types of values:

Experiential values involve something important to us. Love is perhaps the prime example of such a value. Frankl, clearly shaped by the experience of being separated from and eventually losing his wife, felt that love can go on without the beloved’s presence; it is a connection with the loved one’s inner self that can exist even after the beloved’s death. He believed that the truest romantic love supersedes the sexual experience, as sex can be an expression of love but does not necessarily mean that love is present.

Creative values have to do with pursuing and participating in activities that challenge our minds: the arts, inventing, or other intellectual pursuits. Connection to creative values means participating in purposeful work throughout our lives.

Attitudinal values have to do with the ways in which we conceptualize events, and with how that conceptualization can spur us to acts of courage. In this scenario, we can find meaning even in suffering. For instance, grief is the ultimate conclusion of having been able to love in the first place. In that sense, Frankl stated, grief can help the meaning of love resonate more fully.

Frankl identified depression, addiction, and aggression as the three components of a mass neurotic triad that he saw as being caused by a fundamental lack of meaning or by misdirection in the search for meaning. Using data from various people troubled by these three challenges, Frankl showed that these people scored particularly low on measures meant to assess the strength of life purpose.

Frankl believed that even those of us actively trying to pursue our life’s meaning can sometimes go off course. There are negative consequences for trying too hard (hyperintention) and for thinking too hard (hyperreflection). Sometimes we need to reframe a question entirely: Frankl believed that too often we are focused on what we should expect from life, when the real question is what life should expect from us.

With logotherapy, Frankl also originated some specific therapeutic tools, such as the use of paradoxical intention, whereby, for example, someone suffering from insomnia is encouraged to try to stay awake, or someone worried about inappropriately bursting into tears is encouraged to try actively to cry. This approach seems to overwrite the involuntary aspect of insomnia or crying, and it often shows that whatever is resisted or feared actually isn’t so bad. The use of paradoxical intention makes people feel much more relaxed and in control. Frankl also saw great value in using humor as a way to help someone temporarily rise above the emotional difficulty of a given ordeal.

Frankl’s writings and theories, infused with spirituality, sometimes seem to move from the realm of psychology into the world of morality and religion. In his writings, Frankl discusses transcendence in terms that involve a higher faith. This feature of his work can be seen as a strength or as a weakness, of course, but his overall focus on conscience—what truly guides our behavior, and how we achieve a purpose in life that is greater than ourselves—still resonates.

Frankl wrote that, no matter what is taken away from us, we are always free to choose our own attitude and our own way in any situation. This idea aligns him squarely with other psychology pioneers, across various schools of thought, who believed that it is our perception of things that matters, and that we have the capacity to grow and to change our perceptions. This idea becomes even more poignant when we imagine Frankl among hopeless, dying people in a concentration camp.


Man’s Search for Meaning remains a widely embraced book, and logotherapy went on to influence humanistic therapy and existential therapy directly. Various techniques from logotherapy have been incorporated into all kinds of schools of thought in psychology, including cognitive behavioral therapy. Frankl’s thoughts on the nature of suffering have spurred inquiry in the field of philosophy as well.


Frankl’s ideas raise some provocative questions pertinent to modern life. Is suffering to be endured or eradicated? Is it always to be avoided, or can it be a gift in some forms?

Of course, the atrocities of the Holocaust are a horror whose magnitude defies understanding. But far less severe forms of suffering, both profound and mundane, may very well serve a purpose in our lives.

If you can bring yourself to do it, think back to some of your life’s most painful moments. Not the time you had a kidney stone or got your hand stuck in the minivan door, but times of emotional pain and suffering. It is possible, of course, that you have dealt with chronic anxiety or depression. But outside those situations, it is likely that your suffering came down to a more singular event that could help spur you on in your quest for meaning. You need not be grateful that this event happened, of course. But it may have defined you as a person in a way that you came to recognize as having taught you something. Perhaps your most painful experience involved the death of a loved one. Why did it hurt so terribly? Frankl felt that the answer is clear: You felt that loss so deeply because you allowed yourself to love and be attached to this person. You were real in your connection with your lost loved one, and you were experiencing life fully. Similarly, your grief is a form of living and feeling as well. It means being alive and letting that person’s previous existence still matter to you. Frankl once told a patient that grieving someone’s death also means knowing that the loved one has been spared the pain of the loss that would have come if the grieving person had died first. Grieving also means engaging with life in all its forms. To run from it, mask it, or dull it does nothing helpful and provides only temporary relief. But finding meaning in grief, and fully living it, can ultimately help a person make it through.

The idea of suffering as a potential growth experience raises some controversial questions. Are we becoming too quick as a society to alleviate individual discomfort? Do we view fundamentally human experiences, such as mourning and grief, as medical problems to be summarily taken care of? Are we too fast to medicate, treat, and alleviate rather than let ourselves and others fully experience? Much controversy surrounded the recent decision that the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) would stop excluding people in bereavement from a diagnosis of depression. In other words, it used to be that if you had recently lost a loved one, depressive symptoms were considered normal and to be expected, and you weren’t classified as having a disorder. That thinking has changed, in part because of the argument that providing grieving individuals with a diagnosis can help legitimize their suffering and perhaps improve their access to treatment. (Of course, the interests of pharmaceutical companies also align with higher diagnosis rates.) But the overall concern remains: If we continue to pathologize natural parts of human experience, are we ignoring and missing the ability of pain to help us grow?

In terms of some of Frankl’s other theories, have you ever needed just to take a break from trying too hard or overfocusing on something? Perhaps you perseverated so much on a career or relationship quandary that you could barely stand to think about it (and your friends couldn’t, either). You believed that thinking and self-reflection were good things, and yet you found yourself going nowhere—you rehashed and rehashed, and it didn’t seem to help. You felt that you knew less than you did before, and you didn’t feel motivated to move forward. It’s classic paralysis by analysis, a case of hyperreflection. When contemplation starts to get in the way of actually living, you can stunt yourself. It is said that Socrates once declared the unexamined life not worth living. But it has also been pointed out that the unlived life is not worth examining. Frankl would likely argue that if you find yourself overanalyzing your next move so much that you get stuck, you are getting farther and farther away from finding meaning.