Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy
Logotherapy centres on the belief that a will to meaning is the foremost, most compelling motivation in humans. This mode of thought was formulated by neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl after World War I, when he practiced with school students coping with suicidal ideation. He managed to reduce the high suicide rate in this demographic to zero.
An introduction to logotherapy is provided in Frankl’s publication, Man’s Search for Meaning (MSFM), in which he describes his experience as a survivor of the Holocaust, and how his theories were consequently reinforced.
Throughout his detention in four concentration camps, he experienced many around him falling victim to the ‘existential vacuum’ – an inner experience of misery, emptiness and desolation. On the other hand, he saw that those with a robust sense of meaning were much more likely to survive the camps. Frankl therefore asserted that a definitive sense of meaning and purpose can bring positivity and significance to one’s life in spite of adverse conditions and ill health.
According to Frankl, “every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to cope with it”. This article will set out to explore the relevance of Frankl’s ideas and logotherapeutic techniques for millennials, which includes Generation X or the Baby Boomers, born between 1982 and 2004.
1. Create Work or Do a Deed
According to logotherapy, we can discover a meaning in life in three different ways. Firstly: by creating a work or doing a deed. However, Frankl opposed the idea that an individual’s worth could be measured in terms of ‘social usefulness’, determined in the acquisitive capitalist society by one’s level of power and financial success. Those not so defined are considered redundant the moment they cease to be economically active, and as a result experience social rejection and mistreatment.
Throughout the post-war period, poor living conditions continued to be rife, as many countries struggled to rebuild economies and recover from the horrors and losses of war. A loss of faith in purpose and progress was conveyed in Postmodernism, the period in which Frankl’s ideas notably took form. One contributing component to logotherapy from this time was the conception of the ‘man machine’. The mechanisation of individuals led to numerous and widespread psychological issues such as alienation, boredom, abuse and addiction; such as among the so-called “no future” generation as referred to by Frankl in MSFM.
Over several decades, in counteraction to this sense of hopelessness, a new message of aspiration and empowerment arose and was passed on to millennial children: that anyone can achieve and make a difference in the world. Millennials are therefore stereotypically overindulged in their upbringing, as they are made to feel special and valuable no matter what they put forward or how hard they try.
Nowadays, it is increasingly difficult to find work let alone a vocation that is enriching and satisfactory at first, so many millennials already become impatient, disillusioned and give up in early stages of working. People of this generation are thus accused of being narcissistic, lazy and entitled.
However, with the knowledge of such a stereotype along with a strong desire to make a difference, it is no surprise that a number of millennials might feel a sense of worthlessness and guilt for being spoilt and without real purpose in the world.
A further example might resonate amongst those experiencing post-graduate anxiety – a sense of existential dread when transitioning from university into unemployed status. After being relatively secure in education, one is thrusted into the real world, resulting in a shattering of self-esteem due to the comparatively harsh reality that not everyone can achieve whatever one desires. Faced with such instability, many can experience a meaning crisis akin to the existential vacuum – a neurosis described as a “private and personal form of nihilism”, manifesting as a state of constant flux between boredom and distress.
2. Use Guilt to Change Yourself for the Better
Frankl proposed in MSFM that the ‘size’ of suffering is entirely relative. That is, suffering occupies the soul and conscious mind, despite how great or little it may be. Therefore, if such an individual were to attend logotherapy, any attempt to undermine or dampen this inner tension would not be made by the therapist.
Instead, when confronted with these feelings, Frankl suggests that one should “[derive] from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better” and should use this state of tension to his advantage, for “precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health”. He posited that with free will and unlike a machine, man has the capacity to overcome forces of industrialisation in order to endow his life with purpose. This is a central facet of logotherapy, derived from the idea that “man is ultimately self-determining”. In Frankl’s words, “it is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.”
In this way, logotherapy could be a useful tool with relevant applications for millennials who feel stigmatised and without direction. On the other hand, given the emphasis that Frankl places on the importance of responsibility, it may not be suited to a millennial or anyone for that matter who is not in a fit state of mind to do so.
3. Find Meaning in Unhappiness
The notion of a higher meaning counteracts current conceptions of mental health, which would typically dismiss it, giving priority instead to physiology or neurology as the most central facets of mental wellbeing. In the same way as is referred to in MSFM, contemporary perspectives of mental health still emphasise the idea that one should be happy, and that being unhappy is a sign of disorder. This ‘ought’ of human life reflects an existential conflict that contemporary society has disregarded at the detriment of psychological wellbeing.
In most cases, it is common practice for medication to be prescribed as a first resort to restore mental health and functioning. Frankl rejected this practice as a form of materialist reductionism, proclaiming it a perilous misconstruction of mental hygiene to deny man his freedom and agency by burying his problems in ‘stabilising’ drugs, which he identified as neurotic fatalism. He suggests a more constructive approach would be found in a search for meaning, which arouses inner tension or ‘noö-dynamics’ rather than the state of equilibrium and homeostasis strived for by modern medicine.
Frankl proposed that out of such tension, one can be motivated to strive for a worthwhile goal in line with his values, as opposed to conforming or succumbing to totalitarian expectations.
One of the fundamental values of logotherapy is that one’s primary responsibility is not to seek pleasure or to bypass pain, but to see a meaning in his life. This relates to the second way in which Frankl suggests one can find meaning in his life: by the attitude he takes towards suffering. A meaning perspective draws attention away from the egocentric pursuit of happiness toward a benevolent position of serving a higher purpose.
This shift arguably provides a greater premise for wellbeing than the prevailing capitalist mentality that galvanises cut-throat rivalry for hedonistic goals. Such pursuits, in Frankl’s view, inevitably lead to existential frustration and nihilistic despair due to their ignorance to the existential element of life.
As Edith Weisskopf-Joelson wrote in her article on logotherapy, “such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy.” The author conveyed hope that logotherapy may help counterbalance such corrupting trends at the time the article was written in 1958.
It seems like the same logotherapeutic logic could be considered relevant in contemporary society, as it can serve to counteract millennial neuroses surrounding our obsessive and idealistic view of happiness. Frankl’s lived experience in concentration camps fortified his unfavourable judgement of hedonism. If one’s life purpose is to seek pleasure, how could this be relevant in circumstances void of a possibility of finding it?
In his words, “pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.” Frankl writes in terms of instances where an unfulfilled will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to pleasure, such as through sexual compensation or use of recreational drugs.
One therefore might have an idea of how Frankl might negatively perceive millennials, whose culture is increasingly acquisitive and hedonistic. One example relates to the way we acquire and use technology; with each release of a new smart phone, old ones become obsolete and as consumers, we are increasingly demanding for more advanced options.
4. Remember Yourself
Moreover, it is now more effortless than ever to communicate with one another, via the Internet. Millennials are characterised by obsessive utilisation of digital technology, with American teenagers spending an average of nine hours per day using social media. This ironically seems paradoxical in relation to the third logotherapeutic maxim of finding meaning in life: by experiencing something or encountering someone. Yet, in an attempt to feel less lonely in a social world heavily concerned with self-presentation and popularity, we seek out others’ approval in the form of ‘likes’ and ‘followers’.
This is reminiscent of the logotherapeutic technique which entails documenting achievements through writing diaries or daily notes. In this way, Frankl suggests that it is possible to take control of problems by reminding oneself that he has been living life to the fullest. However, the difference between these is great, in that the former is a self-indulgent way of sharing a heavily filtered version of how our lives really are. This instantly gratifying form of superficial appreciation in itself becomes an addiction, replacing genuine human connection with obsessive attempts to fit the mould.
In this way, millennialism is largely becoming geared towards being a performance, with social media attention being a signifier of social acceptability. Meanwhile, those who do not receive consistent virtual applause feel outcast and ashamed.
In response to such negative feelings, Frankl advocated the value of being motivated by fulfilment of spiritual longings as opposed to instant gratification. He put it forward as a healing spiritual exercise in following self-transcendence as a manner of sacrifice, which must be done in meaning actualisation. One such sacrifice is the act of loving another person, for “the more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”
In Frankl’s view, any other form of interaction that bears the guise of connecting deeply with another human is incomparable, for “love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality.” In such a way, perhaps millennials could alleviate feelings of loneliness by reducing the amount of time spent using superficial forms of communication, and instead reach out to one another out of genuine care, interest and compassion.
Moreover, it may be a useful and relative compromise to suggest to millennials who overuse social media to compensate their addiction with writing diaries or notes to oneself, which may bring to them a more constructive and refreshing form of self-reflection and awareness.
The Take Home Message
Overall, Frankl provides three maxims of finding meaning: by creating work or doing a deed; by the attitude we take towards suffering; and by experiencing something or encountering someone. It seems as though these remain relevant today among millennials, albeit in an entirely distinct historical context.
Perhaps it is the timelessness of these ideas that make logotherapy so uniquely renowned, for despite the decades apart, logotherapeutic techniques and ideas remain important in our everyday lives. To repeat Frankl’s quote, “every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to cope with it”. In millennial culture, there are many facets that could be considered void of meaning, or that cause us to think in superficial ways and rely on technology to carry out tasks or provide momentary fulfilment and satisfaction. These elements have become hardwired into the way we live. Yet, it seems as though with logotherapy, it might be possible to help counterbalance the materialistic elements of millennialism through finding meaning in our individual lives.
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