Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy
Logotherapy is a form of therapeutic intervention centred on the belief that a will to meaning is the most compelling motivation in human beings – an idea formulated by neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl in his book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ – based on his experiences in Nazi concentration camps.
Throughout his time as a Holocaust prisoner, he experienced many around him falling victim to the ‘existential vacuum’ – an inner experience of misery, emptiness, and desolation. Meanwhile, he saw that those with a robust sense of meaning were much more likely to survive the camps. He therefore asserted that a definitive sense of meaning and purpose can bring positivity and significance to one’s life in spite of any circumstances.
According to logotherapy, we can discover a meaning in life in three different ways. And importantly, in the words of Frankl, ‘every age has its own collective neurosis, and every age needs its own psychotherapy to cope with it’. This article explores how Frankl’s ideas and logotherapeutic techniques could be relevant in the age of millennials.
Throughout the post-war period, poor living conditions were rife as countries struggled to rebuild economies and recover from the horrors and losses of war. A lack of faith in purpose and progress was conveyed in postmodernism, the period in which Frankl’s ideas took form, and were impacted by the ‘man machine’, mechanisation of individuals leading to widespread alienation. Over several decades, in counteraction to this sense of hopelessness, a new message of aspiration and empowerment arose that was passed on to millennial children: that anyone can achieve and make a difference in the world.
Millennials are therefore stereotypically narcissistic, lazy, and entitled – made to feel special and valuable no matter what they put forward nor how hard they try. When thrusted into the real world, a shattering of self-esteem can result, due to the comparatively harsh reality. Faced with this instability, one 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 continual flux between boredom and distress. In this state, it is no wonder that a number of millennials may feel insecurity, worthlessness, guilt, and a lack of real purpose.
1. Create Work or Do a Deed
Frankl was against the ascribing of value to individuals in terms of so-called ‘social usefulness’, determined through power and financial success. Rather, he suggested one could find meaning through creating work or a deed that brought about a sense of real meaning and personal value. In other words, looking for opportunities without any primary intent in egoistic advantage or achievement.
2. Find Meaning in Unhappiness
Frankl said the ‘size’ of suffering is entirely relative. That is, suffering occupies the soul and conscious mind, no matter how ‘great’ or ‘little’. In logotherapy, any attempt to undermine or dampen this inner tension would not be made by the therapist. Instead, Frankl suggests that one can ‘[derive] from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better’, and use this state of tension to his advantage, for ‘precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health’.
With free will and unlike a machine, he said that 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.’
Contemporary perspectives of mental health still emphasise the idea that one should be happy, and that being unhappy is a sign of disorder. Frankl rejected this practice as a form of materialist reductionism, calling it a perilous misconstruction of mental hygiene to deny man his freedom and agency by burying his problems in ‘stabilising’ drugs. He suggested a search for meaning, which raises inner tension or ‘noö-dynamics’, could be more constructive than the state of equilibrium and homeostasis strived for by modern medicine.
Out of such tension, he said, one can be motivated to strive for a worthwhile goal in line with their values, as opposed to conforming to expectations. One of the fundamental values of logotherapy is not to seek pleasure or to bypass pain, but to see a meaning in his life. 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 western mentality that galvanises hedonism. 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 writes 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 trends at the time, 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 obsessive and idealistic views of happiness. In Frankl’s 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.” He writes in terms of instances where an unfulfilled will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to pleasure
3. Form Meaningful Connections
Millennials are characterised by obsessive use of technology, with American teenagers spending an average of nine hours per day using social media. This seems contrary to the third logotherapeutic maxim of finding meaning in life: by experiencing something or encountering someone.
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, through meaning actualisation: 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 through reaching out to others out of genuine care and interest.
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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