Victor Frankl: Our Search for Meaning


From DAVE SMITH
To Be Of Use

Internationally renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who endured years of unspeakable horror in Nazi death camps, wrote this in his groundbreaking book Man’s Search for Meaning:

I published a study devoted to a specific type of depression I had diagnosed in cases of young patients suffering from what I called “unemployment neurosis.” And I could show that this neurosis really originated in a twofold erroneous identification: being jobless was equated with being useless, and being useless was equated with having a meaningless life.

Consequently, whenever I succeeded in persuading the patients to volunteer in youth organizations, adult education, public libraries, and the like — in other words, as soon as they could fill their abundant free time with some sort of unpaid but meaningful activity — their depression disappeared although their economic situation had not changed and their hunger was the same.

Frankl developed “logotherapy.” Logos is a Greek word that denotes “meaning,” and his therapy was based on the “striving to find a meaning in one’s life,” which he felt was “the primary motivational force in man.” What matters is “not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment. … Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it… 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 … self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
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More from Man’s Search For Meaning (1959)

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning. There are some authors that contend that “meanings and values” are nothing but defense mechanisms, reaction formations, and sublimations.” But as for myself I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my “defense mechanisms,” nor would I be willing to die merely for the sake of my “reaction formations.” Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values!
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Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of life is, but rather he should realize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible… 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. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.
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[Frankl goes on to explain the three different ways to find meaning in life. Man's Search for Meaning, and a more recent book, Man's Ultimate Search for Meaning, are currently in print.]

See also: Viktor Frankl – Holocaust Survivor

…and Viktor Frankl: Why Have Ideals?
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