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An Overview of Viktor Frankl's Logotherapy

By Ayesh Perera, published June 26, 2020


Take-home Messages
  • Logotherapy is a scientifically based school of psychotherapy, based on the belief that the search for meaning even amidst misery can constitute a potential solution to human suffering.
  • Meaning can be found by creating a work, loving someone, or adopting a modified attitude toward inevitable suffering.
  • Three techniques used in logotherapy include dereflection, paradoxical intention, and Socratic dialogue.
  • Logotherapy is used today for a variety of purposes, including addiction, pain and guilt, anxiety, grief, and depression.

Viktor Frankl

Born in 1905, Viktor Frankl grew up learning the theories of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler (Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019). Having graduated from the University of Vienna Medical School in 1930, he went on to become the Director of the Neurological Department of the Rothschild Hospital.

In 1942, however, his life abruptly changed when Frankl was deported to a Nazi concentration camp along with his family. While struggling to survive in the Nazi camp, drawing from his experiences as well as observations, he developed the theory of logotherapy which claimed that through a search for meaning in life, individuals can endure and overcome suffering.

Viktor-Frankl

Logotherapy

Logotherapy literally means therapy through meaning. Frankl believed that humans are motivated by something called a "will to meaning," which corresponds to a desire to seek and make meaning in life. .

“Inasmuch as logotherapy makes him aware of the hidden logos of his existence, it is an analytical process” (Frankl, 1984, p. 125).

Viktor Frankl coined the term logotherapy based on his belief that the search for meaning even amidst suffering can constitute a potential solution to human suffering.

Logotherapy has been recognized as a scientifically based school of psychotherapy by the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Society (Schulenberg, Hutzell, Nassif, and Rogina, 2008).

Fundamental Properties

Core Properties

At the heart of Frankl’s philosophy are three essential properties (Rajeswari, 2015):

  • 1. Every person possesses a healthy core.
  • 2. The main focus is upon enlightening a person to his or her own inner resources, and providing him or her with the tools to use their internal core.
  • 3. While life offers purpose and meaning, it does not assure happiness or fulfillment.

Finding Meaning

“Finding meaning or the will to meaning is the primary motivation for living….the meaning that an individual finds is unique to each person and can be fulfilled only by that one person….Frankl emphasized that the true meaning of each person’s life is something that must be discovered by activity in the world through interaction with others, not solely through introspection….. Challenging a person with a potential meaning to fulfill evokes the will to meaning.” (Graber, 2004, p. 65)

Logotherapy holds that human beings are driven to find purpose and meaning in life. It offers three distinct ways whereby one can discover meaning in life (Devoe, 2012):

  • 1. Creative value:
    By creating a work or accomplishing a task.
  • 2. Experiential value:
    Receiving something from the world through appreciation and gratitude. By fully experiencing something or loving someone.
  • 3. Attitudinal value:
    By the adopting a certain attitude toward inevitable suffering.

Frankl held that life includes suffering, and that a human being’s ultimate freedom lay in his or her responding correctly to the given circumstances, including those which have engendered pain.

Furthermore, Frankl believed that one can discover meaning in one’s existence by finding one’s unique role in life. An oft cited incident which further clarifies Frankl’s approach was an elderly general practitioner’s encounter with Frankl (Cuncic, 2019).

The elderly man was struggling with depression following the loss of his wife. After Frankl showed him how his wife’s death had actually spared her of losing him, the elderly man saw how his own experiences had preserved his wife from the same.

The new perspective imbued the his suffering with meaning and significantly relieved his depression.

The Basic Assumptions

As do all forms of psychotherapy, logotherapy possesses a set of underlying assumptions which cannot be conclusively proven (Reitinger, 2015):

1. Body, Mind, and Spirit

Human beings are made up of body (soma), mind (psyche) and spirit (noos). Frankl held that while we have a body and a mind, the spirit is who we are, our identity and essence.

While Frankl’s theory was not derived from theology, his assumption herein departs from an atheistic materialism and shares striking similarities with certain religious views.

2. Life Has Meaning Even in The Most Miserable Circumstances

This assumption represents an acknowledgement of a higher order in the world: an order that transcends mere human laws. Consequently, even an objectively terrible situation can offer meaning.

"If there is a 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, 1984, p. 88).

3. Humans Possess a Will to Meaning

Logotherapy proposes that humans have a will to meaning, which means that seeing meaning in pain can prepare the individual for suffering.

This assumption embodies a significant departure from one’s will to achieve power and pleasure. It posits that the discovery of meaning is one’s primary motive for living.

The will-to-meaning is “the basic striving of man to find and meaning and purpose” (Frankl, 1969, p. 35).

4. Freedom to Find Meaning

Under all circumstances, individuals are free to activate the will to discover meaning. The salutary amendment of one’s attitude toward inevitable suffering can enable one’s will to discover meaning under any circumstance.

This assumption draws heavily upon Frankl’s own experiences in the Nazi camps.

5. Meaning of the Moment

V. An individual’s response determines the meaningfulness of the individual’s decision. By heeding the values of society or following one’s conscience, one can find meaning in one’s decisions.

This assumption is associated with the meaning of the moment in practical daily living rather than ultimate meaning.

6. Individuals Are Unique

In response to the various demands of life, human beings experience unique situations. Additionally, they are constantly seeking meaning.


Logotherapy in Practice

Therapeutic Goals
  • To awaken the client’s sense of responsibility and meaning.
  • To help the client discover their true identity and place in the world.
  • To help the client pursue what really matters in life.
  • To make life better for self and others.

Three techniques used in logotherapy include dereflection, paradoxical intention, and Socratic dialogue.

  1. Dereflection: Dereflection, which is based on self-transcendence, seeks to redirect one’s attention from oneself or one’s own goals toward others. This technique posits that when one is self-absorbed and is struggling with issues in one’s life, one can significantly improve one’s situation by altering one’s focus and being concerned about those around. For instance, if one is struggling with one’s finances, the logotherapist might ask the patient to focus more on the people he or she is working to provide for, rather than constantly thinking of how the problem is affecting himself or herself.
  2. Paradoxical intention: Paradoxical intention is employed primarily to overcome fear by anticipating the very object of one’s fear. For instance, with humor and ridicule, one may wish for the very thing one is afraid of, in order to remove fear from one’s intention. This practice would likely result in reducing the symptoms as well.
  3. Socratic dialogue: : Socratic dialogue employs a method of self-discovery to demonstrate to the patient that the solution to the patient’s problem is actually within him or her. The logotherapist, herein would use the patient’s words, by listening carefully for patterns, to help the patient discover new meaning in his or her own words.

In addition to the above three, attitude modification can be implemented. This technique is primarily focused on altering one’s attitude toward a situation rather than amending one’s conduct.

A patient who has suffered a loss might be directed to adopt a new attitude toward the misfortune so as to process the situation better.


Critical Evaluation

Frankl believed in turning tragedy into triumph, and past guilt into life-changing progress. Drawing primarily from his personal experiences, his approach aimed at enabling individuals to tap into their own inner resources to transform adversity.

By today however, more than mere anecdotes testifies to its efficacy. A vast array of theoretical and empirical research has been conducted on logotherapy (Schulenberg, Hutzell, Nassif, and Rogina, 2008).

In 2016, a systematic assessment of evidence related to logotherapy was conducted, and the following were among its findings (Thir & Batthyány, 2016):

  • A tendency of patients with disorders to have a lower meaning of life .
  • A Correlation between the search for & the presence of meaning, and satisfaction in life.
  • A relationship between the search for & the presence of meaning, and resilience.
  • The effectiveness of logotherapy for depressed children and early adolescents with cancer.
  • A Correlation between the presence of meaning and suicidal thought in individuals suffering from cancer.
  • The effectiveness of logotherapy in decreasing job burnout.

Critics have accused Frankl of using his time in the Nazi concentration camps to advance his specific brand of psychotherapy (Reitinger, 2015). Additionally, some have contended that Frankl’s support came only from religious leaders.

Moreover, the existentialist psychologist Rollo May argued that logotherapy resembled authoritarianism because the therapist seemingly dictated solutions to the client (May, 1969).

May however, in his criticism, did not clarify whether he was critiquing Frankl’s approach as a therapist himself, or an aspect that characterized logotherapy itself. Frankl, in fact, contended that logotherapy actually teaches the patient to be responsible.

Furthermore, although Frankl’s logotherapy has enjoyed acceptance from many religious communities, it has not been utterly rejected by the scientific community. On the contrary, as shown above, logotherapy, sometimes combined with other approaches, is still practiced today.

Finally, while it can be granted that Frankl may not have discovered logotherapy without his experiences in the Nazi camps, there is no evidence to even faintly suggest that Frankl proactively sought out his torturous ordeal so he could be credited with a novel brand of psychotherapy.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

How to reference this article:

Prera, A (2020, June 26). An overview of viktor frankl's logotherapy. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/logotherapy.html

APA Style References

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Frankl, V. E. (1984). The will to meaning;: Foundations and applications of logotherapy. World Pub. Co

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May, R. (1969). Love and will. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

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Thir, M., & Batthyány, A. (2016). The state of empirical research on logotherapy and existential analysis. In Logotherapy and Existential Analysis (pp. 53-74). Springer, Cham.

“Viktor Frankl | Biography, Books, Theory, & Facts | Britannica.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Viktor-Frankl

How to reference this article:

Prera, A (2020, June 26). An overview of viktor frankl's logotherapy. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/logotherapy.html

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