email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
Maximizing Effectiveness in Dynamic Psychotherapy Self-Compassion in Psychotherapy101 Healing StoriesA Clinician's Guide to Legal Issues in PsychotherapyA Map of the MindA Primer for Beginning PsychotherapyACT With LoveActive Treatment of DepressionAffect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of SelfAlready FreeBad TherapyBecoming an Effective PsychotherapistBefore ForgivingBeing a Brain-Wise TherapistBetrayed as BoysBeyond Evidence-Based PsychotherapyBeyond MadnessBeyond PostmodernismBinge No MoreBiofeedback for the BrainBipolar DisorderBody PsychotherapyBoundaries and Boundary Violations in PsychoanalysisBrain Change TherapyBrain Science and Psychological DisordersBrain-Based Therapy with AdultsBrain-Based Therapy with Children and AdolescentsBrief Adolescent Therapy Homework PlannerBrief Child Therapy Homework PlannerBrief Therapy Homework PlannerBuffy the Vampire Slayer and PhilosophyBuilding on BionCare of the PsycheCase Studies in DepressionCaught in the NetChild and Adolescent Treatment for Social Work PracticeChoosing an Online TherapistChronic DepressionClinical Dilemmas in PsychotherapyClinical Handbook of Psychological DisordersClinical Intuition in PsychotherapyClinical Pearls of WisdomCo-Creating ChangeCognitive Therapy for Challenging ProblemsCompassionConfessions of a Former ChildConfidential RelationshipsConfidentiality and Mental HealthConfidingContemplative Psychotherapy EssentialsControlConversations About Psychology and Sexual OrientationCoping with BPDCouch FictionCounseling in GenderlandCounseling with Choice TheoryCouple SkillsCrazy for YouCreating a Life of Meaning and CompassionCreating HysteriaCritical Issues in PsychotherapyCrucial Choices, Crucial ChangesDeafness In MindDecoding the Ethics CodeDeconstructing PsychotherapyDeep Brain StimulationDemystifying TherapyDepression 101Depression in ContextDialogues on DifferenceDissociative ChildrenDo-It-Yourself Eye Movement Techniques for Emotional HealingE-TherapyEarly WarningEncountering the Sacred in PsychotherapyEnergy Psychology InteractiveErrant SelvesEssays on Philosophical CounselingEssentials of Wais-III AssessmentEthically Challenged ProfessionsEthics and Values in PsychotherapyEthics in Plain EnglishEthics in Psychotherapy and CounselingExpectationExploring the Self through PhotographyExpressing EmotionFacing Human SufferingFairbairn's Object Relations Theory in the Clinical SettingFamily TherapyFavorite Counseling and Therapy Homework AssignmentsFear of IntimacyFlourishingFolie a DeuxForms of Intersubjectivity in Infant Reasearch and Adult TreatmentFoundations of Ethical Practice, Research, and Teaching in PsychologyFreud and the Question of PseudoscienceFrom Morality to Mental HealthFundamentals of Psychoanalytic TechniqueGenes on the CouchGod & TherapyHalf Empty, Half FullHandbook of Clinical Psychopharmacology for TherapistsHandbook of Counseling and Psychotherapy with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual ClientsHandbook of Evidence-Based Therapies for Children and AdolescentsHealing the Heart and Mind with MindfulnessHeinz KohutHelping Children Cope With Disasters and TerrorismHigh RiskHistory of PsychotherapyHow Clients Make Therapy WorkHow Psychotherapists DevelopHow to Fail As a TherapistHow to Go to TherapyHypnosis for Inner Conflict ResolutionHypnosis for Smoking CessationI Never Promised You a Rose GardenIf Only I Had KnownIn Others' EyesIn SessionIn Therapy We TrustIn Treatment: Season 1Incorporating Spirituality in Counseling and PsychotherapyInside the SessionInside TherapyIs Long-Term Therapy Unethical?Issues in Philosophical CounselingIt's Not as Bad as It SeemsItís Your HourLearning from Our MistakesLearning Supportive PsychotherapyLetters to a Young TherapistLife CoachingLogotherapy and Existential AnalysisLove's ExecutionerMadness and DemocracyMaking the Big LeapMan's Search for MeaningMetaphoria: Metaphor and Guided Metaphor for Psychotherapy and HealingMind GamesMindfulness and AcceptanceMindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for DepressionMindworks: An Introduction to NLPMockingbird YearsMoments of EngagementMomma and the Meaning of LifeMotivational Interviewing: Preparing People For ChangeMulticulturalism and the Therapeutic ProcessMultifamily Groups in the Treatment of Severe Psychiatric DisordersNarrative PracticeOn the CouchOne Nation Under TherapyOur Inner WorldOur Last Great IllusionOutsider ArtOvercoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and BehaviorsOverexposedPathways to SpiritualityPersonality and PsychotherapyPhilosophical CounselingPhilosophical Counselling and the UnconsciousPhilosophical Issues in Counseling and PsychotherapyPhilosophical PracticePhilosophy and PsychotherapyPhilosophy for Counselling and PsychotherapyPhilosophy PracticePhilosophy's Role in Counseling and PsychotherapyPillar of SaltPlan BPlato, Not Prozac!Polarities of ExperiencesPower GamesPractical Psychoanalysis for Therapists and PatientsPrinciples and Practice of Sex TherapyPsychologists Defying the CrowdPsychology, Psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis, and the Politics of Human RelationshipsPsychosis in the FamilyPsychotherapyPsychotherapyPsychotherapy and ConfidentialityPsychotherapy As PraxisPsychotherapy for Children and AdolescentsPsychotherapy for Personality DisordersPsychotherapy Is Worth ItPsychotherapy Isn't What You ThinkPsychotherapy with Adolescent Girls and Young WomenPsychotherapy with Children and AdolescentsPsychotherapy without the SelfPsychotherapy, American Culture, and Social PolicyRapid Cognitive TherapyRational Emotive Behavior TherapyRational Emotive Behavior TherapyRationality and the Pursuit of HappinessRebuilding Shattered LivesReclaiming Our ChildrenRecovery OptionsRelationalityRent Two Films and Let's Talk in the MorningSaving the Modern SoulScience and Pseudoscience in Clinical PsychologySecond-order Change in PsychotherapySelf-Compassion in PsychotherapySelf-Determination Theory in the ClinicSelf-Disclosure in Psychotherapy and RecoverySerious ShoppingSex, Therapy, and KidsSexual Orientation and Psychodynamic PsychotherapySigns of SafetySoul Murder RevisitedStaring at the SunStraight to JesusStrangers to OurselvesSubjective Experience and the Logic of the OtherTaking America Off DrugsTales of PsychotherapyTales of UnknowingTalk is Not EnoughTalking Cures and Placebo EffectsTelling SecretsThe Behavioral Medicine Treatment PlannerThe Body in PsychotherapyThe Brief Couples Therapy Homework Planner with DiskThe Case Formulation Approach to Cognitive-Behavior TherapyThe Challenge for Psychoanalysis and PsychotherapyThe Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Treatment PlannerThe Clinical Child Documentation SourcebookThe Clinical Documentation SourcebookThe Complete Adult Psychotherapy Treatment PlannerThe Couch and the TreeThe Couples Psychotherapy Treatment PlannerThe Crucible of ExperienceThe Cure of SoulsThe Death of PsychotherapyThe Education of Mrs. BemisThe Ethical Treatment of DepressionThe Ethics of PsychoanalysisThe Gay and Lesbian Psychotherapy Treatment PlannerThe Gift of TherapyThe Great Psychotherapy Debate: The Evidence for What Makes Psychotherapy Work The Healing JourneyThe Heart & Soul of ChangeThe Heroic ClientThe Husbands and Wives ClubThe Love CureThe Making of a TherapistThe Mindful TherapistThe Mirror Crack'dThe Mummy at the Dining Room TableThe Neuroscience of PsychotherapyThe Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social BrainThe New Rational TherapyThe Older Adult Psychotherapy Treatment PlannerThe Other Side of DesireThe Pastoral Counseling Treatment PlannerThe Philosopher's Autobiography The Pornographer's GriefThe Portable CoachThe Portable Ethicist for Mental Health Professionals The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday LifeThe Problem of EvilThe Problem with Cognitive Behavioural TherapyThe Psychodynamics of Gender and Gender RoleThe Psychotherapy Documentation PrimerThe Psychotherapy Documentation PrimerThe Psychotherapy of HopeThe Real World Guide to Psychotherapy PracticeThe Schopenhauer CureThe Sex Lives of TeenagersThe Talking CureThe Therapeutic "Aha!"The Therapist's Guide to PsychopharmacologyThe Therapist's Guide to Psychopharmacology, Revised EditionThe Therapist's Ultimate Solution BookThe Trauma of Everyday LifeThe UnsayableThe Way of the JournalTheory and Practice of Brief TherapyTherapy with ChildrenTherapy's DelusionsTheraScribe 3.0 for WindowsTheraScribe 4.0Thinking about ThinkingThinking for CliniciansThinking for CliniciansThoughts Without a ThinkerThriveToward a Psychology of AwakeningTracking Mental Health OutcomesTrauma, Truth and ReconciliationTreating Attachment DisordersTreatment for Chronic DepressionTreatment Plans and Interventions for Depression and Anxiety DisordersUnderstanding Child MolestersUnspeakable Truths and Happy EndingsWhat the Buddha FeltWhat Works for Whom?What Works for Whom? Second EditionWhen the Body SpeaksWhispers from the EastWise TherapyWittgenstein and PsychotherapyWorking MindsWoulda, Coulda, ShouldaWriting About PatientsYoga Skills for Therapists:Yoga Therapy
This classic by the great Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl could be described as one of the most important popular books of the 20th century. It has an extraordinary message about the meaning of life and its psychological importance.
The first part of Man's Search for Meaning, a book which now has sold more than 12 million copies worldwide, was originally published in German in 1946. It's Frankl's autobiographical account of his experiences of his three years in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentrations camps, between 1942 and 1945. This part, along with a brief theoretical section, appeared in English in 1959 as From Death-Camp to Existentialism. The second part of the book is a synopsis of logotherapy, the major system of existential psychotherapy and psychology that Frankl went on to develop. The present edition, the sixth in English, includes a new foreword by the emeritus rabbi Harold S. Kushner, as well as a new biographical afterword by the philosopher, lawyer and psychoanalyst William J. Winslade.
The book's first autobiographical part provides unique and strong evidence for some of the principles of logotherapy summarized in Part II (this ranges from very philosophical ideas, such as the meaning of life, to descriptions of psychotherapeutic techniques, such as 'paradoxical intention'). This second part, which includes a paragraph for each of the important notions and principles of logotherapy, is highly condensed. Little wonder since it attempts to convey in a short space what required twenty volumes in German.
The autobiographical part isn't for the faint-hearted. For those who weren't sent to the gas chambers at the initial selection, the conditions in the camp were both physically and mentally extremely harsh. I shall only mention a fraction of them here. The prisoners faced horrible undernourishment whilst having to do hard manual labor for 12 hours a day. In winter, this would mostly be in sub-zero temperatures, yet they didn't have any winter clothes. They were threatened by death daily and hourly. And they had no news of their loved ones, who had either been sent to another camp or gassed immediately. (Frankl's parents, brother and pregnant wife all lost their lives.) As you would expect, the survival rate was very low -- only 1 in 28 survived, Frankl claims.
A lot of luck was required to survive. You had to avoid random killings. You had to avoid being selected for a work party with particularly hard labor or a particularly nasty foreman or Capo. You had to avoid getting frostbite in addition to the usual sores and abrasions. And similarly in countless of other cases.
But even with such luck, how did anyone manage to survive? It's here that Frankl's philosophy of life and human beings comes in -- in three stages. Firstly, Frankl often uses a quotation from Nietzsche: 'He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.' I suggest we call this view (1) 'Nietzsche's thesis of existential endurance'. Having this 'why', a 'why' for one's existence, is having meaning in one's life. Secondly, the drive towards having meaning in one's life, the will to meaning, as he calls it, is the primary motivation in humans. (Correspondingly, the frustration of it, 'existential frustration', is in his view the main cause of neuroses and psychiatric problems.) Evidence for this claim is indicated both by the camp experience and by several empirical studies mentioned in Part II of the book. I suggest we call this view (2) the 'primacy of the will to meaning'.
Thirdly, Frankl maintains that there are three sources of meaning. The first is love. This is exemplified strongly by the experiences in the camp. In Frankl's own case, it's clear that he refers to the relationships with the ones closest to him, and in particular his love for his wife. Frankl mentions other examples of prisoners who, he claims, were able to survive the extreme conditions because of their connection to a loved one.
The second source of meaning is work. This too is exemplified strongly by Frankl's own experience as a prisoner. He had brought the manuscript for his first book on logotherapy, but one of the guards confiscated it. Not only did this give him the chance of a very concrete meaningful activity (e.g. when in a camp in Bavaria he fell ill with typhus, he jotted down on little scraps of paper notes intended to enable him to rewrite the manuscript should he live to the day of liberation). It also gave him a 'why' for his existence.
Accordingly, Frankl summarizes the status of love and work as sources of meaning like this: 'A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how".'
It's hardly unusual to claim that love and work are important to meaning. However, it's with the third source of meaning that Frankl becomes remarkable. This source is suffering. (Frankl stresses that he's talking about unavoidable suffering; suffering that is avoidable is simply masochistic.) There are two reasons why suffering can be a source of meaning. Firstly, because our inner freedom -- our 'spiritual freedom', as Frankl occasionally calls it -- to choose the attitude we have to things is absolute, as it were, we can choose which attitude to take to suffering. Secondly, and closely related to this Stoic view, we can choose to see suffering as our 'task'. This 'task' of suffering, the 'task' of bearing one's cross, enables a human being to suffer 'proudly'. Frankl quotes Dostoevski: 'There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.' Further, it enables a human being to make suffering into 'an achievement' -- which 'transforms a personal tragedy into a triumph'.
The significance of this third source of meaning was also exemplified in abundance by the camp prisoners. Of course, they suffered immensely, and they could do nothing to avoid it. But what they could do was to use their 'spiritual freedom' to change their attitude to their suffering so as to make it into a source of meaning. Those who didn't do this (and didn't have either of the two other sources of meaning) would give up and become moribund: remaining in their bunks, lying in their own urine and excreta, disobeying all orders to get up, smoking their last cigarette, waiting for death.
I suggest we call Frankl's view on what provides meaning (3) the 'triadic source of meaning'. The conjunction of this with the two other main theses of Frankl's philosophy of life and human beings, i.e. (1) Nietzsche's thesis of existential endurance and (2) the primacy of the will to meaning, is the central message of Man's Search for Meaning. This isn't something Frankl himself maintains explicitly, and there's of course an element of interpretation to it (especially so, as the book generally is loosely structured and uses very informal language). But I believe it's well supported by a careful reading.
Harold S. Kushner, the author of the book's foreword, is a man whose life, sadly, has put him in a position that one would think should increase the chance of appreciating the book fully: he's been struggling to understand the illness and death of his son. However, he finds it significant that whereas the foreword to the 1962 edition was written by a prominent psychologist, Gordon Allport, the present foreword is written by a 'clergyman', as he calls himself: 'We have come to recognize that this is a profoundly religious book.'
I couldn't disagree more. Frankl was deeply religious and this is shown at many points in the book. But what in my view is the book's central message -- to repeat, the conjunction of (1) to (3) above -- clearly neither mentions nor necessarily implies religiosity in any form. Even if all of Frankl's religious views were removed from the book, its essence would be entirely unaffected.
And it's because of this that I can end with an evaluation which I dare say is a privilege for a reviewer of a book: no human being should fail to read it. Read it -- and hope that, unlike Frankl, you'll never exemplify its message in the extreme.
© 2007 Bo Meinertsen
Bo Meinertsen, PhD, School of Philosophy, University of Leeds. Email: email@example.com