Chapter 24: Frankl – Logotherapy

Part 3: The Search for Ultimate Meaning

Kierkegaard believed that man could never truly be in contact with the infinite and absolute God.  Similarly, Frankl talked about a super-meaning to life, something that goes far deeper than logic.  When Frankl told his daughter that the good Lord had cured her measles, his daughter reminded him that the good Lord had given her the measles in the first place.  Since children may not benefit from the challenges of suffering as adults might, and even adults find it difficult to find meaning in truly horrible situations like the concentration camps of Nazi Germany or the gulags of the former Soviet Union, the meaning of life in the greater context of human societies is often not readily apparent.  But as Frankl says:

This ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man; in logotherapy, we speak in this context of a super-meaning.  What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.  Logos is deeper than logic.  (pg. 122; Frankl, 1946/1992)

In discussing the value of logotherapy, Frankl offered critiques of other popular fields in psychology and psychiatry.  His most serious critique was of the deterministic nature of psychoanalysis. Frankl fervently believed in an individual’s freedom to transcend their self and choose to make the best of any situation.  And he had plenty of experience to back up his opinion: “…I am a survivor of four camps – concentration camps, that is – and as such I also bear witness to the unexpected extent to which man is capable of defying and braving even the worst conditions conceivable” (pg. 47; Frankl, 1978).  He did not, however, reject determinism entirely. Instead, he attributed determinism to the psychological dimension, whereas freedom exists within the noölogical dimension. He acknowledged Freud and Adler for teaching us to “unmask the neurotic.” As for behaviorism, Frankl acknowledged that it helped to “demythologize” neurosis, by pointing out that not every psychological problem is due to unconscious forces from early childhood, and he included Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner as great pioneers.  Still, both psychoanalysis and behaviorism ignore the essential humanness of the individual.

Despite his emphasis on the individual human, Frankl did not consider logotherapy as belonging within humanistic psychology (or at least not within what he called pseudo-humanism; Frankl, 1978).  He believed that humanistic psychology focused so much on the humanity of individuals that they did not quite appreciate the uniqueness of each person. It is not enough to merely encounter another person.  In order to be moved on the personal level, there must be an element of love (love for another person, if not a more intimate and personal love for a spouse or a child). As we will see, Rollo May also considered love to be of great importance to our lives.  The emphasis that Frankl placed on love may have something to do with his deep spirituality. Frankl believed in a spiritual unconscious, separate from the instinctual unconscious described by Freud (Frankl, 1948/2000). In order for an individual to experience an authentic existence, they must determine whether a given phenomenon (thoughts, feelings, impulses, etc.) is instinctual or spiritual, and then freely choose how to behave or respond.  Frankl returned to Heidegger’s concept of Dasein, living according to the understanding that one is connected to Being. Although this concept may seem reminiscent of Jung’s collective unconscious, nothing could be further from the truth:

…It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that not only is the unconscious neither divine nor omniscient, but above all man’s unconscious relation to God is profoundly personal.  The “unconscious God” must not be mistaken as an impersonal force operant in man. This understanding was the great mistake to which C. G. Jung fell prey. Jung must be credited with having discovered distinctly religious elements within the unconscious.  Yet he misplaced this unconscious religiousness of man, failing to locate the unconscious God in the personal and existential region. Instead, he allotted it to the region of drives and instincts, where unconscious religiousness no longer remained a matter of choice and decision.  According to Jung, something within me is religious, but it is not I who then is religious; something within me drives me to God, but it is not I who makes the choice and takes the responsibility. (pg. 70; Frankl, 1948/2000)

According to Frankl, the most human of all human phenomena is the will-to-meaning.  Religion, or spirituality, seeks a will-to-ultimate-meaning.  Once again, Frankl believed that Freudian psychoanalysis and Adlerian individual psychology had failed to sufficiently credit the self-transcendent quality of individuals who live authentic lives.  It is in the study of authentic lives that “height psychology,” as Frankl called it, can address the higher aspirations of the human psyche. In other words, beyond seeking pleasure and/or power, there is man’s search for meaning (Frankl, 1948/2000).

Personality Theory in Real Life:  The Application of Frankl’s Theories to the Workplace and Everyday Life

In 1989, Stephen Covey published The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  Covey’s book became very popular, selling millions of copies on the way to becoming a #1 New York Times bestseller.  If you were to read the first chapter of that book now, it would seem very familiar. Covey presents a very existential approach to understanding our lives, particularly with regard to the problems we experience every day.  Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that in the chapters describing the first two of these seven habits he cites and quotes Viktor Frankl numerous times. Indeed, Covey cites Frankl’s first two books as being profoundly influential in his own life, and how impressed Covey was having met Frankl shortly before Frankl’s death (see Covey’s foreword in Pattakos, 2004).

The first two habits, according to Covey, are: 1) be proactive, and 2) begin with the end in mind.  He briefly describes Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps, and refers to Frankl’s most widely quoted saying, that Frankl himself could decide how his experiences would affect him, and that no one could take that freedom away from Frankl.  People who choose to develop this level of personal freedom are certainly being proactive, as opposed to responding passively to events that occur around them and to them. It is not necessary, of course, to suffer such tragic circumstances in order to become proactive in one’s own life:

…It is in the ordinary events of every day that we develop the proactive capacity to handle the extraordinary pressures of life.  It’s how we make and keep commitments, how we handle a traffic jam, how we respond to an irate customer or a disobedient child. It’s how we view our problems and where we focus our energies.  It’s the language we use. (pg. 92; Covey, 1989)

Covey compares his habit of beginning with the end in mind to logotherapy, helping people to recognize the meaning that their life holds.  Covey works primarily in business leadership training, so the value of working toward a greater goal than simply keeping a company in business from day to day is clear, especially for those who care about employee morale and quality control (see also Principle-Centered Leadership; Covey, 1990).  When employees share a sense of purpose in their work, they are likely to have higher intrinsic motivation.  Think about it for a moment. Have you ever had a job you didn’t really understand and didn’t care about? Have you ever been given that sort of homework in school or college?  So, how much effort did you really put into that job or assignment?

Covey’s remaining habits are: 3) put first things first, 4) think win/win, 5) seek first to understand, then to be understood, 6) synergize, and 7) sharpen the saw.  At first glance these principles seem reasonably straight forward, emphasizing practical and responsible actions. However, what does “sharpen the saw” mean? Sharpening the saw refers to keeping our tools in good working order, and we are our most important tool.  Covey considers it essential to regularly and consistently, in wise and balanced ways, to exercise the four dimensions of our nature: physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual. By investing in ourselves, we are taking care to live an authentic life.

More recently, Covey has examined his principles beyond the business world.  In 1997 he published The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, a book in which he applies the same 7 habits to family life.  Covey certainly has solid credentials as a family man, as father of 9 and grandfather of 43 children, and he won the 2003 Fatherhood Award from the National Fatherhood Initiative.  Drawing in large part on his own extensive, personal experience, Covey uses many stories, anecdotes, and examples of real-life situations to help provide context to the challenges of raising a family and how we might best work with them.  But first, he introduces a simple process: have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish, have a plan of how you might accomplish it, and use a compass (your own unique gifts that enable you to be an agent of change in your family). In essence, Covey is recommending that you prepare yourself to develop the seven habits.

Just as families change, so does the world we live in.  Recently, Covey addressed this change by proposing an eighth habit (Covey, 2004).  He says that this was not simply an important habit he had overlooked before, but one that has risen to new significance as we have fully entered the age of information and technology in the twenty-first century.  As communication has become much easier (e.g., email), it has also become less personal and meaningful. Thus, the need for the eighth habit: find your voice and inspire others to find theirs. According to Covey, “voice is unique personal significance.”  Essentially, it is the same as finding meaning in one’s life, and then helping others to find meaning in their own lives. It is through finding a mission or a purpose in life that we can move “from effectiveness to greatness” (Covey, 2004).

Whereas Covey presented an approach to personal and professional effectiveness (and later to greatness as well) that parallels the principles set forth by Viktor Frankl, Alex Pattakos very directly applies Frankl’s theories to both the workplace and one’s everyday life in Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles at Work (with a foreword by Stephen Covey; Pattakos, 2004).  Frankl himself urged Pattakos to publish his book during a meeting in 1996.  Pattakos, like Covey, has been profoundly influenced by Frankl’s writings throughout Pattakos’ career.  According to Pattakos, we are creatures of habit and we prefer a life that is both predictable and within our comfort zone.  As the world is changing in the twenty-first century, so the conditions under which we work are changing. Pattakos believes there is a need for humanizing work.  More than just balancing one’s personal life and career, humanizing work is an attempt to honor our own individuality and to fully engage our human spirit at work.  Simply put, it is an effort to apply Frankl’s will-to-meaning in our workplace (Pattakos, 2004).

Like Covey, Pattakos presents seven core principles.  They are similar to Covey’s seven habits, but in keeping with Pattakos’ intentions, they are aligned more directly with the principles of logotherapy and existential psychology described by Frankl.  The seven core principles are: 1) exercise the freedom to choose your attitude, 2) realize your will-to-meaning, 3) detect the meaning of life’s moments, 4) don’t work against yourself, 5) look at yourself from a distance, 6) shift your focus of attention, and 7) extend beyond yourself.  These principles include not only the ideas of personal freedom and will-to-meaning, but also dereflection (principles 4 and 6) and the will-to-ultimate-meaning (principle 7). Clearly Pattakos has accomplished his goal of applying logotherapy to the workplace, but how well does this application work in real life?

Pattakos describes the case of a probation officer with the state department of corrections.  Rick, as Pattakos identifies him, was raised in foster care and orphanages. However, rather than developing a sense of caring and concern for others who have difficulties in their lives, Rick refers to his clients as “maggots.”  Rick has become insensitive and unforgiving, he has also become deeply depressed and anxious. Overall, he feels lost, unhappy, and unfulfilled, and he doesn’t know what to do about it. According to Pattakos, he has become a prisoner of his own thoughts, and only he has the key to his own freedom.  Very simply put, he needs to find a new job or find meaning in the one he has now. One possibility is for Rick to consider his own life circumstances in relationship to his clients:

…Whenever we stop long enough to connect to ourselves, to our environment, to those with whom we work, to the task before us, to the extraordinary interdependence that is always part of our lives, we experience meaning.  Meaning is who we are in this world. And it is the world that graces us with meaning. (pg. 157; Pattakos, 2004)

By making a responsible choice to seek meaning in our lives, to not work against ourselves, we can put ourselves on a path we had not seen before:

When we live and work with meaning, we can choose to make meaning, to see meaning, and to share meaning.  We can choose our attitudes to life and work; we can choose how to respond to others, how to respond to our jobs, and how to make the very best of difficult circumstances.  We can transcend ourselves and be transformed by meaning. We can find connection to meaning at work, in the most unusual places and with the most unexpected people. Meaning is full of surprises.  (pg. 159; Pattakos, 2004)

And finally, it does not matter what sort of job we have.  It is our choice, our freedom:

No matter what our specific job might be, it is the work we do that represents who we are.  When we meet our work with enthusiasm, appreciation, generosity, and integrity, we meet it with meaning.  And no matter how mundane a job might seem at the time, we can transform it with meaning. Meaning is life’s legacy, and it is as available to us at work as it is available to us in our deepest spiritual quests.  We breathe, therefore we are – spiritual. Life is; therefore it is – meaningful. We do, therefore we work.

Viktor Frankl’s legacy was one of hope and possibility.  He saw the human condition at its worst, and human beings behaving in ways intolerable to the imagination.  He also saw human beings rising to heights of compassion and caring in ways that can only be described as miraculous acts of unselfishness and transcendence.  There is something in us that can rise above and beyond everything we think possible… (pg. 162; Pattakos, 2004)

Stephen Covey and Alex Pattakos have applied Frankl’s theories to both the workplace and our everyday lives.  How well do you think the principles of existential psychology can address the problems that you face at work, home, school, etc.?  Is it ever really as simple as applying one’s will and choosing to act responsibly?

Supplemental Materials

Finding Meaning in Difficult Times-Interview with Dr. Viktor Frankl

This video [28:43] features an interview with Dr. Viktor Frankl talking about finding meaning even in difficult times.



Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

iakhan90.  (2011, October 28).  Finding meaning in difficult times (interview with Dr. Viktor Frankl).  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.