Last Reviewed on October 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1388
In “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” Frankl lays out the basic guiding principles of his theory of logotherapy, which he had already begun to develop before his arrest and imprisonment in the camps. Logos is Greek for “meaning,” and Frankl considers the search for meaning to be the primary motivation in an individual’s life. In logotherapy, the “will to meaning” takes precedence, as opposed to Sigmund Freud’s will to pleasure or Alfred Adler’s will to power. A will to meaning that becomes frustrated can result in “existential frustration,” which can result in “noogenic neuroses,” noos being Greek for “mind.” Frankl distinguishes noogenic neuroses from “psychogenic neuroses” by emphasizing that questioning the meaning of one’s life, or even despairing over an apparent lack of meaning, is not a symptom of mental illness, but an existential conflict—and a conflict that is not necessarily unhealthy. For Frankl, the suffering involved in such a conflict, suffering that arises from existential frustration, can actually be a kind of achievement. He regards the job of a logotherapist as that of helping a patient find the meaning, the logos, in his or her life.
Just as he refuses to see the suffering that arises from existential frustration as inherently pathological, Frankl sees the kind of mental tension that arises from “the gap between what one is and what one should become” not as something to be dispelled in favor of a calm equilibrium, but as a critical component of mental health. He refers to the tension between a meaning to be fulfilled, goal to be achieved, or task to be completed and the person who must fulfill, achieve, or complete it as “noo-dynamics” and exhorts logotherapists to encourage this tension in their patients by reorienting them toward the potential meaning in their lives.
Frankl then turns to examining the reasons so many people in his time were plagued by a sense of the ultimate meaninglessness of their lives, a state of mind which he refers to as the “existential vacuum.” While boredom is the most prevalent manifestation of the existential vacuum, depression, aggression, and addiction can all be attributed to it. People may also try to compensate for a frustrated will to meaning through the will to power, especially in the form of the “primitive” will to money, and the will to pleasure in the form of sex. The logotherapist’s purpose is to help patients fill the vacuum with potential meaning. For Frankl, there is no overarching, one-size-fits-all meaning to life. Rather, there is infinite potential meaning to be found in life no matter the circumstances; the meaning any one individual finds in his or her life is specific to that individual and can change from moment to moment. We are each of us, Frankl says, responsible for answering for our own lives, and this responsibility is the essence of what logotherapy is all about.
The logotherapist aims to help patients recognize their own responsibility to life. Frankl believes that the meaning of life must be discovered in the world rather than through isolated contemplation. He terms this principle “the self-transcendence of human existence” and declares that the “self-actualization” other psychologists write about can only occur as a side-effect of self-transcendence: forgetting the self by finding a meaning to fulfill, a cause to serve, or a person to encounter or love.
People can discover the meaning in their lives in three different ways: through work, deeds, or achievements; through experiencing something (nature, culture, art, beauty, goodness) or loving someone; and through—if necessary—bearing suffering with dignity and courage. However, Frankl is careful to point out that...
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