man sitting with barbed wire in the background with a beautiful cloud-filled blue sky inside of his head

Man's Search for Meaning

by Viktor Emil Frankl

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What is "psychohygiene" in Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning and how does it affect a prisoner's experience?

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Frankl coins the term “psychohygiene” to refer to the mental health of detainees in the camps. The term is designed to contradict the term “psychopathology,” which refers to mental illness or instability. His big argument was that physical survival of the torture of these camps was not enough, and that it was important for detainees to ensure that left the camp as mental survivors.

In terms of how this affected a prisoner’s experience and outcome, maintaining one’s psychohygiene meant not only that prisoners would have tools within to help them fight the urge to commit suicide or simply allow the guards to beat them to death. It also meant that at the end of the war, when prisoners were released from these hell-on-earth camps, they had a far better chance of returning to some semblance of a normal life.

The chief method that Frankl puts forward for maintaining one’s psychohygiene was having something to live for or a higher purpose to pursue. For Frankl, this was the idea of writing his book and of being reconciled with his wife; although, unbeknownst to him, she was already dead.

Using the concept of psychohygiene, Frankl managed to help numerous prisoners hold on to the mental health, whether for the hope of seeing a loved one again, finishing a project or simply providing care to other prisoners.

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Psychohygiene is essentially keeping one's mental well-being healthy. Just as physical hygiene prevents diseases of the body through washing and cleanliness, psychohygiene is meant to keep the mind healthy by giving a despairing person a positive focus.

In the camps, Frankl argues psychohygiene could keep a person alive. While people could not control whether or not they would be killed at the whim of a Nazi guard or randomly selected for extermination in the gas chambers, they could survive on a day-to-day basis by having something positive to live for. Frankl names several examples of people who chose to cling to hope in spite of the hopelessness of their situation or to focus on a goal. One man stayed alive in the hopes of reuniting with a child, another stayed alive in the hopes of finishing a book, and others stayed alive to provide solace and care for the weaker prisoners.

Frankl himself hoped to reunite with his wife and restart his own academic work on logotherapy, which the Nazis had confiscated. He cataloged his experiences in the camp so they could become of use to him should the day come when he was freed and able to write once more. In fact, that study became Man's Search for Meaning itself.

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Psychohygiene is Frankl's word for mental health. Frankl asserts that to keep one's mental health in the camps, an individual had to find a sense of purpose, since the camps would not provide one. Frankl helped his fellow prisoners by trying to have them focus on a "why" in life. He advised them not to concentrate on what they expected out of life, but on what life expected out of them. As he states in Man's Search for Meaning:

Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

Even in a concentration camp, life is asking people to find their own answers to their problems and to learn from their experiences.

As part of psychohygiene, Frankl concentrated on helping others to avoid suicide. In one case where a man was contemplating suicide, Frankl had him think about what gave his life meaning: the man remembered that he wanted to stay alive to reunite with a child he adored living in another country. In another case, a suicidal man remembered a book he wanted to finish writing after he was released, which saved him.

At one hopeless, hungry moment, Frankl was able to encourage others and help their mental health by reminding them of all the tiny ways their lives were not as bad as they could have been, even in a concentration camp.

Frankl himself was helped to stay alive by thoughts of reuniting with his beloved young wife. Even though she was dead, which he did not know, his memory of her helped sustain and solace him.

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Frankl's term "psychohygienic" is used to describe methods for promoting psychological health. It is the opposite of "psychopathology," or psychological sickness. Frankl discusses a number of ways to promote psychohygiene in the camps, but his chief example has to do with having a goal to live for. He describes how his days in the camp were spent concentrating on tiny details of daily life: how to get a piece of wire to serve as a shoestring, for example, or what to do if he should happen to find a bit of sausage in his soup ration that evening. When he finds himself growing angry or frustrated at having to think about such things, he escapes by imagining himself in the future, giving a lecture on prison psychology before a prestigious audience. In imagining his future self, he puts himself above the trivialities of camp life and is able to master his emotions.

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