Survival and Dignity in Viktor Frankl’s Legacy

Viktor Frankl, survivor of four concentration camps, had a secret to happiness: Don’t strive for it.
January 5, 2023
Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Dr Viktor Frankl (1905 – 1997) attends the 6th International Congress of Psychotherapy in London, UK, August 1964. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Viktor Frankl, survivor of four concentration camps, had a secret to happiness: Don’t strive for it. As a professor, he repeatedly advised his students to pursue a cause greater than oneself and promised that happiness and success would be the unintended by-product. This was his philosophy before, during and after the Holocaust.

In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl described his experiences as a concentration camp prisoner as physically, mentally and emotionally torturous—including beatings, starvation, degradation, filth, frostbite, insomnia and lack of access to any kind of self-care like showering or teeth-brushing. He reported that the threat of death was ubiquitous, so it was little wonder that “the thought of suicide was entertained by nearly everyone.” Frankl described prisoners’ “normal” response to such conditions as a “blunting of emotions” from becoming desensitized to hourly beatings, death and indignities. But he personally strove with every ounce of his being not to become hardened or numb.

Practically speaking, Frankl’s role as a concentration camp doctor spared his life repeatedly, but more abstractly, his love for his wife is what truly kept him alive. He described frequently looking up at the clouds and seeing his wife’s image, her smile and her encouraging glance. Through this fantasy and imagery, Frankl had an epiphany in the darkest, cruelest of all places: “Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” It was this revelation that provided Frankl with the clarity and resolve to endure his suffering with whatever honor and dignity he could muster, and to recognize that only inner strength and light would liberate him from the torment of his existence. He could not change his circumstances and could not spare his parents and wife from their untimely death at the hands of the Nazis, but he could uplift countless others who had lost the will to live.

Logotherapy Meets the Hedonic Treadmill

After surviving Hitler’s “Final Solution” and reconstructing his confiscated manuscript on logotherapy, Frankl developed and perfected his meaning-based therapy. “Logos” is a Greek word translated as meaning or reason, and it is the concept of man’s search for meaning that undergirds Frankl’s psychological orientation. In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he wrote, “Man … is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values.” Frankl pointed to research suggesting that suicide cases are linked to what he called an “existential vacuum,” and said that cases of “neurosis” are more widespread on Sundays when people are left alone to ponder the “lack of content in their lives.” Frankl asserted that when man chases the ephemeral, such as money, fame, happiness or success, he inevitably becomes entwined in a web of meaninglessness. This meaninglessness manifests itself in psychological distress including anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug dependency and suicide. Frankl believed that the cause of existential frustration is a belief that life is only good when we have everything we need and desire.

Frankl believed it is because our spiritual longing has not been fulfilled. Deep within each individual is a need for purpose and for something or someone to live for.

But the Nazis showed Frankl that everything in life could be lost at any given moment. Frankl understood that only one’s sense of dignity and meaning could be permanent. He recognized that possessions, acclaim and money do not bring happiness, not only because these things are impermanent, but also because once material possessions are achieved, a sense of dissatisfaction and a yearning for more often ensues. We earn more and more money, consume more and more goods, have more and more personal and sexual freedom, yet we are more and more miserable than ever. Why? Frankl believed it is because our spiritual longing has not been fulfilled. Deep within each individual is a need for purpose and for something or someone to live for. As Frankl put it, there is “more and more to live from, but less to live for.” Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill—euphoria quickly dissipates and ennui returns. Thus, it is not more things that humankind truly craves, but rather more meaning.

The Search for Meaning

If it were true that mankind’s ultimate goal in life was to achieve comfort and self-satisfaction, in what way would he be different from animals? The answer is in no way. According to Frankl, every person has a spiritual side, or what he called a “noetic dimension” that raises him above basic, worldly needs and desires. Author and leading logotherapy practitioner Elisabeth Lukas writes in “The Therapist and the Soul,” “The spirit does not strive after lust, it needs meaning. It does not seek satisfaction of needs but rather meaningful tasks and aims in life.” To some people, this may sound haughty and unrealistic—after all, life is hard, and just getting through the day is challenging enough. The problem with that attitude is that it consigns our satisfaction, happiness and overall mood to the sway of day-to-day events; we become a servant to circumstance. Lukas describes one of Frankl’s primary philosophies as the need to imbue any situation (no matter how painful or mundane) with meaning. Frankl understood that suffering is an unavoidable side effect of the human condition, which we can either respond to maladaptively or with dignity and composure. To him and other logotherapists, what is indispensable is finding purpose in “being for something” and “being for someone.” Frankl described a “self-transcendent” life as the only path toward a meaningful life. And meaning is not only important when it is future focused. Frankl believed that entire breadth of one’s lived experiences, loving relationships, creations and goals does not fade with the passing of time. Lukas writes, “What exist are the goals reached … the total of all that has made life worthwhile.” How then to make sense of plans foiled, loves lost, mental and physical illness, untimely death and suffering? Frankl did not pretend to have all the answers, but he believed that some things will forever remain beyond the comprehension of mere mortals, and to believe otherwise strips life of a deeper, cosmic meaning.

Life is Good

Logotherapy’s beauty and uniqueness rest in its profound faith in the worthiness of humankind and of life itself. With this as a point of departure, logotherapy aims to help people increase their sense of value and life-worth, and when things don’t go as planned, manage their difficulties and setbacks. The point here is that life retains its intrinsic value even when things go terribly wrong. We can learn to search amid suffering to find meaning and light, rather than let it drag us down into darkness. This does not mean that logotherapy turns a blind eye to suffering. Nor does it mean that logotherapists are Pollyannish optimists. As Lukas puts it, “It is notable how wrong individuals can be regarding the sum total of negative and positive events in their lives if they are prejudiced by their troubles … by fixating attention on negative matters.” Logotherapy works because it starts with the positive belief that human beings are strong, resilient and will overcome any challenge if they can ascribe meaning to it. It also puts the patient in the driver’s seat and says essentially, life is good, let’s have a look around.

As Frankl understood, people are not helpless victims in the theater of life, but actors with a will to choose how they react. He wrote, “Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining.” In the Nazi concentration camps, Frankl put in his personal foreground not what he lacked, but what gave him meaning. He possessed a belief that said: Let us be defined not by what happens to us, but by the good choices we make for ourselves, for others, for the world and forever.

Dr. Beverly Wertheimer is a meaning-centered and cognitive behavioral therapist, adjunct professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, and certified life coach and CEO at BeWorthy.com. Previously, she was a TV anchor and reporter at ABC and NBC affiliates, CNN Turner Entertainment, and Entertainment Tonight. 

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