This is the second in a series of longer posts that go in depth into one particular contribution to self development. The first one was on the contribution of gestalt psychotherapy to self development.
The central concern of Viktor Frankl was with meaning. And this started early. There is a story that during a school class, when the science teacher said that people were a collection of chemicals and processes that he stood up and said: But what would be the meaning?
If you have heard of Frankl it will be because of his book Man’s Search for Meaning – and probably the first part – the story of his imprisonment in a Nazi death camp (the second part is an explanation of the various terms used in logotherapy).
During his time in the camp Frankl observed that, of those not killed by the Nazi’s, some people survived and others gave up and committed suicide. What’s more it wasn’t necessarily the young and fit who survived – it was those who had something to live for. It was those who had a meaning – and this could make the difference between life and death.
Viktor Frankl practised as both a medical doctor (he made contributions to neurology) and a psychiatrist. He was a very gifted man.
In psychiatry he insisted that meaning was another dimension to the usual ones in psychodynamic psychiatry. That is your thoughts and feelings could be fine but you could still be dissatisfied.
For instance, you may be proceeding successfully to achieve your goals, have satisfying relations with others, express your feelings in satisfying ways – and still not be happy. Because what you are doing is not meaningful to you. You may discover that you have been living someone else’s agenda or that the ladder you were climbing was against the wrong wall.
Viktor Frankl’s therapy (logotherapy) is directed to dealing with problems caused by lack of meaning. He did not think logotherapy was a general psychotherapy – it was specifically to deal with crises of meaning.
“Logotherapy” comes from the greek word ‘logos’ – which Frankl translated as ‘meaning’ (I’m not sure that he was right about this). So logotherapy is healing meaning or healing through meaning.
The Meaning of My Life
Frankl insisted that meaning was individual. There is no ‘meaning of life'; there is ‘the meaning of my life’. That is we each have some kind of vocation – something that we individually and specifically contritute to the world.
For Frankl the part of us that is concerned with meaning is our spirit. And he believed that spirit remained healthy despite what happened to a person and that spirit (and so conscience) separated people from all the other living creatures.
I am not sure that our spirit always remains healthy despite what happens to us. However, I do think that it can remain healthy in people who have been through horrendous abuse. I have seen this for myself. And for those with ‘fragmented personalities’, such as those diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, integration is possible. In healing Dissociative Identity Disorder a part of the person can be called called their ‘core’ or ‘the integrator’. This is somehow a ‘different part’ of the person that is ‘beyond’ the different parts. I think this kind of healing experience is good evidence that we do have an aspect of our experience like what Frankl called “spirit”.
I think Frankl was wrong about conscience being uniquely human. I think that a rudimentary conscience is seen in other higher animals like dogs, dolphins, apes and so on. (For me the uniquely human is our symbolic life – no other creature exhibits our concern with story or mathematics or making art simply to communicate their thoughts, feelings and meanings.)
- Our basic motivation is meaning. People will do what is not pleasurable, or even painful, if it has to do with their meaning.
This gets tricky. Those who believe that pleasure is our motivator talk about delayed gratification: the thought of more pleasure enables us to endure short-term pain or loss for the sake of greater gain or pleasure. They could also (though I haven’t seen them do this) distinguish different kinds of pleasure and have a ‘higher pleasure’ displace a ‘lower pleasure’ – along the lines of Maslow’s Hierarchy.
For instance, much of parenting can be tiring. Getting up and caring for a sick child in the middle of the night is far from pleasurable. Frankl would say that parenting is part of the parent’s meaning and so momentary pleasure is set aside for the meaning. Those who think we are motivated by pleasure, would say that telling ourselves we are a good parent who does what parents should do is more pleasurable than staying in bed, and so getting up and attending to our sick child is more pleasurable than staying in bed.
I’m not sure it is possible to finally sort out this argument. My guess is that the explanation we prefer depends on our temperament and ideas about other things.
My own view is that Frankl is closer to the reality. Parents are more likely to be motivated by a spontaneous care than a rational calculation of pleasure (even an unconscious one. And when motivation can be unconscious things get very tricky.).
The important thing I think is to note that our motivation can go well beyond momentary pleasure. That we are capable of setting aside our own concerns for some time and caring for others and that this can be deeply satisfying.
- While we are conscious we are free to choose. This doesn’t mean that we are free to do anything – it means that we are free to choose what we do in a particular situation.
Situations vary. In one situation there may be lots of possibilities in another very few. However, we always have the final freedom to choose what attitude we adopt to, and in, any situation. Frankl calls this ‘the freedom of the will’.
- Life has Meaning (or my life is meaningful)
That is (contrary to much thought in self development) life has meaning in itself – we do not assign whatever meaning we want to whatever we desire to. Frankl talks of life having a ‘demand characteristic’ – life is ‘bigger than us’ and ‘asks something of us’. And what is asked of us is specific in any particular situation.
This raises lots of thorny philosophical issues. Even if I could resolve them (I’m not sure I can – though I do have my views) it would take much more space than I have in this post.
My own view is that there are times when we discover a value or aspect of the world. We don’t deliberately set out to make something in a particular way – we find that it is this way. We are surprised by the beauty of the sunset. We are drawn to one artist’s work. We discover a particular kind of music.
These are experiences that embrace all of us. They happen immediately and with all of us. This is quite different to the experience of deliberate choosing. Sitting down and allocating our available finances to our budget, planning in which order to tackle a project – all these kinds of things can be important to achieving our tasks and realising what is meaningful to us. Perhaps we could say that in this situation we are making these activities meaningful – adding up the sums matters to us because it is an essential part of realising an important project. But these type of experiences have a different quality to discovering a song that expresses exactly a longing we didn’t even fully realise we had.
An Illustration (Cathedral Building)
This is an often used illustration (this is my version). A person works past three people laying bricks and asks each what they are doing.
The first says: laying bricks
The second says: building a wall
The third says: building a cathedral to the glory of god.
This is to make the point that our understanding of what we are doing affects our experience of it. The conclusion drawn is that if we assign a big meaning (building a cathedral) to a mundane task (laying bricks) then our experience of that task will be enriched.
The third person did not say: I have decided to view my mundane task as having a higher purpose. For someone to do this would mean training themselves into a particular kind of thinking and doing – they would treat themselves and their project as the subject of rational calculation and control.
To say that ‘I have decided to assign meaning to this task’ is a different statement to ‘this task is important to me’. The experience of deliberately choosing is different to the experience of discovering a value in the task or object.
The third person in the illustration, it seems to me, experiences the meaning as being in the task – not something they have assigned to it. It is an experience of all of themselves – and so is not experienced as fretful, however much hard work laying bricks is. They discover the meaning in the task itself – perhaps even discovering it afresh with each days labour finished or even with each brick layed.
Whether we want to go all the way with Frankl may be debatable; but I do think we need to reserve a place for this experience of ‘discovery of meaning’.
If life has meaning in itself then life is always meaningful – even in the worst of situations (unavoidable suffering).
It is essential to say that it is important to know that the suffering is unavoidable. If suffering can be avoided then it should be. Frankl was a doctor and was believed that suffering should be alleviated wherever and whenever possible. But sometimes it can’t be. What are we to tell those who endure unavoidable suffering? Are we to say that this experience is somehow beyond them? That it is not to have any meaningful part in their life? This is hardly comforting or useful to them.
I think it is important to see finding meaning in unavoidable suffering as a possibility that is offered not a “should” that is imposed. The meaning is discovered not invented or imposed. (I think this perspective being imposed is quite awful – and results in the kind of experiences that Barbara Ehrenreich talks so eloquently about in Bright Sided – all that ‘positive thinking’ can be a way of avoiding very real suffering and can easily end up in blaming the victim.)
SELF DEVELOPMENT AND THE MEANING OF YOUR LIFE
Firstly I want to say that meaning doesn’t need to be grand. It usually isn’t. My big picture is something like “I am here to shed light” – and for now that means trying to write this post, about something I think is important, and doing it as clearly as I can, so people will hopefully find it easy to use to live a more satisfying life.
Secondly, not all of us relate to the big picture. Some of us work ‘from the ground up’. You can find what is meaningful for you by watching your reactions. You don’t have to start with the big picture. You can start with, “Well, I know that [x] gets my attention every time”, or, “I don’t know why but I am fascinated by [x]”.
Having said that, what is the contribution of Frankl and logotherapy to self development; how can they help you live a more satisfying life?
- It can give you somewhere to look if you aren’t clear on why you are unhappy. If you are feeling like, “But I have a great life, lots of people would envy the life I have, so how can I be unhappy?” it gives you a place to look.
- It can help with making choices. When the rational way of making decsions – weighing up pro’s and con’s and prioritising and so on – don’t work we have an alternative. We can decide in alignment with what is meaningful to us.
- It can bring a sense of purpose or joy or satisfaction that lasts endures most things (maybe not all). When we are connected with our purpose, when we have a sense of our own meaning, this gives us something that can stay with us through most of the tough times, and while we are doing things we don’t enjoy. It adds an extra dimension to our lives.
- It can help when we are overwhelmed by our feelings or confused by our thoughts. It can help us cut through the thoughts or feelings and it can help us to know that there is something else beyond our thoughts and feelings.
- It can give you a sense of the story of your life and where you want to head in the future.
SOME IDEAS ON HOW TO FIND THE MEANING OF YOUR LIFE
These are just meant to be places to start and they are give different options for different people. I don’t mean for anyone to try all of them (unless you want to – it could be fun).
- Writing. Write your life as a fairy tale. Start with, “Once upon a time . . .” and then just write quickly without giving yourself time to stop and edit. Just keep writing until you feel you have come to an end. If you write an unhappy ending, write a happy one as an alternative (once again do this quickly without giving yourself time to edit). What title would you give to this fairy tale? What is the story of your life?
- Moving. Take a moment to check in with your body. Note where the tight spots are. Then just begin to move, see what feels good and which movements you enjoy. Explore different ways to move and what feels good. When you have a sense of how you want to move, find movements that come from the core of who you are. If you want to you can put these movements into a dance – the dance of you. How is it that you want to move through your world/your life?
- Drawing. Take a pencil and paper. Close your eyes and draw something that represents you. It could be a representation of your body or face, it could be an object or a particular kind of line. Open your eyes and look at what you have done. Take note of your reactions.
- Is there something you like?
- Something you dislike?
- Something you want to change?
- Something you would like to add?
- Take some time to sit with your reactions and be curious about what they say about how you see yourself. Then make any changes that you wish to the drawing. Then sit with your reaction to the changes you have made. You can do this as many times as you like. You will probably end up with a representation of who you are and what matters to you. (It may not be ‘artistic’ or understandable to anyone else but that is not the point of this exercise.)
- Relating. Take a moment to recall your most intense experiences with others. Make a good sized list – say ten. For each item on the list sum up the impact this experience had on you and how it has shaped who you are and/or how you live. You will probably find a theme that runs through these incidents. It is likely that your meaning will be related to this theme (perhaps your response to it if some or all of the incidents are negative).
- Ask yourself: What is life asking of me? If you get an intense reaction – elation, disgust, anger, fear, shame, whatever – this is a sign you are on the right track.
The single best source for logotherapy is a podcast by Marshall Lewis called Logotalk. Start with the earlier talks where Marshall gives a great introduction to the basic philosophies and applications of logotherapy. If you are a therapist Marshall offers a course in logotherapy for professional development units.
Viktor Frankl and logotherapy I think add a much needed dimension to self development. I hope you find their contribution important to you, I do.
If you have encountered Frankl and his work before I would love to know what impact it has had on you. If you haven’t heard of Frankl and his work before: What part of this post had the most impact on you? Let me know in the comments.
To find out how to live authentically you can download my manifesto.
It has exercises that will help you experience what authenticity means for you and so experience a more satisfying life.
If you would like me to write about some aspect of living an authentic life please don’t hesitate to get in touch. There is a box in the sidebar where you can leave this anonymously if you wish.
I'm Evan Hadkins. I'm Evan Hadkins. To find out how to live a more satisfying life you can download my manifesto on living authentically. It is a book of exercises to guide you to finding, nourishing and living from the core of who you are.
If you would like me to write about some aspect of living an authentic life please don’t hesitate to get in touch. There is a box in the sidebar where you can leave a question anonymously if you wish, or you can email me, use the contact page, or comment on this post.