The doctor who prescribed the meaning of life to his patients

Anxious? Dr. Frankl suggested you take a different view of things.

  • Not having a meaningful life can be dreadful, and one psychologist thought it was the root cause of many neuroses.
  • His ideas became Logotherapy, which focuses on the need for a meaningful life and has shown success in many areas.
  • Many studies agree that leading a meaningful life has tangible benefits and lacking meaning can lead to problems.

Many people struggle with the question of what the meaning of life their life is. The dread that can accompany meaninglessness is well known, but where to turn when you can't find purpose often remains obscure.

Then, there is Viktor Frankl, and his school of psychology based around finding the meaning of your life.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychologist known for his system of psychotherapy known as Logotherapy. As he explained in his book Man's Search for Meaning, many of the key ideas were born out of his time in Nazi concentration camps. He observed how his fellow prisoners dealt with the Nazi atrocities; these observations formed the basis for his theories.

Frankl suggested that a "will to meaning," exists in all of us and impacts our behavior and mental health. Our having it means that what we really want in life is to give a meaning to what we are doing and experiencing. If we fail to do so, we are likely to begin to show symptoms of depression, anxiety, and neurosis. By finding meaning, we can fully function as people and deal with whatever life throws at us.

Logotherapy was designed to help people deal with the problem of finding meaning, and had a robust theoretical framework to help guide it. Frankl assumed that life had inherent value and was worth living, that we have a will to meaning which must be confronted, that we have the freedom to find meaning at every moment, and that people had not only a mind and body but a "spirit" that was our true, unique, essence that also had to be considered.

In sessions, Frankl would engage in dialogue with his patients to help guide them along a path of self-discovery. He also helped people directly face their fears as a way to overcome them and encouraged people to see problems in larger contexts by steering them away from self-absorbed brooding.

The fundamental ideas of the school are evident in a famous excerpt from his book which concerns a distraught widower:

"Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how can I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, 'What would have happened, doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?' 'Oh,' he said, 'for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!' Whereupon I replied, 'You see, doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering — to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.' He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office. In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice."

This is nice and all, but is there any empirical data for these theories or is it all just hot air?

The various benefits of having meaning in your life are well known. People who feel their lives have meaning tend to be healthier, happier, age better, and generally have a better time than people who don't.

As for Logotherapy, an overarching study of existing research showed it is an effective method for dealing with common issues such as depression and anxiety. It has also shown promise in marriage counseling, hospice care, coping with job burnout, empty nest syndrome, and is linked to increased life expectancy in cancer patients.

Though it was never meant to deal with severe psychosis, it has been used to help people with these conditions as well with some degree of success.

How can somebody do in their day to day life to find meaning? I’m asking for a friend.

Frankl gave us three suggestions in his book:

"We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed [the way of achievement or accomplishment]; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone [the way of nature and culture, and the way of love]; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering."

He also reminds us that life isn't fair, and sometimes it's going to suck. In these cases, attitude can be everything:

"When we are no longer able to change a situation — just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer — we are challenged to change ourselves."

He isn't encouraging suffering for its own sake though; he later clarified that option three applies only when the first options are unavailable.

What are some criticisms of this school?

There are a few issues with Logotherapy that were pointed out by other existential psychologists.

The most notable was Frankl's authoritarian tendencies when conducting therapy sessions. Psychologist Rollo May explained in his book Existential Psychology, Frankl's therapy came dangerously close to authoritarianism because:

"… there seem to be clear solutions to all problems, which belies the complexity of actual life. It seems that if the patient cannot find his goal, Frankl supplies him with one. This would seem to take over the patients' responsibility and. . . diminish the patient as a person."

In another case, May compared Frankl's treatment of a patient with schizophrenia as having the "same authoritarian character as fundamentalistic religion." If these issues were problems with Logotherapy itself or with Frankl's application of his theories, as he was said to have been arrogant when talking with patients, is an unsolved question.

One thing is clear though, if you didn't have meaning in your life Dr. Frankl was going to give it to you. Even the famous story above about the widower takes on a new tone in light of this critique. It's ironic when you think about it — remember where Frankl said he was when he came up with some of these ideas.

Is this system still in use?

It lives on in spirit if not in name. Meaning Therapy, a recently developed school that helps people work toward self-transcendence as a solution to various issues, was directly influenced by Frankl's thought. Elements of Logotherapy have also found their way into cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). The overlap with ACT is very plain to see, as several sources agree that working toward a meaningful life is a critical element of it. The use of Logotherapy as a compliment to CBT has been directly studied with positive results.

Is the need for meaning so great that without it we start to crack? Is meaning, once found, so sustaining that it can support people even through the darkest part of the 20th century? One psychologist thought so and tried to help others as best he could with that insight. While finding a dedicated Logotherapist might be difficult, the ideas of Viktor Frankl can still be of great use in therapy and to people everywhere who are trying to make sense of it all.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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