Viktor Frankl's Logotherapy: The Search For Purpose and Meaning

By Daniel Devoe
2012, Vol. 4 No. 07 | pg. 2/3 |


Logotherapy is often subsumed under the headings of humanistic psychology and existential psychology (Ponsaran, 2007). Furthermore, logotherapy is referred to as the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy (Hatt, 1965). Adler promoted the will to power, Freud stressed the pleasure principle and Frankl the will to meaning (Boeree, 2006). Originally logotherapy was called height psychology in response to the Freudian concept of depth psychology. Depth psychology focused on insights from the natural and unconscious processes within a person, but height psychology promoted the idea that people could transcend these natural processes (Pytell, 2003). Logotherapy is different from psychoanalysis in that its methods are less retrospective and less introspective (Frankl, 1959). Logotherapy focuses on the future aspects of a patient’s life, more specifically the meaning that one intends to fulfill (Boeree, 2006). Logos is the Greek word, which denotes meaning. Hence, logotherapy focuses on a person’s search for meaning. This search for meaning in one’s life is postulated as the primary motivational force (Frankl, 1959). Frankl clarifies that this search for meaning does not have any relation to spirituality or religion, but strictly relates to finding purpose in one’s life or tasks (Somani, 2009). Moreover, logotherapists do not prescribe meaning to a patient but rather describe the process of how meaning is obtained in hopes of providing the patient with a sense of fulfillment (Thorne & Henley 2005). Thus, logotherapy regards its assignment as that of assisting a patient to find meaning in life (Frankl, 1959).

Discovering Meaning

Logotherapy is composed of three basic principles. The first basic principle is that life has meaning in all circumstances, even despondent ones. The second principle is that the main motivational force is the desire to find meaning in life. Lastly, the third basic principle states that humanity has the freedom of attitudinal choice, even in situations of unchangeable affliction (Frankl, 1959). Thus, Frankl purports that people can discover meaning through creative, experiential, and attitudinal values (Hatt, 1965). Creative values consist of achievement of tasks such as painting a picture or tending a flowerbed (Boeree, 2006). Experiential values consist of encountering another human, such as a loved one, or by experiencing the world through a state of receptivity such as appreciating natural beauty (Hatt, 1965). Attitudinal values speak of the potential to make meaningful choices in situations of suffering and adversity (Gelman & Gallo, 2009). Frankl contends that everything can be taken away from a person but the freedom to choose one’s attitude (Frankl, 1959). He stressed that people should not suffer unnecessarily in order find meaning but that meaning was possible when suffering is inevitable. For example, a person subjected to an incurable disease or placed in a concentration camp can still discover meaning even though his or her situation seems dire (Hatt, 1965). Moreover, tragic optimism means that people are capable of optimism in spite of the tragic triad. Frankl believes that all humans will be subjected to the tragic triad, which consists of guilt, death, and unavoidable suffering (Ponsaran, 2007).

Frankl notes that meaning in life differs from person to person and from situation to situation. Hence he asserts that there is not a general meaning in life for all of humanity but rather an idiosyncratic meaning that varies at any given moment (Frankl, 1959). Frankl points to the self-transcendence of human existence, which implies that each person can find purpose and meaning by being directed toward something or someone other than the self. His concept of self-transcendence is associated with the idea of the super-meaning (Hatt, 1965). The super-meaning refers to an ultimate meaning that exceeds the intellectual capacity of humanity. Philosophers often promote the idea that people need to endure the meaninglessness of life but Frankl suggests that humans instead are faced with the inability to understand the unlimited nature of meaningfulness, which is the super-meaning (Frankl, 1959).

Existential Frustration 

A person’s will to meaning can become frustrated. Frankl coined the term existential frustration to explain this phenomenon of misdirected meaning. Existential frustration can occur from prolonged periods of boredom and apathy (Zaiser, 2005). Frankl utilizes the metaphor of an existential vacuum to explain frustrated meaning. Meaninglessness is a hole, which creates a vacuum that must be filled. Since it is a vacuum, things quickly try to fill the void of meaninglessness. However, most attempts to fill this sense of emptiness are merely temporary as the hole is filled with superficial things (Boeree, 2006). Furthermore, Frankl believed that common maladaptive behaviours such as depression, aggression, and addiction were caused by a misdirected sense of meaning (Thorne & Henley 2005). He noted that every generation has its own has its own set of maladaptive behaviours, which he coined as the collective neurosis (Frankl, 1959).

The Noölogical Dimension

The term noölogical is derived from the Greek word noös denoting mind or spirit. Specifically, the noölogical dimension refers to anything pertaining to only the human dimension or humanities quest for meaning. The noölogical dimension is considered to be the realm of human consciousness, responsibility, and is the locus of freedom (Hatt, 1965). Frankl claimed that animals consist of only the biological and psychological dimensions because they are unable to harness the power of self-transcendence. Hence, Frankl asserts that the psychological is reserved for instinctual behaviours. Moreover, since humans are the only species capable of self-transcending they exist in the realms of the biological, psychological, and noölogical dimensions (Hatt, 1965).  

Existential frustration can result in noögenic neuroses. Noögenic neuroses originate not in the psychological but rather in the noölogical dimension. Noögenic neuroses do not emerge from conflicts between drives and instincts but rather from existential problems. Among such problems is the frustration of the will to meaning. Frankl observes noögenic neuroses when he noticed patients who experienced purposelessness responding with behaviors that were detrimental to themselves, others, and society. However, Frankl stresses that a person’s concerns and anguish over the meaninglessness of life is an existential distress and not necessarily a mental disease. Furthermore, he asserts that people do not need to seek homeostasis in life but rather what Frankl termed as noö-dynamics. Noö-dynamics refers to accepting existential tension. For example, in a polar situation of tension, one pole is represented by a meaning that is to be fulfilled by a person and the other pole by the person who has already fulfilled it. Therefore, meaning arrives from inner tension rather than inner equilibrium (Frankl, 1959).

Treatment of Neurosis

Frankl contends that there are two forms of neurotic pathogens, hyper-intention and hyper-reflection. Hyper-intention is described as a forced intention that makes an outcome impossible (Boeree, 2006). Frankl gives the example of a woman trying to demonstrate her ability to experience an orgasm but by hyper-intending she will be unable to succeed (Frankl, 1959). Hyper-reflection on the other hand is a form of excessive attention to oneself. Hyper-reflection incapacitates a person ability to achieve their goal because their focus has shifted from the goal to themselves making the desired outcome less likely (Boeree, 2006). Furthermore, Frankl refers to anticipatory anxiety, which is defined as fearing an outcome so much that it makes that outcome more likely (Frankl, 1959). The logotherapeutic technique used to help patients with anticipatory anxiety was coined as paradoxical intention (Hatt, 1965). Paradoxical intention is an approach that guides a patient to intend that which they fear. This treatment has been shown to break neurotic cycles brought on by anticipatory anxiety and hyper-intention. For example, a patient who has a fear of insomnia (anticipatory anxiety) will try hard (hyper-intend) to fall asleep, which incapacitates the patient’s ability to sleep. A logotherapist would propose the paradoxical intention of trying not to fall asleep, which would be followed by sleep (Frankl, 1959). The success of paradoxical intention is called dereflection meaning attention and reflection has now been refocused to the proper object (Ponsaran, 2007). It should be noted that Frankl did not claim paradoxical intention to be a panacea but rather a unique tool that has been shown to be efficacious in treating phobias and obsessive compulsions (Frankl, 1959).


Frankl criticized psychologists’ obsession with pan-determinism. Pan-determinism is the view that humans are instinctual and do not have the capacity to make choices in any condition. Frankl believes that people are not entirely conditioned and determined but that people can determine themselves (Ponsaran, 2007). He purports that people are self-determining because they do not just exist but choose what their existence will be. Thus, Frankl calls for psychiatry and psychology to be re-humanized. Far too often these fields interpret the human mind and behaviour as purely mechanistic. Furthermore, this mechanomorphism leads to impersonal and mechanical therapeutic techniques. Thus, Frankl pleads with psychiatrists to stop viewing humans as diseases and machinery but to see the person behind the disease (Frankl, 1959).

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