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Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning, is often studied in psychology courses due to its profound perspective on life. It also has a therapeutic value that is studied in counseling courses as well as psychology classes. Therefore, approaching a research paper on Frankl's work can be difficult if one does not first decide on which perspective to approach the book.

Frankl's Three Emotional Phases

Man’s Search for MeaningPaper Masters suggests that you approach writing your research paper by outlining Frankl's emotional phases and applying them to therapy in the modern world. Frankl's three emotional phases that you will want to outline are listed here:

  1. Deep Shock - Phase one was several days of deep shock at finding themselves newly imprisoned in a concentration camp, then phase two quickly began, which over time resulted in the formation of an apathetic emotional state that served as a shell, numbing prisoners to the omnipresent threat of death, and the cruelty, beatings and torture that they endured and witnessed. That empty state also provided them with the crucial ability to create a state of "invisibility" as much as possible, in order to escape being singled out for acts of sadism or death.
  2. Ego Death - Ego death, Frankl states, created by chronic degradation and a need for anonymity made the prisoners want to blend into a herd and avoid all decisions. As a result, they grew indifferent to others' fates and opportunistic about exploiting misfortune. For example, they took the shoes or food of those who were too ill to keep working, or stripped the dying and dead of items that might prove useful. Those practical actions were not the only instances of initiative, however, and Frankl cites cases of generosity, altruism and heroism among the prisoners and even the guards that gave others a model of moral behavior to follow and reminded them of their humanity. Although sleeplessness, fear, hunger, crowding and exhaustion predictably produced a chronic irritability and increased proclivity for physical violence among the men, Frankl points out that every man could still choose to retain their dignity and cultivate mental freedom, or could choose to permit himself to become brutalized and depraved, and he argues that each man in the camp chose what he would spiritually and emotionally become. That idea became a tenet of Logotherapy, since Frankl noted that men in the camps who refused to embrace their situation as an opportunity to grow spiritually lost their sense of future time and became ghostly, living dead people who detested their endless, meaningless present and had no thought of a future. Many such prisoners died. Their failure to martial their emotional and mental resources, Frankl explains, negatively affected their immune systems, and caused them to succumb to diseases. The therapist, as in the camps, acts as a pilot, Frankl writes, who helps patients toward their realization of their life's purpose, and helps them to use fulfillment of their unique purpose to make life meaningful. For prisoners, recognition of a responsibility to fulfill a future goal, such as to unite with a person, complete a book, or to lecture about life in a concentration camp, as Frankl did, helped them to realize that as irreplaceable people, they had an obligation to live.
  3. Post Liberation - The final psychological phase of reaction to concentration camps that Frankl discusses is the post-liberation phase. Frankl noted that after his camp was freed, he and others felt nothing. Freedom did not seem real to the men, since they no longer could feel joy, and they had to relearn to feel pleasure. Reentry into the world also disillusioned some prisoners with humans, who often showed a superficial sympathy or disinterest in their experiences. Others despaired when they discovered that loved humans were not, after all, waiting to reunite with them, but were dead. In some cases, liberation freed the men to act on the murderous rage they had accumulated during their imprisonment. Frankl saw his job in phase three as modeling and guiding the freed men to a realization that brutal conduct is never justified by having been treated with brutality, and that moral conduct may be chosen in all situations.

The Nazi concentration camp system during World War II was responsible for millions of deaths. Of those that survived, questions about the larger nature of life remained. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl spent years in Nazi labor camps, including Auschwitz, and witnessed the deaths of many of his family members. Following the war, Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning as way to both understand suffering through the daily attempt to survive and the larger nature of meaning in the world.

Background of Man's Search for Meaning

Frankl's examples of prison life's psychological effects are vivid and well-explained, making the work a valuable instructive tool, and the addition of a brief guide to Logotherapy at the back of his biography is very useful for comprehending his innovative, meaning-centered, future-oriented therapy. His warmth and lack of pretension are evident throughout Man's Search for Meaning and it is a thoughtful, interesting work of practical therapeutic value.

As a prisoner, Frankl was uniquely placed in a hellish situation. As a practicing Psychiatrist, he was uniquely able to recognize and understand the emotional processes that went on in a prisoner’s mind. Frankl identified a three-step process—shock, apathy and depersonalization—that overtook each individual in the camp prison. The problem becomes the continual search for the meaning of life under such barbaric conditions. Frankl ultimately concluded that each moment of life, no matter how grim or hopeless, holds forth some meaning.

Application to Today's Therapy - Logotherapy

In the second half of the book, Frankl developed his theory of Logotherapy, one of the key foundational theories in 20th century psychology. Under Logotherapy theory, life always has meaning, and it is the main drive in a person’s existence to seek out some meaning for life. It is this search that provides psychological meaning in each individual person.

His warm writing style and objective voice help to mitigate any discomfort that his subject matter may cause, yet his intimate and dispassionate descriptions give a clear idea of how prisoners responded to the psychological and physical pressures that they endured. He notes that an intensification of inner life took place as prisoners remained longer in the camp, which was evidenced by a deepening of gratitude for Nature's beauty, because it gave solace to the men in their misery, and Frankl encouraged himself and his friends to practice making up jokes in order to counteract the dehumanizing camp environment. As in Logotherapy, dwelling on the past was not encouraged. Although memories of previously ordinary things, such as opening the door to his apartment or switching on electric lights, preoccupied Frankl, he felt that dwelling in the past was dangerous to his mental health, and turned his attention instead to conversing mentally with his wife, whose death at Auschwitz was unknown to him. During his internal talks with her, he experienced their deep love for one another, and realized in a transcendent moment that love is the greatest goal of humanity. He also perceived a universal voice telling him that life does have an ultimate purpose, and those profound experiences became part of the philosophical basis of Logotherapy. Frankl several times notes the essence of Logotherapy is expressed by Nietzche as "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how", and Frankl asserts that finding the why of each life is the first goal of psychotherapy.

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