Frankl was born in Vienna into a Jewish family of civil servants (Beamtenfamilie). His interest in psychology surfaced early. For the final exam (Matura)
in Gymnasium, he wrote a paper on the psychology of philosophical thinking. After graduation from Gymnasium in
1923, he studied medicine at the University of Vienna and later specialized in neurology and psychiatry, concentrating on the topics of depression
and suicide. His early development was influenced by his contacts with Sigmund Freud and Alfred
Adler, although he would later diverge from their teachings.
Man's Search for Meaning is a 1946 book by Viktor
Frankl chronicling his experiences as an Auschwitz concentration camp inmate during World War II, and describing his psychotherapeutic method, which involved identifying a purpose in life to feel positively about, and then immersively imagining that outcome. According
to Frankl, the way a prisoner imagined the future affected his longevity. The book intends to answer the question "How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?" Part One constitutes Frankl's analysis of his experiences
in the concentration camps, while Part Two introduces his ideas of meaning and his theory called logotherapy.
The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy in Logotherapy
According to a survey conducted by the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Library
of Congress, Man's Search for Meaning belongs to a list of "the ten most influential books in the United States." At
the time of the author's death in 1997, the book had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.
The book's original title in German is ...trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das
Konzentrationslager: that is, "...Nevertheless Say 'Yes' to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp". The title of the first English-language translation was From Death-Camp to Existentialism. The book's common full English
title is Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, although this subtitle is often not printed on the cover of modern editions.
Frankl identifies three psychological reactions experienced by all inmates to one degree or another: (1) shock during the initial
admission phase to the camp, (2) apathy after becoming accustomed to camp existence, in which the inmate values only that which helps himself and his friends survive, and (3) reactions of depersonalization,
moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment if he survives and is liberated.
Frankl concludes that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death. In a group therapy session during a mass fast inflicted on the camp's inmates trying to protect an anonymous fellow inmate from fatal retribution by authorities, Frankl offered the thought that for everyone
in a dire condition there is someone looking down, a friend, family member, or even God, who would expect not to be disappointed. Frankl concludes from his experience that a prisoner's psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of
his life, but also from the freedom of choice he always has even in severe suffering. The inner hold a prisoner has on his spiritual self relies on having a
hope in the future, and that once a prisoner loses that hope, he is doomed.
An example of Frankl's idea of finding meaning in the midst of extreme suffering is found in his account of an experience he had while working in the harsh conditions of the Auschwitz concentration camp:
also concludes that there are only two races of men, decent men and indecent. No society is free of either of them, and thus there were "decent" Nazi guards and "indecent"
prisoners, most notably the kapo who would torture and abuse their fellow prisoners for personal gain.
His concluding passage in Part
One describes the psychological reaction of the inmates to their liberation, which he separates into three stages. The first is depersonalization—a period of readjustment, in which a prisoner gradually returns to the world. Initially, the liberated prisoners
are so numb that they are unable to understand what freedom means, or to emotionally respond to it. Part of them believes that it is an illusion or a dream that will be taken away from them. In their first foray outside their former prison, the prisoners realized
that they could not comprehend pleasure. Flowers and the reality of the freedom they had dreamed about for years were all surreal, unable to be grasped in their depersonalization.
The body is the first element to break out of this stage, responding
by big appetites of eating and wanting more sleeping. Only after the partial replenishing of the body is the mind finally able to respond, as “feeling suddenly broke through the strange fetters which had restrained it” (111).
the second stage, in which there is a danger of deformation. As the intense pressure on the mind is released, mental health can be endangered. Frankl uses the analogy of a diver suddenly
released from his pressure chamber. He recounts the story of a decent friend who became immediately obsessed with dispensing the same violence in judgment of his abusers that they had inflicted on him.
Upon returning home, the prisoners had to struggle
with two fundamental experiences which could also damage their mental health: bitterness and disillusionment. The last stage is bitterness at the lack of responsiveness of the world outside—a "superficiality and lack of feeling...so disgusting that one
finally felt like creeping into a hole and neither hearing nor seeing human beings any more" (113). Worse was disillusionment, which was the discovery that suffering does not end, that the longed-for happiness will not come. This was the experience of those
who—like Frankl—returned home to discover that no one awaited them. The hope that had sustained them throughout their time in the concentration camp was now gone. Frankl cites this experience as the most difficult to overcome.
As time passed,
however, the prisoner's experience in a concentration camp finally became nothing but a remembered nightmare. What is more, he comes to believe that he has nothing left to fear any more, "except his God" (115).