Logotherapy: Exploring the Meaning of Life
What is the meaning of life? This is a universal question that haunts many of us.
We all feel stuck sometimes, lost in a world of opportunities, paralyzed by all the choices we could make. The questions about life’s meaning can be daunting, and many of us have felt some frustration because of it.
When we think about it, finding meaning in life often means traveling around the world (à la Eat Pray Love), starting a new job, or reading countless self-help books to discover a deeper meaning. What if the only change we need is a change of perspective?
Not long ago, I was on the train on my way back home. Something is calming about the passing of trees and vast landscapes and the sound of the train as it rushes over the rails. It is the perfect place to get lost in your thoughts or the depths of a book. I decided for the latter – shortly after, I read “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.
Not knowing what exactly to expect, I only knew that books always have a way of popping up in my life, just when I need them. And maybe, this is also the case with this article.
Let me take you on a little journey through the book, and possibly a journey that will take you a bit closer to finding the meaning of your life.
What is “Man’s Search for Meaning” About?
As the title already implicates, you probably have a rough idea of what it is about: about the search for meaning.
Originally published in 1946, Viktor Frankl shares the harsh, cold truth about his time as a prisoner in a concentration camp during World War II. From 1942 until 1945, he labored in several camps, including Auschwitz. Experiencing and witnessing immense suffering, he developed his own form of psychotherapy called logotherapy.
Logotherapy is based on his observation that we cannot avoid suffering, but instead, can cope with it and find meaning in it. At the core of his book lies the belief that humans’ greatest motivation in life is not to find pleasure but rather pursue a meaningful life.
You might be wondering: How will Viktor Frankl’s terrible experience relate to my 21st-century problems?
If you see yourself in any of the following points, the book will definitely be of value:
- You struggle to find that “one big thing” that gives you a sense of purpose.
- You try to find meaning in the job you are doing but struggle to turn your dreams into reality.
- You overanalyze your past to understand certain patterns in the present but can’t seem to change them.
- You feel like the world is treating you unfairly, and you don’t deserve to be suffering.
All these feelings and doubts can be traced back to a phenomenon Frankl calls the existential vacuum. He explains that it is a quite common 20th, by now a 21st-century problem.
Back in those days, human beings would have instincts and traditions guiding their way through survival. Nowadays, we have the greatest freedoms – no one tells us what to do, and we can pursue anything we wish for. Interestingly, many do not even know what their greatest wishes are. Instead, they wish to do what others do (conformism) or just do what others wish them to do (totalitarianism).
The moments that you might realize this is normally on a boring Sunday afternoon. When time slows down, and the hectic pace of life takes a break, boredom comes up. You have time to reflect and, in those moments, the question “What is the meaning of life?” seems frustrating and overwhelming.
If that sounds familiar, try shifting the perspective and imagine life itself asking you, what is your meaning? The only way to respond is through responsible action. What would you go out and do?
Logotherapy sees the essence of human existence as rooted in responsibility.
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About Logotherapy: The Difference to Psychoanalysis
To understand logotherapy, it makes sense to compare it to psychoanalysis.
Psychoanalysis is widely spread and well known amongst many. The methods and techniques developed by Sigmund Freud usually focus on the dialogue between patient and therapist.
As Frankl emphasizes, psychoanalysis focuses on past experiences and their impact on the patient’s presentation. While this may seem like a more retrospective approach to you, logotherapy will seem more introspective.
The term logotherapy derives from the Greek word “logo,” which translates to “meaning.”
Logotherapy assumes that the primary motivation of a human’s life is the search for personal meaning. So the focus is rather on the future, trying to identify things “worth existing for.” Even in the most terrible situations and unbearable circumstances, Frankl argues that it is one’s last freedom to choose one’s attitude towards it.
In his book, he clarifies three ways a person can find meaning:
- By creating something or doing a deed.
- By experiencing something or meeting someone.
- By finding a purpose in suffering.
Frankl gives an example of an elderly man who seeks help. After the loss of his wife, he suffers terribly and cannot overcome his depression. Frankl asks him: “But what would have happened if your wife had lost you?”
The man realizes that his purpose was to spare his wife from terrible suffering. Suddenly, he finds meaning in his sad situation and can cope and move on.
Key Takeaways on “Man’s Search for Meaning”
1. We Need an Idea of the Future
Frankl explains that this ability is human’s salvation in the darkest times. Although we all carry this within us, we have to force our minds to shift the focus from the past at times.
2. The Mind is Powerful
Some people have a certain glow in their appearance. They believe in their power to conquer the world, they carry the courage to tackle anything in their heart, and they walk with their heads held high. Their minds are strong, and so are their bodies.
Often you see it with old people who have suffered from terrible sicknesses – those who have kept their hope and courage will find the strength to fight.
3. The Essence of Existence is Rooted in Responsibility
It doesn’t matter what you expect from life, but rather what life expects from you
Everyone faces their own challenges, lives with their own demons, and is faced with unique problems. Frankl emphasizes that we must take responsibility to find the right answers, make the right choices, and, most importantly, take actions.
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4. Those Who Find a “Why” Can Bear Any “How”
The moment we realize that there is something only we can do or give, like the love given to another human being, or the creativity that goes into a project, we have found a why. Frankl argues that we can bear any “how” when we find this unique “why.”
As he explains:
“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life.”
Journaling Your Way to Meaning
When we journal, we often use the time to reflect on what has happened and how the past may affect our future. For this journaling exercise, we invite you to look ahead.
Candles are lit, your favorite scent in the air, a pretty notebook is before you, and a pen that glides smoothly over the pages is in your hand.
Setting an intention for this exercise will help you to stay centered, focused and increase your awareness. When journaling, we tend to make our surroundings pretty and comfortable for the creative flow but forget to do the same work for the soul and mind.
Follow these steps for maximum benefits:
- Imagine your perfect day. Be as detailed as possible – where do you wake up? Who do you spend your time with? How do you spend your time? What is different from your current situation?
- List 5 things that are important to you. Now be as detailed as possible when describing why they are important to you and their role in your life.
- Everyone faces their own challenges, problems, and toxic patterns. List three points that make you feel anxious or negative about your life right now.
- Draw a long line on your journal page and mark the far left with disadvantages and the far right with advantages. Pick at least one of the points above and try to fill both sides with an equal amount of arguments.
- Dive deeper into the points above – What might you learn from them in the future? How can they contribute to your personal growth? Is your suffering preventing someone else from having to suffer?
Mind Over Matter
When life seems overwhelming again and the meaning of it all more ridiculous than you could ever imagine, try to calm your mind.
With logotherapy, you start by looking within. You look at your present and the future you desire. You look for a scenario, which could not possibly exist without you. You look for reasons, even in suffering.
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