An Overview of Viktor Frankl's Logotherapy

Meaning in life can help to improve resilience.
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Viktor Frankl is the founder of logotherapy, a form of psychotherapy that he developed after surviving Nazi concentration camps in the 1940s. After his experience in the camps, he developed a theory that it is through a search for meaning and purpose in life that individuals can endure hardship and suffering.

A Brief History of Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was born March 26, 1905 and died September 2, 1997, in Vienna, Austria. He was influenced during his early life by Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, earned a medical degree from the University of Vienna Medical School in 1930. From 1940 to 1942, he was the director of the Neurological Department of the Rothschild Hospital, and from 1946 to 1970 was the director of the Vienna Polyclinic of Neurology.

In 1942, Frankl was deported to a Nazi concentration camp along with his wife, parents, and other family members. He spent time in four camps in total, including Auschwitz, from 1942 to 1945, and was the only member of his family to survive. In 1945, he returned to Vienna and published a book on his theories, based on his records of observations during his time in the camps. By the time of his death, his book, "Man's Search for Meaning" had been published in 24 languages.

During his career as a professor of neurology and psychiatry, Frankl wrote 30 books, lectured at 209 universities on 5 continents, and was the recipient of 29 honorary doctorates from universities around the world. He was a visiting professor at Harvard and Stanford, and his therapy, named "logotherapy," was recognized as the third school of Viennese therapy after Freud's psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler's individual psychology. In addition, logotherapy was recognized as one of the scientifically-based schools of psychotherapy by the American Medical Society, American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association.

Understanding Logotherapy

Frankl believed that humans are motivated by something called a "will to meaning," which equates to a desire to find meaning in life. He argued that life can have meaning even in the most miserable of circumstances, and that the motivation for living comes from finding that meaning. Taking it a step further, Frankl wrote:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances.

This opinion was based on his experiences of suffering, and his attitude of finding meaning through the suffering. In this way, Frankl believed that when we can no longer change a situation, we are forced to change ourselves.

Fundamentals of Logotherapy

"Logos" is the Greek word for meaning, and logotherapy involves helping a patient find personal meaning in life. Frankl provided a brief overview of the theory in "Man's Search for Meaning."

Core Properties

Frankl believed in three core properties on which his theory and therapy were based:

  1. Each person has a healthy core.
  2. One's primary focus is to enlighten others to their own internal resources and provide them tools to use their inner core.
  3. Life offers purpose and meaning but does not promise fulfillment or happiness.

Methods of Finding Meaning

Going a step further, logotherapy proposes that meaning in life can be discovered in three distinct ways:

  1. By creating a work or doing a deed.
  2. By experiencing something or encountering someone.
  3. By the attitude that we take toward unavoidable suffering.

An example that is often given to explain the basic tenets of logotherapy is the story of Frankl meeting with an elderly general practitioner who was struggling to overcome depression after the loss of his wife. Frankl helped the elderly man to see that his purpose had been to spare his wife the pain of losing him first.

Basic Assumptions

Logotherapy consists of six basic assumptions that overlap with the fundamental constructs and ways of seeking meaning listed above:

1. Body, Mind, and Spirit

The human being is an entity that consists of a body (soma), mind (psyche), and spirit (noos). Frankl argued that we have a body and mind, but the spirit is what we are, or our essence. Note that Frankl's theory was not based on religion or theology, but often had parallels to these.

2. Life Has Meaning in All Circumstances

Frankl believed that life has meaning in all circumstances, even the most miserable ones. This means that even when situations seem objectively terrible, there is a higher level of order that involves meaning.

3. Humans Have a Will to Meaning

Logotherapy proposes that humans have a will to meaning, which means that meaning is our primary motivation for living and acting, and allows us to endure pain and suffering. This is viewed as differing from the will to achieve power and pleasure.

4. Freedom to Find Meaning

Frankl argues that in all circumstances, individuals have the freedom to access that will to find meaning. This is based on his experiences of pain and suffering and choosing his attitude in a situation that he could not change.

5. Meaning of the Moment

The fifth assumption argues that for decisions to be meaningful, individuals must respond to the demands of daily life in ways that match the values of society or their own conscience.

6. Individuals Are Unique

Frankl believed that every individual is unique and irreplaceable.

Logotherapy in Practice

Frankl believed that it was possible to turn suffering into achievement and accomplishment. He viewed guilt as an opportunity to change oneself for the better, and life transitions as the chance to take responsible action.

In this way, this psychotherapy was aimed at helping people to make better use of their "spiritual" resources to withstand adversity. In his books, he often used his own personal experiences to explain concepts to the reader.

Three techniques used in logotherapy include dereflection, paradoxical intention, and Socratic dialogue.

  1. Dereflection: Dereflection is aimed at helping someone focus away from themselves and toward other people, so that they can become whole and spend less time being self-absorbed about a problem or how to reach a goal.
  2. Paradoxical intention: Paradoxical intention is a technique that has the patient wish for the thing that is feared most. This was suggested for use in the case of anxiety or phobias, in which humor and ridicule can be used when fear is paralyzing. For example, a person with a fear of looking foolish might be encouraged to try to look foolish on purpose. Paradoxically, the fear would be removed when the intention involved the thing that was feared most.
  3. Socratic dialogue: Socratic dialogue would be used in logotherapy as a tool to help a patient through the process of self-discovery through his or her own words. In this way, the therapist would point out patterns of words and help the client to see the meaning in them. This process is believed to help the client realize an answer that is waiting to be discovered.

    It's easy to see how some of the techniques of logotherapy overlap with newer forms of treatment such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). In this way, logotherapy may be a complementary approach for these behavior and thought-based treatments.

    Criticisms of Logotherapy

    Frankl was not without his critics. Some felt he used his time in the Nazi camps as a way to promote his brand of psychotherapy, and others felt his support came only from religious leaders in the United States (indeed, he did recruit ministers and pastoral psychologists to work with him).

    In 1961, his ideas were challenged by psychologist Rollo May, known as the founder of the existential movement in the United States, who argued that logotherapy was equivalent to authoritarianism, with the therapist dictating solutions to the patient. In this way, it was felt that the therapist diminished the patient's responsibility in finding solutions to problems. It is not clear, however, whether this was a fundamental problem of logotherapy, or a failing of Frankl as a therapist himself, as he was said to be arrogant in his manner of speaking to patients.

    In this way, it may be that logotherapy argues that there are always clear solutions to problems and that the therapist has the task of finding these for the client. However, Frankl argued that logotherapy actually educates the patient to take responsibility. Regardless, it is clear that in the application of Frankl's theories, it is important to highlight that the patient must be a participant rather than a recipient in the process.

    Evidence for Logotherapy

    More than 1700 empirical and theoretical papers have been published on logotherapy, and more than 59 measurement instruments developed on the topic. While Frank's early work involved case studies, this eventually evolved to include operationalization of concepts and estimates of clinical effectiveness. In other words, Frankl believed in empirical research and encouraged it.

    A systematic review of research evidence pertaining to logotherapy conducted in 2016 found correlations or effects pertaining to logotherapy in the following areas or for the following conditions:

    • Correlation between presence of meaning in life, search for meaning in life, and life satisfaction, happiness
    • Lower meaning in life among patients with mental disorders
    • Search for meaning and presence of meaning as a resilience factor
    • Correlation between meaning in life and suicidal thoughts in cancer patients
    • Effectiveness of a logotherapy program for early adolescents with cancer
    • Effectiveness of logotherapy on depression in children
    • Effectiveness of logotherapy in reducing job burnout, empty nest syndrome
    • Correlation with marital satisfaction

    Overall, not surprisingly, there is evidence that meaning in life correlates with better mental health. It is suggested that this knowledge might be applied in areas such as phobias, pain and guilt, grief, as well as for disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress, and anxiety. Frankl believed that many illnesses or mental health issues are disguised existential angst, and that people struggle with lack of meaning, which he referred to as the "existential vacuum."

    Logotherapy in Everyday Life

    How might you apply the principles of logotherapy to improve your everyday life?

    • Create something. Just as Frankl suggested, creating something (e.g., art) gives you a sense of purpose, which can add meaning to your life.
    • Develop relationships. The supportive nature of spending time with others will help you to develop more of a sense of meaning in your life.
    • Find purpose in pain. If you are going through something bad, try to find a purpose in it. Even if this is a bit of mental trickery, it will help to see you through. For example, if a family member is going through medical treatments for a disease, view your purpose as being there to support that person.
    • Understand that life is not fair. There is nobody keeping score, and you will not necessarily be dealt a fair deck. However, life can always have meaning, even in the worst of situations.
    • Freedom to find meaning. Remember that you are always free to make meaning out of your life situation. Nobody can take that away from you.
    • Focus on others. Try to focus outside of yourself to get through feeling stuck about a situation.
    • Accept the worst. When you go out seeking the worse, it reduces the power that it has over you.

    A Word From Verywell

    While concepts of logotherapy continue to be studied to this day, you aren't likely to hear of people receiving this type of treatment directly. Rather, the components of logotherapy are more likely to be intertwined with other therapies or treatments.

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    View Article Sources
    • Frankl, VE. Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press, 1959.
    • Frankl VE. The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy. New York, NY: Penguin, 1988
    • Psychology Today. The Case Against Viktor Frankl
    • Thir M, Batthyany A. The State of Empirical Research on Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. In: Logotherapy and Existential Analysis: Proceedings of the Viktor Frankl Institute Vienna, Volume 1. 2016: pp.53-74. 
    • Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy. Logotherapy.