It is a popular opinion that in order to be happy, one should avoid turmoil, stay focused on his or her own needs, and get as much pleasure from life as possible. While some of these ideas might be partly true in certain periods of our lives, Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, proposes a different answer.
Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist, who was sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. Observing reactions and behaviors of other prisoners, he developed his own method of psychotherapy called “logotherapy” (“logos” means “meaning”). He was wondering what factors determine people’s chances to survive and noticed that they were not limited to physical ones, but rather involved the sense of having a purpose in life. It could be the responsibility for a child, crucial work to be done, or giving a testimony about what they went through. For Frankl himself, it was publishing a book based on the observations from Auschwitz which could help thousands of survivors to recover from traumas.
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” – Frankl very strongly related to this famous quote of Nietsche.
He distinguished three ways that identify a meaning in life. The first is the satisfaction coming from our work or activity; the second – an experience of something, particularly interactions with other people, but also traveling or enjoying the natural environment. Third – and the most surprising – is finding a purpose in suffering. According to Frankl, if we are unable to change the circumstances, we face the greatest challenge – to change ourselves.
It was not only his theoretical hypothesis, but experience of the heroic Auschwitz prisoners who were willing to give the last slice of bread to those who were even more hungry and exhausted.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way – he noted.
In his book he recalls a meeting with a Holocaust survivor, who was understandably despaired after losing her entire family, her home, everything in which she put her trust. Doctors appeared unable to comfort her, and they were afraid that nothing could help her. Frankl met her, by chance, years later, and hardly recognized her now peaceful face. He found out she was in charge of an orphanage in Israel and served as a “mommy” for these vulnerable, and often terribly hurt, children. Even though, she had every reason to lament over her past, instead, she chose to put the others’ needs first and, miraculously, found her own healing in that, too.
In Frankl’s opinion self-fulfillment is easier to be achieved, when it does not constitute a goal in itself. He speaks about the mechanism of hyper-intention in this case. For instance, if one suffers from insomnia, and his “hyper-intention” is to fall asleep, it would be actually helpful not to focus on that, but rather have our thoughts directed towards something else. According to his experience, the very likely effect will be falling asleep.
Speaking about freedom and liberty, Frankl was always emphasizing the need of its relation to responsibility. He even suggested that the U.S. government should place the Statute of Responsibility, next to the Statue of Liberty. Ideas and choices have consequences, man’s free will might be the way to cruelty or heroism.
Who is a human being in this complicated world? Frankl proposed this answer:
Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.