Logotherapy, founded by neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), literally means “therapy through meaning.” It rests on three inter-related pillars—freedom of will, will to meaning, and meaning of life—and its main contribution to the therapeutic community is its focus on the vital role of meaning in healing and flourishing. Effective logotherapy depends on the affirmation of these basic beliefs. This entry highlights some of the major tenets of logotherapy that enable people to maintain their human dignity, overcome adversities, and transform tragedy into triumph.
Against the backdrop of the Holocaust, Frankl emphasized the human responsibility to care for others and pursue a meaningful life. Frankl has shown that human beings have the freedom to choose to go to the gas chambers with dignity and prayers on their lips.
Frankl’s approach to personal development and human excellence is teleological—we become fully human only when we fulfill our spiritual nature of serving a higher purpose for the greater good. In this view, deepest life satisfaction and strongest resilience are the natural consequences of pursuing self-transcendence rather than other competing values such as pleasure, power, and success. According to Frankl, self-transcendence is a uniquely human capacity and the essence of human existence. Being human is to step out of oneself and rise above all limitations to fulfill one’s spiritual nature—to lose oneself in a unique calling in serving a higher purpose. Positive psychology research has provided evidence that meaning and authentic happiness come from pursuing something larger than oneself.
Frankl’s concept of responsibility means more than agency or autonomy—it also means the “response-ability” to choose values and ethics in any situation in spite of existing limitations. Ultimately, one’s life can be assessed in terms of taking responsibility to do the right thing in each situation and to fulfill one’s unique calling. The power of Frankl’s concept of responsibility hinges on its spiritual underpinning and the compelling value of self-transcendence. Together, self-transcendence and responsibility form the foundation of logotherapy.
Freedom of Will
Human freedom is not the freedom from conditions, but the freedom to take a stand and choose one’s own path, regardless of internal and external limitations. Such freedom can be considered as spiritual freedom, because it originates from the “noetic” or spiritual dimension. It is within this spiritual realm that one draws strength and courage, not only to survive, but also to live meaningfully regardless of circumstances.
Will to Meaning
According to Frankl, the will to meaning is a primary motivational force. It is a deep-seated, innate yearning for not only meaning in life but also the ultimate meaning of existence. This quest for meaning can be satisfied only through striving and moving toward self-transcendence. In this perspective, the will to meaning is genuine and authentic because each person has a unique calling.
However, the will to meaning is neither a need nor a drive, because it can never be satiated. It is more like a search for excellence, which will lead one to higher and higher ground. In other words, the will to meaning sets in motion a process that continues throughout life. Therefore, meaning is discovered in the process of searching, not in arriving at the destination. This is an important concept for researchers studying meaning.
Frankl also defines the will to meaning as a meaning orientation or mind-set. The meaning mind-set functions like a basic value orientation in life, through which we interpret all our human experiences. Paul T. P. Wong has developed a scale to measure the meaning mind-set and predicted that individuals are more likely to survive difficulties and achieve “eudaimonic” happiness if they score high on the meaning mind-set (eudaimonic being Greek for “the good life” or “human flourishing” based on virtue and excellence, as opposed to “hedonic” happiness, which is based on pleasure).
Meaning of Life
Frankl believed in the intrinsic and ultimate meaning of life. He also affirmed that meaning can be found in every situation, up until one’s last breath. Everyone’s life can be made meaningful through contributing to the world, appreciating life, and taking a defiant attitude against fate. In short, logotherapy aims to empower people to rise above their difficulties and live a fulfilling life.
Logotherapy in Practice
In actual practice, a logotherapist seeks to awaken clients’ awareness of their own capacities and responsibility for meaning seeking. The main logotherapeutic techniques are paradoxical intention and dereflection, which are designed to reorient clients away from self-preoccupation with their problems toward pursuing their own pathways to a more desirable and fulfilling life. Results from empirical research suggest that logotherapy or meaning therapy is efficacious in reducing depression and anxiety and increasing well-being.
See also Existential Theoretical Framework; Hopelessness; Humanistic Theoretical Framework; Positive Psychology Theoretical Framework; Psychotherapy; Spirituality/Religion, Mental Health
- Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning (Revised & updated ed.). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.
- Frankl, V. E. (2010). The feeling of meaninglessness: A challenge to psychotherapy and philosophy. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2012). What is the meaning mindset? International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, 4(1), 1-3.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2014). Viktor Frankl’s meaning seeking model and positive psychology. In A. Batthyany & P. Russo-Netzer (Eds.), Meaning in existential and positive psychology (pp. 149-184). New York, NY: Springer.
Wong, P. T. P. (2017). Logotherapy. In A. Wenzel (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of abnormal and clinical psychology (pp. 1984). New York, NY: Sage.
This publication was partially supported by the research grant on Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life from the John Templeton Foundation.