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The Psychological Relevance of ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’

The motto of Holocaust literature, in its horrifying but electrifyingly necessary recount of the suffering of Jews particularly in concentration camps, is ‘never forget’. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and psychotherapist, wrote his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ in the spirit of not only remembering the Holocaust but also in moving on, with his philosophical musing and discussion regarding his own form of existential analysis called logotherapy.

Essentially, the purpose of this book is describe and analyse the psychological reactions of the average concentration camp prisoner as well as to elucidate the development of logotherapy stemming from Frankl’s own experiences in such concentration camps where he was separated from and lost his father, mother, brother and wife, having been ‘stripped to naked existence’ (Frankl, 1984 pp.7). These experiences influenced Frankl’s philosophical thoughts which were the foundation upon which logotherapy was developed as a means of therapeutic intervention.

The book is divided into two parts i.e. ‘Experiences in a Concentration Camp’ and ‘Logotherapy in a Nutshell’. In the first part, Frankl narrates various experiences as he was transported from different concentration camps including the daunting Auschwitz to less perilous rest camps. One of Frankl’s major arguments in this part of the book is that the psychological reactions to life in a concentration camp are summarily divided into three distinct phases.

In the period following an inmate’s formal admission to the camp, the characteristic symptom is that of shock in this first phase and under certain circumstances it may even precede the formal admission. The second phase, when a prisoner is entrenched in camp life, is that of apathy or the blunting of one’s emotions which are primarily centred on preserving one’s life. Apathy, notes Frankl, acts as a protective shell for the inmate who was constantly surrounded by an environment characterised by perpetual illness, violence and maltreatment. Finally, the third phase is that of depersonalisation, upon liberation from the death camps, which is described as ‘unreal, unlikely, as in a dream’ (Frankl, 1984, p. 96).

The second part of the book focuses on the concepts and principles of logotherapy.  According to Alport (1984), Dr. Frankl asks patients who have suffered from torment why they do not commit suicide and based on their responses he identifies something worth tying their lives to. For a widow, her life could be tied to her children or for a struggling artist it could be his or her especial talent. Hence the object and challenge of logotherapy is ‘to weave these slender threads of a broken life into a pattern of meaning and responsibility’ (Frankl, 1984 pp.7).

While Man’s Search for Meaning was written in a different historical period with a climate quite different from that of the modern world today, it still remains relevant and can be connecting to various fields including health psychology, clinical psychology and social psychology.

The impact of hope for the future on one’s survival was described in the novel where it was described that a senior warden had a dream that the Second World War would end on March 30th, 1945 and this dream gave him hope that he would be free. Yet, when the date drew closer it became apparent that the war would not end and they would not be liberated. This was a devastating blow to the senior warden’s hope and belief, making him vulnerable to illness and unfortunately he succumbed and passed away on March 31st, 1945. The same ramifications of mental strength and hope can be seen in the fight against cancer. In health psychology studies, it has been found that chemotherapy is only effective in a certain portion of cancer patients since their psychological makeup such as depression and hopelessness affect their fight against the disease. This is how Frankl’s experience is reminiscent of the biopsychosocial model in health psychology where health is determined by not merely biological factors but also psychological factors of an individual.

Frankl also made keen observations regarding prisoner identity. He wrote, “The authorities were interested only in the captives’ numbers. These numbers were often tattooed on their skin, and also had to be sewn to a certain spot on the trousers, jacket, or coat. Any guard who wanted to make a charge against a prisoner just glanced at his number; he never asked for his name.” (Frankl, 1984, p. 19). This observation is relevant to the study of identity transformation among prisoners, applicable to the modern world. In fact, this has been a studied in the famous Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip Zimbardo wherein the jailers would command the prisoners to repeat their respective numbers, drilling it until the number was synonymous to their selves and some prisoners equated their numbers to their identity so quickly that they even began to sign their letters using their numbers as opposed to their names (Alvarez, 2015). This synonymy is not necessarily only in prison set ups but also in large educational institutions such as universities where students are assigned roll numbers for official purposes and on spending significant time identifying themselves through these roll numbers, there may be identity suspension.

Frankl maintains that one can remain true to his or herself and find meaning within their life. However, he contradicts this by writing, “…I saw the plain truth and did what marked the culminating point of the first phase of my psychological reaction: I struck out my whole former life.” (Frankl, 1984, p.27). Can it not be the case that there are dual lives and respective identities at play and that meaning in pre-prison life can be different to post prison meaning? Schmid and Jones (1991) studied prison identity and found that there indeed was a duality of selves i.e the coexistence and conflict between an individual’s ‘true identity’ prior to being admitted into a maximum security facility and the prisoner’s ‘false identity’ within the prison. Hence the stability of meaning is not guaranteed since even the concept of self is not a single stable entity.

Suffice to say, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ is an interesting read for psychology majors because of the plethora of connections that can be made to other theories and phenomena in the field and in understanding how  Viktor Frankl’s harrowing experiences have been transformed into a means of therapy, perhaps his own sublimation of personal trauma for the betterment of society through his existential philosophy.