What is Logotherapy?

Logotherapy, or “healing through meaning” in Greek, is the psychological theory developed by Viktor Frankl. Based on his experiences as a medical doctor, psychiatrist, neurologist, and philosophy student, he formulated his meaning-centered approach which promotes freedom of choice and personal responsibility. It is internationally recognized and empirically-based. 

Frankl developed logotherapy prior to entering the concentration camps at the age of 37. His encounters with the worst of human conditions ended up providing him with an unwanted laboratory that confirmed his theory. He saw that those who were oriented toward a meaning to be fulfilled were more likely to survive.

According to Frankl, as human beings, our primary motivation for living is to find meaning.  

Those who study psychology will find logotherapy included in the humanistic and existential theories. It is often referred to as the Third School of Viennese Psychology after Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalysis and Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology. Many summarize the central motivating force in Freud’s theory as “will to pleasure,” Adler’s as “will to power,” and Frankl’s as “will to meaning.” For those not using its clinical application, logotherapy offers a sound life philosophy.

The core principles of Logotherapy are as follows:

  • Each person is a unique and irreplaceable human being whose existence is characterized by freedom of choice, personal responsibility, and a human spirit.
  • There are three basic concepts: 
    1. Freedom of Will – We are free to choose how we respond to life and are personally responsible for our choices.
    2. Will to Meaning – We are motivated to find meaning and when this search is thwarted we experience existential frustration and feelings of meaninglessness.
    3. Meaning of Life – We are called moment-to-moment to answer the demands that life places on us. The focus is not on what we feel we deserve from life, but rather what our responsibility is to give to life. We have the ability and the ultimate necessity to self-transcend in order to improve humanity.
  • There are vast resources to the human spirit, which is what distinguishes us from other mammals. We are more than just a mind and body, we all have a (nonreligious) spiritual or “noetic” dimension. The resources available to us include:
    • the ability to learn from our mistakes–allowing us to adapt to new circumstances; 
    • our sense of humor–putting our failings into perspective; 
    • our conscience–giving us the ability to take a stand for things we believe in or against things we think are wrong; 
    • the ability to love others–helping us move beyond ourselves; and
    • our passion for a cause–allowing us the potential to create change in the world. 
  • Meaning can be found through:
    1. Creations (creating a work or doing a deed) – essentially what we put out into the world. 
    2. Experiences (goodness, truth, beauty, nature, culture, being loved) – essentially what we take from the world.
    3. Attitudes – essentially how we view the world.
  • Being human involves exposure to what Frankl called, the tragic triad of life, which is comprised of unavoidable guilt, suffering, and death. In these circumstances, meaning can still be derived from the attitude we take toward the situation.

The term “logotherapy” was first introduced in a 1938 publication. It was not Frankl’s first choice of name. He believed strongly in the power of the human spirit and wanted a name that expressed this “noetic” dimension (from the Greek word “nous”). He preferred “noo therapy,” but settled on “logotherapy” after being advised that “noo therapy” would be pronounced “no therapy” in English. 

In contrast to Freudian traditions of depth psychology, Frankl referred to logotherapy as height psychology. Depth psychology is oriented towards the past and the dark, unconscious mysteries of an individual. There are times when this may be appropriate, but it reduces problems of living to something similar to a disease that needs to be cured. This approach puts the therapist in a position of authority and treats the patient as someone with a disability. Frankl once wrote, “Logotherapy declares war on pathologism” because of its orientation towards the future and the belief that humans have the capacity to move beyond inner and outer obstacles. 

Meaning is unique to each person. It cannot be created or given—it must be discovered.

It is a deeply personal journey that each of us must take. Life has meaning under all circumstances, including the most undesirable. Logotherapy respects individuality and utilizes the values an individual chooses to adopt. It educates to personal responsibility as a fundamental and healthy part of our existence.

Logotherapy is generally a brief therapy. Frankl treated thousands of anxious, depressed and suicidal patients over the course of his life and developed several tools. He often incorporated humor to allow distance from the problem or situation.

The following can be used by physicians and therapists:

  • Dereflection: This involves having the client step back and reflect on their circumstances. It helps them put things in perspective. 
  • Paradoxical Intention: This directs the client to give excessive attention or hyper-intention to trying to bring about the thing they most fear happening. With self-distancing and humorous exaggeration, the client cannot be anxious and intentional at the same time. 
  • Socratic Dialogue: This is a conversational questioning method that is used to raise awareness of the client’s unrealistic and counterproductive attitudes. The therapist refrains from imposing his or her own values onto the client while guiding them to a new outlook that may provide a more fulfilling and meaningful life.

Logotherapy as a psychological practice is hard to standardize, package and market so it has not gained as much traction in the U.S. as it has in other parts of the world, where interest is rising.  It recognizes that every person is unique and cannot fit into a standardized theory. Requiring creativity and flexibility, therapy at its best is as much an art as a science. Frankl liked to quote American Neurologist George M. Beard, who said, “if two cases of neuroses were treated the same way, one was treated wrong–at least one!”