More than happiness: about Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp and the meaning of life


“Happiness may not be at all what we are used to imagining it. In terms of the overall quality of life, fortitude and the degree of personal satisfaction, there is something much more significant than happiness “- with such an unexpected statement, Linda and Charlie Bloom, psychotherapists and specialists in relationships who have conducted many seminars on the topic happiness.

In his freshman year in college, Charlie read a book he believes has changed his life. “At the time, it was the most important book I have ever read, and it continues to be so to this day. It is called A Man in Search of Meaning and was written in 1946 by a Viennese psychiatrist and psychotherapist Victor Frankl“.

Frankl was recently released from a concentration camp, where he was imprisoned for several years. Then he received news that the Nazis had killed his entire family, including his wife, brother, both parents and many relatives. What Frankl had to see and experience during his time in a concentration camp led him to a conclusion that remains one of the most succinct and profound statements about life to this day.

“You can take away everything from a person, except for one thing: the last of human freedoms – freedom in any circumstances to choose how to treat them, choose your own path,” he said. This thought and all subsequent works of Frankl were not just theoretical reasoning – they were based on his daily observation of countless other prisoners, on internal reflection and his own experience of survival in inhuman conditions.

Without purpose and meaning, our life spirit weakens and we become more vulnerable to physical and mental stress

Frankl observed that the likelihood of camp prisoners surviving was directly related to whether they had a Target. A goal more meaningful than even themselves, one that helped them contribute to improving the quality of life of others. He argued that prisoners who suffered physical and mental suffering in the camps, but were able to survive, tended to seek and find an opportunity to share something with others. It could be a comforting word, a piece of bread, or a simple act of kindness and compassion.

Of course, this was not a guarantee of survival, but it was their way of maintaining a sense of purpose and meaning in extremely brutal conditions of existence. “Without purpose and meaning, our spirit of life weakens and we become more vulnerable to physical and mental stress,” adds Charlie Bloom.

Although it is natural for a person to prefer happiness to suffering, Frankl notes that a sense of purpose and meaning is often born out of adversity and pain. He understood more than anyone else the potentially redemptive value of suffering. He recognized that something good can grow out of the most painful experience, which will transform suffering into a life illuminated by Purpose.

More than happiness: about Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp and the meaning of life

Citing a publication in the Atlantic Monthly, Linda and Charlie Bloom write: “Research has shown that having meaning and purpose in life increases overall well-being and satisfaction, improves mental performance and physical health, increases resilience and self-esteem, and reduces the likelihood of depression. “.

At the same time, the persistent pursuit of happiness paradoxically makes people less happy. “Happiness,” they remind, “is usually associated with the pleasure of experiencing pleasant emotions and sensations. We feel happy when a need or desire is satisfied and we get what we want. “

Researcher Kathleen Vohs argues that “just happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits for themselves, while people who lead meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving something to others.” A 2011 study concluded that people with meaningful lives with a clearly defined purpose rate their satisfaction higher than people without a sense of purpose, even when they feel bad.

A few years before writing his book, Viktor Frankl was already living with a deep sense of purpose, which sometimes required him to abandon personal desires in favor of beliefs and commitments. By 1941, Austria had been occupied by the Germans for three years. Frankl understood that it was already a matter of time – when his parents would be taken away. At that time, he already had a high professional reputation and was recognized internationally for his contributions to the field of psychology. He applied and received a US visa, where he and his wife would be safe, away from the Nazis.

But, since it became obvious that his parents would inevitably be sent to a concentration camp, he faced a terrible choice – to go to America, escape and make a career, or stay, risking his life and the life of his wife, but help his parents in a difficult situation. After much thought, Frankl realized that his deepest purpose was to be responsible to aging parents. He decided to put aside his personal interests, stay in Vienna and devote his life to serving his parents, and then other prisoners in the camps.

We all have the ability to make choices and act on them.

“Frankl’s experience during this time served as the basis for his theoretical and clinical work, which has since had a profound impact on the quality of life of millions of people around the world,” add Linda and Charlie Bloom. Viktor Frankl died in 1997 at the age of 92. His beliefs were embodied in the teachings and scientific works.

His entire life has served as a stunning example of one person’s extraordinary ability to find and create meaning in a life filled with incredible physical and emotional suffering. He himself was literally proof that we all have the right in any conditions to choose our attitude to reality. And that the choices we make become the determining factor in our quality of life.

There are situations when we cannot choose the happier options for the development of events, but there are no such situations when we would lack the ability to choose our attitude towards them. “More than the words he wrote, Frankl’s life confirms that we all have the ability to make and act upon choices. Without a doubt, it was a life well lived, ”write Linda and Charlie Bloom.

About the Authors: Linda and Charlie Bloom are psychotherapists, couples therapists.

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