Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived Nazi concentration camps, used his experiences to develop a psychotherapy theory called logotherapy, which emphasizes the importance of finding personal meaning in life in order to survive and succeed.
When prisoners first arrived at the camp, they entered a phase of shock and disbelief. They also had a delusion of reprieve --they believed that they would be okay despite the horrific stories they had heard.
The prisoners were terribly frightened by what was happening and could not manage the emotional experience of watching others being punished. Some eventually lost hope and saw death as a relief, considering suicide as a way out. Some purposely grabbed the electrical fence encircling the camps.
In the next phase, the prisoners experienced apathy. They became emotionally dull and focused solely on survival. The prisoners' thoughts and conversations revolved around basic needs such as food and clothing, rather than love or desires.
When there were many deaths due to a typhus outbreak, prisoners did not grieve, and instead saw it as an opportunity to obtain more food and essential items from the deceased.
We tend to live for the future. We are always looking forward to making plans and meeting goals. However, many prisoners stopped imagining a future because there was no foreseeable end to their time in the camp, leaving them feeling as though their lives were already over. They felt like they merely existed.
For those who survived the concentration camps, they entered the third phase -- adjusting to a normal life. This is often difficult. Upon release, prisoners felt disbelief and were unable to experience pleasure or joy.
Many found their families and towns destroyed. Furthermore, prisoners hoped for compassion, but often encountered a lack of understanding and empathy from people who had never been in concentration camps. Some prisoners felt bitter and sought vengeance against their former captors. However, after a while, most prisoners were able to enjoy their lives again and were grateful for their survival.
Prisoners in the concentration camps survived by focusing on their "inner" lives, such as imagining loved ones, their future after release, reminiscing about the past, and finding happiness in memories. They also found solace in nature, humor, and small gatherings during lunch breaks.
While we cannot control the external circumstances of our lives, we can control our responses to them, and finding meaning in our experiences can help us find happiness and fulfillment. The author himself found meaning in helping and comforting his fellow prisoners, even under the most dire circumstances.
We are always presented with opportunities to make choices. Some prisoners accepted their fate while others were determined to maintain even the tiniest freedoms, and grabbed any opportunity to make decisions. Their spiritual life, for example, was something that couldn't be taken away from them. Although they might have to abandon their rituals, they could still decide to live up to high moral standards, such as by sharing their bread with those in greater need even when they themselves are starving.
According to logotherapy, our motivation to act comes from the meaning we find in life. The author observed in the concentration camps that those who could maintain meaning were stronger, more resilient, and had better chances of survival than those who had lost it.
When we can't find meaning or purpose in our lives, we feel an existential vacuum, a negative feeling of emptiness.
We don't first find our life's purpose in order to make the right choices. Instead, the purpose is determined by the actions we take that we believe are the right choices and that we accept responsibility for. Many concentration camp prisoners found a purpose in life by making choices such as looking for beauty in nature or helping others in greater need.
The meaning of life is unique to each individual and their circumstances. It has no restrictions and can be personal or involve social conscience.
The author's focus on his life purpose -- educating the world about the Holocaust experience and the psychological lessons learned from it -- helped him find the will to survive.
Logotherapy offers techniques to help people with fears or mental disorders. Logotherapy focuses on internal rather than external factors to help patients realize that they are in control of their fears and anxieties. One technique it uses is paradoxical intention, which involves doing the thing that one is afraid of in order to overcome the fear. For example, a person who is afraid of blushing in public can intentionally try to blush as much as possible in front of others to lose the fear.