Frankl: Tragic Optimism

Viktor Frankl2.jpg

Viktor Emil Frankl M.D., Ph.D. (1905–1997) was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. He was the founder of logotherapy, a form of Existential Analysis, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, which has sold over 12 million copies. According to a survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club, it is one of “the ten most influential books in America.” (I have taught out of it in many university classes, and it is one of my favorite books. I have summarized it here.)

The postscript to that book was titled, “Tragic Optimism.” It was added in 1984 and is based on a lecture Frankl presented at the Third World Congress of Logotherapy, Regensburg University, West Germany, June 1983. Here are its main ideas.

Frankl begins like this:

“Let us first ask ourselves what should be understood by “a tragic optimism.” In brief it means that one is, and remains, optimistic in spite of the “tragic triad,” … a triad which consists of … (1) pain; (2) guilt; and (3) death. This … raises the question, How is it possible to say yes to life in spite of all that?  How … can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects? After all, “saying yes to life in spite of everything,” …presupposes that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable. And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive. In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation. … hence the reason I speak of a tragic optimism … an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.

Of course, you can’t force someone to be optimistic, any more than you can force them to be happy. Rather, you need a reason to be happy, just like you need a reason to laugh or smile. Give someone a reason to be happy or laugh or smile and they will. Try to force them to and they will show fake happiness or forced laughter or an unnatural smile.

Real happiness comes when we find meaning in our lives—meaning provides the reason to be happy despite the tragic triad. Without meaning, we give up. And this meaninglessness often lies behind our experiences of: 1) depression; 2) aggression; and 3) addiction. Now we can trace many neuroses to biochemical conditions, but Frankl believed that often their origins derive from a sense of meaninglessness.

As a therapist, Frankl was “concerned with the potential meaning inherent and dormant in all the single situations one has to face throughout his or her life,” rather than trying to understand the meaning of a life as a whole. He was not suggesting there is no meaning to an entire human life, but that this final meaning depends “on whether or not the potential meaning of every single situation has been actualized …” In other words: “the perception of meaning … boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or … becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.”

But how do we find meaning in our lives? Frankl reiterates that there are three main sources of meaning in life: 1) creating a work or doing a deed;  2) experiencing something or encountering someone (as in love);  and 3) transcending, learning, and finding meaning from the inevitable suffering which we will experience. Thus, Frankl argues, we can find meaning despite the tragic triad of suffering, guilt, and death.

As for suffering, Frankl doesn’t claim that we must suffer to discover meaning, but that meaning can be found despite, or even because of, suffering. Here he reminds me of the Stoics: “If it [suffering] is avoidable, the meaningful thing to do is to remove its cause, for unnecessary suffering is masochistic rather than heroic. If, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes his suffering, he can still choose his attitude.” We might not have chosen to break our necks, but we can choose, as far as is possible, to not let that experience break us. As for guilt, we overcome it primarily by taking responsibility for our actions, rising above guilt, and transforming ourselves for the better.

As for death, the ephemeral nature of life should remind that we are dying every moment, and therefore we should make good use of our time. This leads to Frankl’s imperative: “Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” In other words, live your life as if you were getting a second chance to correct all the mistakes you made in your first life:

… as soon as we have used an opportunity and have actualized a potential meaning, we have done so once and for all. We have rescued it into the past wherein it has been safely delivered and deposited. In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the stubble fields of transitoriness but overlook and forget the full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives: the deeds done, the loves loved, and last but not least, the sufferings they have gone through with courage and dignity.

Surprisingly these considerations lead him to a profound thought which provides a great tonic to those worried about time’s passing:

From this one may see that there is no reason to pity old people. Instead, young people should envy them. It is true that the old have no opportunities, no possibilities in the future. But they have more than that. Instead of possibilities in the future, they have realities in the past—the potentialities they have actualized, the meanings they have fulfilled, the values they have realized—and nothing and nobody can ever remove these assets from the past.

Frankl further argues that society mistakenly adores achievement, success, happiness, and youth. However, the quest for meaning is the most worthwhile pursuit and the only way to true happiness. Life’s tragedies—pain, guilt, and death—may lead to meaninglessness, but they don’t have to. We can be optimistic. We can find meaning through our work, our relationships, and by nobly bearing our suffering.


(Note. This post originally appeared on this blog on March, 3, 2017.)

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6 thoughts on “Frankl: Tragic Optimism

  1. Meaninglessness and lack of biochemical remedy: neuro-medications have—as of yet—too many side effects. Escapism (religion, drugs, the arts…) are still preferable to reality. And today’s asinine situation comedy (reality show, as Biden terms it) politics makes sense in this context. Trump supporters are living in a Reaganite dreamworld because absorbing reality unfiltered is excessively unpleasant. The quest for youth takes them back forty years to Morning In America, and nothing we say or do changes their minds.

    What we do is navigate between the Scylla of optimism and the Charybdis of gullibility.

  2. “What we do is navigate between the Scylla of optimism and the Charybdis of gullibility.”

    Surely you are correct Alan, although ‘Reality’ is hard to quantify as we all now live in the Virtual Reality World, which is delivered to us by the Magic Screen and Post Modern Philosophy, a system that interprets reality for us and tells us the ‘How, Why and What’ we should think about things, (As Humans lose the ability and desire for independent thought the Magic Screen is miraculously there to fill the void), In the Virtual World, (Which is where we all live now), People are divided into affinity groups which could be called Tribes, different Tribes ‘Believe’ in different realities that confirm their affinities, therefore no Tribe ostensibly seeks Truth for it’s own sake, (Because the Truth might not be what we want it to be) the quest is only for ‘Confirmation bias’.

    What reality will follow ‘Virtual Reality’, well, possibly, Object Reality will once again occupy Humans attention, Hunger and cold are two realities that are hard to ignore when they appear, Object reality is still there, object reality delivers the food to the table and the light to the bulb, the Virtual World is a comforting compelling delusion built upon object reality’s Bedrock, it is going to be a sad day for us all when the delusions we all ‘Love’ (certainly including Myself) are shattered by some event the Planners didn’t plan for becoming Reality!
    There is little room for Optimism, the Zeitgeist really doesn’t support it, but Gullibility,,
    The greatest minds in the World are hard at work thinking of ever more creative ways to Gull the public, so there surely is a lot of it out there and those who think they are immune to it are it’s easiest victims!

  3. John Russell,
    we both are somewhat overstating our cases here. I like this Reason and Meaning site because philosophy can be ‘concrete’, and also purely hypothetical as well.
    At any rate, I do not think the majority of those living in third world nations are in the virtual world; nor are a certain number of rural dwellers in developed countries.

  4. Thank you for your comments Al Brooks, I don’t actually believe that I know the answers to anything, Change is constant yet the descriptive words and their definitions, stay the same, so we are describing and trying to understand new phenomenon using outdated metaphors. E.G. What does Democracy mean in the age of 24/7 ‘News’?, what did it ever mean really? and further; who’s good do the candidates actually represent? The public’s? Or does it mean that the candidate whose backers can employ the the ‘Most skilled perception manipulators’ will gain the post and perform the tasks their backers (Employers) want them to do, I believe that is the present reality for we, the residents of the Virtual World!

  5. I believe this would be more aptly titled “Tragically Optimistic”—but that’s alright—or “mostly” right to be more clear. I for one still debate if reality still, or ever, exists but it just makes that day go a lot smother if I pretend that it does. Is the future auspicious, who are we to say? The future I chose twenty years ago is ironically the one I am tasked with surviving in now. The kiddos rallying in the streets are the ones who will be determining where my head lays while takings its final breath. We can do our part, but that’s only a part. As a firm believer in speaking truth to power, I have never waivered, but I have found it be better to offer guidance to youth. We are not going to reshape the powers that be by barking directly but by shaping the young. And when they come to power the groundwork is set. There is a firm foundation and their moral compass is already has a course. I have found this to be not only true on a personal level but have also witnessed it from afar. There are great things maturing and soon will boldly plow over our reality and create one anew. “We” may not witness it, but as much as we scoff at the newest generation’s inadequacies, their strengths are directed in ensuring a helluva lot better future than what we sowed for them. They have garnered a collective conscious that recognizes the power of being a steward to the environment, denouncing bigotry, and realized that the human race is the only one worth winning, and still taking the time to see the power in preserving other species. I challenge us one and all to spend every available moment to not argue among ourselves but instead connect with the young and plant seeds that will one day grow to a future where optimism prevails over the ever-looming tragedy that is life.

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