Viktor Frankl: A Psychiatrist’s Understanding of Despair

Viktor Frankl, Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor

A Sign of Intellectual Honesty

One of the reasons Viktor Frankl, the eminent psychiatrist and Holocausts st survivor, wrote Man’s Search for Meaning was that he “thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.”1 However, many people are embarrassed to admit their despair, because they assume they are emotionally sick. Frankl disagreed with that assumption. For him,

“There is no need to feel ashamed of existential despair because of the assumption that it is an emotional disease, for it is … a human achievement and accomplishment. Above all, it is a manifestation of intellectual sincerity and honesty.”2

A Distinctively Human Phenomenon

Despair, then, is a distinctively human phenomenon, that is, a peculiarly human trait. After all, dogs and cats do not go into despair and commit suicide, but human beings can and, in fact, do. Frankl teaches that when humans are in despair, they are “in touch” with themselves. In other words, they are being true to themselves, namely, the truly human part of their being that struggles to find answers to life’s problems.

A Challenge to Believe in Life’s Meaning

So when men and women – both the young and the old – feel the dark cloud of negativity hanging over them; when they want to give up on their dreams, because they have been dashed to pieces so many times; when such persons feel like their lives are falling apart and cannot be put back together, then, and precisely then, they must believe that the answer to their despair is near; the solution is at hand. That is to say, they must endure the despair and, at the same time, take a “leap of faith,” believing that their despair is leading them to a new phase and, thus, a new meaning to their lives.

Therefore, in a moment of despair, such persons must, to paraphrase Frankl, have patience, mustering up enough courage to wait for the answer to their despair, believing that meaning will, once again, dawn upon them.3


1. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 3rd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1984), p. 12.

2. ———-, The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy (New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1969, 1st printing 1970), p. 91.

3. Ibid.


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