Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Application of Viktor Frankl’s “search for meaning”



“Life holds meaning for each and every individual,
an even more, it retains this meaning literally to one’s last breath.”
– Viktor Frankl

First we had Freud who was interested in pleasure, then we had his disciple Adler who focused more on power. Following Adler was Viktor Frankl from Vienna who coined the term logotherapy, an approach focused not on pleasure or power, but on finding meaning.  Throughout time humans have craved the ability to translate suffering into a system of meaning. The basic principles in his philosophy are three specific things: 1. meaning can be found even in the most horrific circumstances; 2. the main motivation we have for living is the will and drive to find meaning; 3. as Maria Marshall states in her book Logotherapy Revisited, we have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

Dr. William Breitbart of Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York wrote a manual titled Individual Meaning-Centered Psychotherapy for Patients with Advanced Cancer. He and his team of professionals developed a program to help patients find and sustain a sense of meaning in the last months of their life through the application of Viktor Frankl’s meaning-centered approach. This proved to help advanced cancer patients maintain hope and purpose, have a better quality of life, and also reduces stress and despair.

“Judging whether life is or not worth living
amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy…
I therefore conclude that the meaning of life
is the most urgent of questions.”
-Albert Camus


Experiencing meaning, or having the sense that one has led a ‘meaningful life’, according to Frankl, suggests that meaning is both experienced and created moment by moment throughout life, as well as in a more ontological fashion as one reflects on a life lived”
-Dr Breitbart

The purpose and goals set in place by Breitbardt’s Treatment Manual are:

Affirm possibility in the experience and creation of meaning, even in the face of advanced cancer.

Aid participants in their discovery, reconnection, maintenance, and even enhancement of a sense of meaning in life during cancer illness.

Facilitate a greater understanding of sources of meaning that can be used.

Promote a therapeutic relationship where patients can explore personal issues and feelings surrounding their illness.

If someone says they find meaning in their family, the process of logotherapy is to get them to go deeper into that meaning and to basically answer the question, what about your family gives you meaning?


“The noblest appreciation of meaning is reserved to those people who, deprived of the opportunity to find meaning in a deed, in a work, or in love, by the very attitude which they choose to this predicament, rise above it and grow beyond themselves. What matters is the stand they take – a stand which allows for transmuting their predicament into achievement, triumph and heroism.”
-Viktor Frankl

Frankl survived Aushwitz and his personal meaning was to live for his wife that died and to finish manuscripts he started there. He lectured other prisoners and noticed a tremendous difference in having them think about love, beauty, and humor, even looking at the landscape in a way they never had before. This teaching resonates with everyone and every life lived. It also reminds me of some yoga teachings. One in particular is the teaching of dharma which can most simply be described as your life’s calling. What is your dharma? What makes you feel most alive and calls for you to participate in it fully? Dharma is similar to Frankl’s meaning-centered therapy because they both are instances where we look both inside and outside ourselves to discover a reason to to live life with meaning, with purpose.

Where do you find your meaning, and within that what specifically gives you meaning?


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