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Prisoners of Our Thoughts

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7 Principles for Finding Meaning in Life & Work

World-renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is one of the most important books of modern times. Frankl's extraordinary personal story of finding meaning amid the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps has inspired millions. Frankl vividly showed that you always have the ultimate freedom to choose your attitude—you don't have to be a prisoner of your thoughts.

Dr. Alex Pattakos—who was urged by Frankl to write Prisoners of Our Thoughts—and Elaine Dundon, a personal and organizational innovation thought leader, show how Frankl's wisdom can help readers find meaning in every moment of their lives. Drawing on the entire body of Frankl's work, they identify seven “core principles” and demonstrate how they can be applied to everyday life and work.

This revised and expanded third edition features new stories, practical exercises, applications, and insights from the authors' new work in MEANINGology®. Three new chapters outline how we all can benefit by putting meaning at the core of our lives, work, and society. And a new chapter on Viktor Frankl's legacy illustrates how his work continues to influence so many around the world.

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1. Life Doesn’t Just Happen to Us

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Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked.

In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.1 (V. Frankl)

It seems that I (Alex) have known Viktor Frankl most of my life. It was in the late 1960s when I first became acquainted with his work and read his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning. While on active duty with the U.S. Army, I received formal training at Brooke Army Hospital, now called Brooke Army Medical Center, at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, as a social work/psychology specialist. In addition to the opportunity to work side by side with some of the best mental health professionals in the field, this unique learning experience fueled my passion for studying various schools of thought and practice in psychiatry and psychology. Frankl’s work in particular had great resonance for me at that time, and it eventually became an integral part of both my personal and professional life.

 

2. Viktor Frankl

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I do not forget any good deed done to me, and I carry no grudge for a bad one.1 (V. Frankl)

Viktor E. Frankl was born in Vienna, Austria, on March 26, 1905. It was the day Beethoven died, and in Frankl’s autobiography he is quick to note this coincidence and reveal his sense of humor by sharing a comment made by one of his schoolmates: “One mishap comes seldom alone.”2 Frankl’s father, who had been forced to drop out of medical school for financial reasons, was a public servant who instilled in the young Viktor a firm sense of social justice. For thirty-five years Viktor’s father worked for the department of child protection and youth welfare. Viktor’s mother, with whom he was very close, helped him develop his emotional side—the feelings and human connectedness that would inform his work as deeply as did his rationality.

Frankl was the second of three children, and at an early age he was afflicted with perfectionism. “I do not even speak to myself for days,” he said, referring to his anger at himself for not always being perfect. His astonishing and precocious interests in learning about human motivations led him to write to the well-known Viennese psychiatrist and “father of psychoanalysis” Sigmund Freud, with whom he had a correspondence throughout his high school years. Unfortunately this correspondence was lost years later to the Gestapo, the secret-police organization in Nazi Germany and German-occupied Europe.

 

3. PRINCIPLE 1. Exercise the Freedom to Choose Your Attitude

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Everything can be taken from a man but . . . the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.1 (V. Frankl)

Human beings are, by nature, creatures of habit. Searching for a life that is both predictable and within our comfort zone, we rely on routine and, for the most part, learned thinking patterns. We create pathways in our minds in much the same way that a path is beaten through a grass field from repeated use. Because these patterns are automatic, we may believe these habitual ways of thinking and behaving to be beyond our control. Thus we rationalize our responses to life and fall prey to forces that limit our potential as human beings. By viewing ourselves as relatively powerless and driven by instinct, the possibility that we can create, or at least co-create, our own reality becomes difficult to grasp. Instead, we often lock ourselves inside our own mental prisons. We lose sight of our own natural potential and that of others. In essence, we become prisoners of our thoughts.

 

4. PRINCIPLE 2. Realize Your Will to Meaning

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A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.” 1 (V. Frankl)

“Oh, I am so happy,” Olivia exclaimed. “I have always wanted a Rolex watch. I can hardly wait to show my friends.” Many of us can relate to the excitement of getting something new, especially if we had focused our intentions of acquiring it for quite some time. It is the promise, the anticipation of pleasure that lures us. But pleasure itself is fleeting and often hard to capture. Although we may have been excited about the prospect of receiving something pleasurable, the feeling of elation quickly dissipates, ultimately leaving us dissatisfied. Many of us get hooked on this cycle—reveling in the anticipation of pleasure, delighting in the buildup and the thrill of the actual event, but inevitably becoming disillusioned when the novelty subsides. It becomes a vicious cycle, a roller coaster, as we seek to experience the euphoric highs of pleasure once more. This situation reminds us of the story of the Greek hero Sisyphus who was ordered by the gods to push a boulder uphill, only to see it slip out of his hands and roll back down the hill, again and again. Similarly, in our quest for happiness and pleasure, life can become an endless and joyless undertaking.

 

5. PRINCIPLE 3. Detect the Meaning of Life’s Moments

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Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!1 (V. Frankl)

It is not the meaning of life per se that is important; rather, it is the search for meaning in your own life that is important. Meaning is different for everyone—there is no one right answer; there is only the answer that is right for you. However, the search for meaning in our own lives often seems like such a large undertaking. Where do we begin? Making this task more manageable is the subject of this chapter in which we introduce the third principle of Frankl’s work: detecting the meaning of life’s moments.

We don’t create meaning—we find it. And we can’t find it if we don’t look for it. Sometimes it looms large in our lives; sometimes it slips in almost unobserved. We might miss a meaningful moment entirely, until days, months, or even years later when what once seemed insignificant is revealed as a pivotal, life-changing moment. Or it might be the collective meaning of many moments that finally catches our mind’s eye, as if we weave together a living quilt from moments that by themselves passed unnoticed. Although we are not always aware of meaning, Frankl would say that it is present in every moment, wherever we go. All we have to do, in daily life and at work, is to wake up to meaning and take notice:

 

6. PRINCIPLE 4. Don’t Work Against Yourself

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Ironically enough, in the same way that fear brings to pass what one is afraid of, likewise a forced intention makes impossible what one forcibly wishes.1 (V. Frankl)

Have you ever worked so hard at something that the more you tried, the harder the task became and the farther away you seemed to get from your goal? In other words, one step forward, two steps back? I (Alex) have experienced this kind of situation in my life, especially in my work life. Let me share an example that took place when I was a full-time professor, directing a graduate degree program in public administration at a university in the United States. Among my duties as director, I was charged with the challenge of obtaining accreditation for the program from a professional association. Becoming accredited was viewed by those in the field as a prestigious distinction and competitive advantage, through which my program stood to gain increases in student enrollment and research funding, greater ease of faculty recruitment, and other embellishments for its resource base.

 

7. PRINCIPLE 5. Look at Yourself from a Distance

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We know that humor is a paramount way of putting distance between something and oneself. One might say as well, that humor helps man rise above his own predicament by allowing him to look at himself in a more detached way.1 (V. Frankl)

“I can’t stand my students,” said Janet, an assistant professor at a liberal arts college. She had worked for several years at the same college but every time I (Elaine) got together with her, she seemed more and more frustrated with her students and her job in general. “When I went to college,” she told me, “we respected our professors. We didn’t wear earphones in class, we didn’t text constantly, we didn’t check our email on our laptops, and we didn’t start conversations with the person sitting beside us. I can’t believe how spoiled these kids are. They expect me to spoon-feed them the material and they can’t even bother researching anything beyond Wikipedia. They don’t like to read more than five pages before they lose concentration. And after all that, they expect an A in the class. I even had a parent of one of my students call me and demand that I reconsider her son’s B. Talk about a helicopter parent hovering over their child, unable to let go.” Janet would have gone on and on with her litany of complaints, if I hadn’t interrupted her.

 

8. PRINCIPLE 6. Shift Your Focus of Attention

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De-reflection can only be attained to the degree to which . . . awareness is directed toward positive aspects.1 (V. Frankl)

Sometimes it is the gravity of the hardships or challenges we face that forces us to detect the meaning of life’s moments. After waging a courageous, year-and-a-half-long battle with pancreatic cancer, Patrick Swayze, the actor and classically trained dancer whose leading roles in the blockbuster films Dirty Dancing and Ghost made him a popular movie star, died on September 14, 2009. He was fifty-seven years old. “I’m proud of what I’m doing,” Swayze had told the New York Times in October the year before his death, when he was still filming The Beast, an A&E television series in which he starred as an FBI agent. “How do you nurture a positive attitude when all the statistics say you’re a dead man? You go to work.”

We all have known people, often people close to us, who have passed on. We may even have experienced the death of loved ones who have battled terminal illnesses, such as pancreatic cancer or breast cancer. If we are fortunate, we may know people like Patrick Swayze and Elaine’s mother (whose story is recounted in chapter 1) who were inspirations and role models in ways that are not always easy to describe. Despite personal hardships and formidable challenges, these people represent human beings at their best, even as conditions are the worst. Observing them, we bear witness to the resilience and unlimited power of the human mind and spirit, and we come to better understand how the search for meaning is the primary intrinsic motivation of all human beings.

 

9. PRINCIPLE 7. Extend Beyond Yourself

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Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness,cannot be pursued; it must ensue and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.1 (V. Frankl)

Every day Vita delivers our mail—cheerfully. It’s her trademark attitude. One day, in miserable weather, we heard her whistling as she went about making her deliveries. Instinctively we shouted out to her, “Thank you for doing such a great job!” She stopped in her tracks and said with surprise. “Thank you! Wow, I’m not accustomed to hearing that. I really appreciate it.” We wanted to know more. “How do you stay so positive and upbeat about delivering mail every day?” we asked her. “I don’t just deliver mail,” she said enthusiastically and with a great deal of pride. “I see myself helping to connect people to other people. I am helping to build the community. Besides, people depend on me and I don’t want to let them down.”

 

10. MEANING AT THE CORE: Life

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Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives.1 (V. Frankl)

The seven core principles we have derived from Viktor Frankl’s System of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis provide insight into how we all can live more meaningful lives. From our viewpoint, Frankl’s work can be summarized into three key assertions:

1. We always have the freedom to choose. This relates to the freedom of will. Principle 1. Exercise the freedom to choose your attitude helps us understand that, although we might not choose what happens to us, our attitude toward what happens to us is always our choice.

2. We are responsible for searching for meaning in our lives. The search for meaning is essential to human existence. Life has meaning regardless of circumstances. Principle 2. Realize your will to meaning suggests that we must look for meaning in our lives and we must trust that we will find this meaning.

 

11. MEANING AT THE CORE: Work

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The struggle for existence is a struggle “for” something; it is purposeful, and only in so being is it meaningful and able to bring meaning into life.1 (V. Frankl)

We often separate our work lives from our personal lives but, in reality, they are intertwined. Our work lives take our time and energy and often dictate where we live, where we travel, and how we use our financial resources. Frequently, we bring the conflict we have experienced at work into our personal lives, and vice versa. When we consider the amount of time we spend “at work” (both paid and unpaid, such as volunteering), it should not be surprising that the search for meaning at work is—or at least it should be—an important concern. Whether we run a company, drive a bus, cook a meal, clean a hotel room, or help the sick and homeless, our work is a reflection of the presence or absence of meaning in our lives. In many, if not most, of our client engagements, when we ask people to share the most meaningful thing that happened in their lives in the last three months, interestingly, more than 90 percent of responses represent experiences from their personal lives, not their work lives. Very few participants seem to believe—or at least are not aware—that their work is or can be a source of meaning. Others simply hope that their work will provide meaning, but they don’t know how to access this meaning.

 

12. MEANING AT THE CORE: Society

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We must never be content with what has already been achieved. Life never ceases to put new questions to us, never permits us to come to rest. . . . The man who stands still is passed by; the man who is smugly contented loses himself.

Neither in creating or experiencing may we rest content with achievement; every day, ever hour makes new deeds necessary and new experiences possible.1 (V. Frankl)

In addition to the crisis of meaning in our personal lives and workplaces, there is also a crisis of meaning in our society. The symptoms of this existential crisis echo what Viktor Frankl referred to many decades ago as the “mass neurotic triad” (addiction, aggression, and depression)—a notion we introduced in chapter 4. Unfortunately, these symptoms have not waned over the years; if anything, they have intensified and now manifest themselves in ways that Frankl could not have imagined when he first wrote about them. These societal conditions are symptoms, not root causes, of the lack of meaning. This crisis of meaning in society received attention in an article in the Utne Reader Online, where life in the postmodern world is described as displaying certain characteristics and influences that look very much like manifestations of Frankl’s existential vacuum:

 

13. Viktor Frankl’s Legacy Continues

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The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.1(V. Frankl)

It has been twenty years since I (Alex) met with Dr. Frankl at his home in Vienna, Austria, and after proposing the idea of writing this book, he grabbed my arm and encouragingly said, “Alex, yours is the book that needs to be written.” It is perhaps even more significant to note that 2017 marks the twentieth year since Frankl’s passing in 1997. A truly exceptional human being, Viktor Frankl will forever bring light to darkness along the path and guide the human quest for meaning. Psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Zeig, who was privileged to know Frankl and his family, anchored his sentiments about the influence of Frankl in words taken from Albert Camus’s The First Man: “There are people who vindicate the world, who help others just by their presence.” Without a doubt, Frankl was a man whose very presence vindicated the world. His legacy continues to be one of hope and possibility. He saw the human condition at its worst, with people behaving in unimaginably intolerable ways. He also saw human beings rising to heights of compassion and caring in what can only be described as miraculous acts of unselfishness and transcendence.

 

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