Medium 9781605095240

Prisoners of Our Thoughts

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NEW EDITION, REVISED AND UPDATED
World-renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the most important books of modern times. Frankl’s personal story of finding a reason to live in Nazi concentration camps has inspired millions. In Prisoners of Our Thoughts, Dr. Alex Pattakos—whom Frankl urged to write this book—elaborates seven “core principles” based on Frankl’s philosophy and demonstrates how they can help us find meaning in our everyday lives and work . This second edition features new stories and examples of people who have applied the principles in the book or who exemplify them; new practical exercises and applications; and a new chapter, “The Meaning Difference®,” which summarizes research demonstrating the critical role of meaning in improving the quality of people’s lives, increasing happiness, promoting health and wellness, and achieving their highest potential.

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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

Every day Vita delivers my mail — cheerfully. It’s her trademark attitude. One day, in lousy weather, I heard her whistling as she went about making her deliveries. Instinctively I shouted out to her, “Thank you for doing such a great job.” She stopped dead in her tracks with surprise. “Thank you,” she said. “Wow, I’m not accustomed to hearing such words. I really appreciate it.”

I wanted to know more. “How do you stay so positive and upbeat about delivering mail every day?” I asked her.

“I don’t just deliver mail,” she said. “I see myself helping to connect people to other people. I help build the community. Besides, people depend on me and I don’t want to let them down.” Her response was enthusiastic and proud.

Vita’s attitude about her work reflected the words inscribed on the General Post Office building in New York City: “Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” The Greek historian Herodotus wrote these words in the fifth century BC. The ancient delivery of messages from one person to another is at the very heart of our Information Age, yet these days it’s the phrase “going postal” that we’re more likely to recognize.

 

2 Viktor Frankl’s Lifework and Legacy

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I do not forget any good deed done to me, and I carry no grudge for a bad one.15

It seems that I 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 now-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.

Over the years, in fact, I have had many opportunities to apply Frankl’s teachings in my own life and work. In effect, I have been able to field test the validity and reliability of his key principles and techniques, often in comparison with competing schools of thought and in situations that tested the limits of my personal resilience. It didn’t take me long to realize the efficacy of his philosophy and approach, and I became a de facto practitioner of Logotherapy long before the idea for this book surfaced in my mind.

 

3 Labyrinths of Meaning

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I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.25

In an episode of the popular American television sitcom Frasier, the central character, Dr. Frasier Crane, played by Kelsey Grammer, is notified that he will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work as a psychiatrist and radio talk show host. Prior to the award ceremonies, Frasier seeks the counsel of his psychiatric mentor because he feels anxious and ambivalent about receiving the award. More fundamentally, however, the session with his mentor reveals that Frasier feels empty in spite of all his professional success. At the award ceremonies, his acceptance speech is noticeably brief and ends with the existential question, “Now what do I do with the rest of my life?” In this fictitious case, the concern is very real. Frasier had reached a critical point along his life path and couldn’t see where he was going next. Walking a labyrinth through all of its twists and turns is like this.

 

4 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.28

It was nearly midnight. It was time to jot down his final thoughts before darkness fell around him. In just a few minutes, the lights would go out and his cell would no longer be a “writer’s study”; it would be a stark, confining dungeon. For almost twenty years, this had been his home, his office, and his prison. But even though he knew it was not likely that he would ever see real freedom again, he remained true to his core values and life goals. He wrote several book-length manuscripts, stayed in touch with his loved ones, and persevered with optimism. His defiant human spirit prevailed.

With a great deal of pride, I can tell you that he is my great-uncle, General Stylianos Pattakos, a Greek patriot who served his country as a military officer and political leader through some of the most turbulent times in modern Greek history. Among other things, my uncle Stelios was one of three officers responsible for setting up a military regime in Greece in 1967. He served in various ways, including as the country’s vice president, until another government takeover in 1974.

 

5 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.”36

“It’s going to be a fun week, sailing the Endeavor, tennis, golf, eating, drinking. All the things we are best known for,” said former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski. This statement was recorded on a videotape of a two-million-dollar birthday bash that Kozlowski threw for his wife on the island of Sardinia in 2000. An edited version of the tape was shown to jurors at Kozlowski’s larceny trial, providing further evidence that Tyco had funded its ex-CEO’s lavish lifestyle for years before he resigned in June 2002. Alas, Sigmund Freud would be proud, for Dennis Kozlowski demonstrated that Freud’s theory of the pleasure principle, also known as the will to pleasure, is alive and well in corporate America!

Tyco, of course, is not the only major company in recent times that has faced public scrutiny and the wrath of government regulators and the courts because of corporate scandals. Nor is Kozlowski the only corporate executive to have gained such infamous notoriety. Do the names Ken Lay (Enron), Bernie Ebbers (Worldcom), and Martha Stewart ring a bell? And what about Bernard Madoff, the former chairman of the NASDAQ Stock Exchange and Ponzi scheme master — to say nothing of the illicit dealings of those CEOs and other executives, on and off Wall Street, associated with government bailouts of firms that were deemed too big to fail during the financial meltdown and economic crisis of 2008 and after? Incidentally, there are Web sites dedicated to profiling many of these individuals and highlighting the most notorious of the corporate scandals in which they were involved.37 Unlike Tyco’s Kozlowski, it should be noted that many of these executives did (or do) not appear as interested in following Freud’s will to pleasure as they were (or are) in pursuing Alfred Adler’s will to power (in Adler’s words, “striving for superiority”). Adler, you may remember, was a contemporary and mentor of Viktor Frankl.

 

6 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!50

Michelle had recently celebrated her fiftieth birthday but was not quite ready to admit that she had reached the half-century mark and was dreading retirement age. In fact, she was not happy and not inclined to celebrate anything in her life. Twice divorced and the single mother of two Generation Xers, Michelle’s personal life, as far as she was concerned, left much to be desired. She didn’t feel much better about her work life either. Since her last marriage ended, she had been having a very difficult time holding any kind of steady employment. Whenever she did find a job that seemed worthwhile, it always soured quickly. Over and over, Michelle would find herself stressed out at work, always for some reason that had nothing to do with herself — a poor boss, lazy co-workers, unclear job description, lack of support, and so on. Consequently, she was never satisfied with her work situation and certainly never imagined that she could have a meaningful career path.

 

7 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.62

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 backward? I’ve experienced this kind of situation in my life, including my work life. Let me share a quick 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 from one of the discipline’s professional associations. 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, greater ease of faculty recruitment, increased research funding, and other embellishments for its resource base.

 

8 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.76

The ad in a London newspaper read, “Unemployed. Brilliant mind offers its services completely free; the survival of the body must be provided for by adequate salary.” Viktor Frankl quoted this ad in his book The Doctor and the Soul to make an important point about the different ways in which people may respond to being unemployed. Frankl was not suggesting that unemployment is not a serious matter; on the contrary, he emphasizes that being unemployed is a “tragedy because a job is the only source of livelihood for most people.” This newspaper ad also reflects the fact that not all unemployed people experience inner emptiness or feelings of uselessness because they are unoccupied.

First, the fact that we do not have paid work does not mean that life itself has no meaning for us. Second, our attitude toward any situation, including unemployment and other major life challenges, determines our ability and willingness to respond effectively. The person who placed the ad turned a dire situation into something humorous because she was able to put distance between herself and the issue. She was able to look at herself from a distance as well, which allowed her to find meaning in her plight and take appropriate action to remedy the situation. Even the wording of the ad reflects her sense of humor and her innate, distinctly human capacity to look at herself in a detached way and rise above her predicament.

 

9 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.82

Andy is a former executive with a major software company. He used to make more than $130,000 a year and had a terrific benefits package. He supervised teams of software programmers in several states and had an office overseas. But no more. Like scores of other well-paid, white-collar workers, Andy was laid off and has been unable to find a job that offers the same — or even similar — responsibilities, status, salary, and benefits. Instead, out of desperation, he has found himself grasping at survival jobs offering considerably less.

“Yes, desperate times require desperate measures,” says Andy. He continues, “This is no time to be picky. Since they laid me off, I’ve sold jewelry in a department store and worked as a cashier at a ski slope, both at eight dollars an hour. Now I sell golf equipment.”

Andy, however, is more than a mere survivor in a job market that calls for such desperate measures. Although he is empathetic, Andy doesn’t really see himself as grasping at straws like some displaced white-collar workers. He would say that he’s not in the same boat at all. You see, Andy isn’t driven by frustration, money worries, shame, or embarrassment. In fact, Andy doesn’t feel that he is going backward; instead, he feels that he’s going forward. An avid golfer, he has moved on to jobs related to his hobby — first helping run the pro shop at a local golf course and now selling golf equipment in a mall sports shop. And in his current job, Andy sees an even more positive side.

 

10 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.87

Andrea Jaeger was the youngest seeded player in Wimbledon history in 1980. At only fifteen years old, she was also the youngest U.S. Open semifinalist that same year. Described as a “pigtailed, teenage wunderkind,” Andrea was positioned for continued athletic success and fame. Yet by 1984 her career in tennis had ended because of injuries and burnout, and Andrea disappeared from the sports radar screen and the public’s eye.

Andrea Jaeger’s life had taken a turn, but her legacy was just beginning to unfold. During her years as a tennis phenomenon, Andrea had spent her time off with sick children in hospitals around the world. Through these heartfelt encounters, Andrea’s true metamorphosis was taking place. After moving to Aspen, Colorado, in 1989, she made the decision to dedicate her life to terminally ill children, to give them a greater opportunity to experience life.

 

11 Living and Working with Meaning

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Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives.93

“I don’t like working with maggots,” Rick said to me as we were discussing his current job and career aspirations. Believe it or not, Rick was referring to the clients he has as a probation officer for the state department of corrections! He had worked in his current position for over four years and said he had not changed his views about the people with whom he was in daily contact — people who obviously depended on him for advice and support.

After some probing, I learned that Rick had grown up as a ward of the state, bouncing between various sets of foster parents, with periodic stints in an orphanage. But rather than making him sympathetic and compassionate toward those in need, Rick’s experience resulted in just the opposite outcome — he became insensitive and unforgiving. Unlike many people who have gone through similar situations, Rick couldn’t (and didn’t want to) relate to people who in his view weren’t able to take care of themselves, who “slurped at the public trough” — that is, who depended on public assistance in some form.

 

12 The Meaning Difference®

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The search for meaning is a megatrend of the twenty-first century. I’ve made this claim on numerous occasions and have seen it confirmed by many reliable sources with increasing frequency since this book was first released.98 Indeed, in our so-called postmodern world, there is increasing evidence that people in all walks and stages of life either are on a conscious search for meaning in their everyday lives, including their work lives, or at least they are aware that such a search for meaning is both necessary and desirable for their optimal health and well-being.

Meaning is the energy or fuel that motivates us to achieve our full potential as human beings, in our personal and our working lives. As I pointed out in chapter 11, Dr. Frankl ardently believed that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a ‘secondary rationalization’ of instinctual drives.” As a motivational force, the will to meaning is not external but is intrinsic to our very being — a part of our “soul’s code,” if you will — which distinguishes it from other human drives, such as those based primarily on pleasure or power (see chapter 5).

 

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