Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl's Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work

Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl's Principles for Discovering Meaning in Life and Work

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626568808
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 01/09/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 198,909
Product dimensions: 8.60(w) x 5.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Alex Pattakos, PhD, is cofounder of the Global Meaning Institute with offices in the United States, Canada, and Greece. His unique background includes being a mental health administrator, professor of public and business administration, consultant with the White House, and advisor to the commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration. He is also the coauthor with Elaine Dundon of The OPA! Way: Finding Joy & Meaning in Everyday Life & Work. As a leader of the Meaning Movement, he is focused on helping others find meaning in life, work, and society. 

Elaine Dundon, MBA, is the cofounder of the Global Meaning Institute. She is passionate about helping people find meaning in their personal and work lives, as well as helping organizations create meaning-centered workplaces to deliver products and services that truly make a meaningful difference. She began her career in brand management at Procter & Gamble. A thought leader in the field of personal and organizational innovation, she authored the best-selling book The Seeds of Innovation and created the groundbreaking course on innovation management at the University of Toronto. Her work evolved to the “human side of innovation,” incorporating meaning, leadership, philosophy, and metaphysics to help people and organizations reach their full potential. 

Stephen R. Covey was the author of several books, including the iconic bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He passed away in 2012.

Read an Excerpt

Prisoners of Our Thoughts


By Alex Pattakos, Elaine Dundon

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2017 Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62656-882-2



CHAPTER 1

Life Doesn't Just Happen to Us

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. (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.

Over the years, I have had many opportunities to apply Frankl's teachings in my own life and work. In effect, I have field-tested 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. Many decisive times in my life, including situations that involved work, could easily be described as turbulent and challenging. Such formidable, life-defining moments, although they often lasted much longer than a moment, required a great deal of soul-searching for answers. I remember how truly out of balance — and yes, even lost — I felt at those critical times. I had learned many years ago from Thomas Moore, psychotherapist and author of the best-selling book Care of the Soul, that our most soulful times are when we are out of balance rather than when we are in balance. It was especially during these meaning-centered moments, when I was out of balance, that I found myself putting Frankl's philosophy and approach into practice.

I was particularly out of balance in my early twenties, after graduating from college. I was contemplating going to law school after my military service. My father, an engineer, envisioned that someday I would work for him as an attorney specializing in contract law. With his help and at his urging, I took a job with a large engineering and construction firm in New Jersey. However, I did not see myself as a corporate lawyer. Fueled by my active duty with the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era, I was interested in law only as it could be used as an instrument for social policy and social change. This perspective did not bode well for my relationship with my father or my employer.

Although I felt trapped, Frankl's work reminded me that it was my own responsibility how I chose to react to the situation. I knew I had to maintain a positive, resilient attitude and that this experience — a kind of existential dilemma — was actually giving me an opportunity to clarify and confirm my values around the kind of work I wanted to do and not do. This meant leaving my relatively secure place of employment and, harder still, standing up to and engaging in many heated arguments with my father so that I could declare the path that I wanted to pursue. From this personal and stressful experience, however, I learned that it was worth the risk and effort! How I faced this difficult situation increased my personal resilience for handling other challenges I have encountered throughout my life.

One may say that instincts are transmitted through the genes, and values are transmitted through traditions, but that meanings, being unique, are a matter of personal discovery. (V. Frankl)


I (Elaine) too have faced many situations when I felt out of balance or, in some cases, that I was in balance but the rest of the world was not. One day, years ago, at the age of twelve, when I was babysitting for the woman across the street from our home, she turned to me and said, "That's quite an ordeal your mother is facing." The look on my face must have registered confusion, for she responded, "Oh no. You don't know." She was correct, I did not know. I did not know that my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer and the prognosis was not good. Survival was rare back then without the medical treatments and psychological support that we are blessed with today. My parents had decided not to tell any of their children in an effort, I suppose, to protect us from the bad news. In hindsight, I realized that they also may have not known how to react and needed time to deal with their own fears. However, their decision not to discuss the illness simply served to amplify my fear and sense of loneliness, for there was no one to talk to about the situation.

Somehow, we all got through the storm. My mother survived another fourteen years due to her positive attitude, knowing that she needed to stay alive to guide her four children. She practiced Frankl's principles, most notably those of de-reflection (shifting her focus away from her illness onto things that mattered more — i.e., her children) and of self-detachment (looking at herself from a distance with a sense of perspective, including maintaining her sense of humor). I remember her reading Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning while sick in bed. I recall saying to her one day, with tears in my eyes, "I don't want you to die." She held my hand and said, jokingly, "But imagine if no one ever died. Imagine if five-hundred-year-olds, or even thousand-year-olds, were walking around the earth. It would be a very strange world!" In her own kind way, my mother was teaching me about the journey of life. Her courage, love, and wisdom did indeed guide me to put life's challenges in perspective and to find the meaning in any situation, however tragic.

I am convinced that, in the final analysis, there is no situation that does not contain within it the seed of a meaning. (V. Frankl)


Frankl's thinking has profoundly influenced both of our lives, including our work situations, over the years. This book is a product of our research on Frankl's teachings, including his personal encouragement, as well as our combined experiences applying these teachings in everyday life and work — for ourselves and with others.

In chapter 2 we explore Viktor Frankl's life path. A psychiatrist who suffered through imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, Frankl found meaning in spite of — and because of — the suffering all around him. His life's work resulted in the therapeutic approach called Logotherapy, which paved the way for us to know meaning as a foundation of our existence. Frankl was quick to say, however, that traumatic suffering is not a prerequisite for finding meaning in our lives. By this he meant that whenever we suffer — no matter what the severity of our suffering is — we have the ability to find meaning in the situation. We also have the ability to find meaning in the good times. Choosing to find meaning, under any circumstance, is the path to a meaningful life. As a mentor and author, and as the creator of Logotherapy, Frankl had a profound impact on many people during his lifetime. His teachings continue to guide and influence people around the world today.

Although Frankl produced a voluminous body of work, he did not distill his teachings down to a list of seven core principles. We have developed the seven principles that best describe his teachings. Throughout this book, we explore each principle one by one. They include:

Principle 1. Exercise the Freedom to Choose Your Attitude (chapter 3)

We are all free to choose our attitude toward everything that happens to us. This concept is best described by Frankl's famous quotation in his book Man's Search for Meaning: "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."


Principle 2. Realize Your Will to Meaning (chapter 4)

Logotherapy, according to Frankl, "considers man as a being whose main concern consists of fulfilling a meaning and in actualizing values, rather than in the mere gratification and satisfaction of drives and instincts." Rather than simply completing tasks to receive rewards such as money, influence, status, or prestige, we can realize our will to deeper meaning by making a conscious, authentic commitment to meaningful values and goals.


Principle 3. Detect the Meaning of Life's Moments (chapter 5)

Meaning reveals itself to us in everyday life and work, in all of life's moments. The fundamental presumption is that only as individuals can we answer for our own lives, detecting in them each moment's meaning and weaving our own unique tapestry of existence.


Principle 4. Don't Work Against Yourself (chapter 6)

Sometimes our most fervent desires and intentions are thwarted by our obsession with outcomes.

Frankl calls this form of self-sabotage hyperintention. In some instances, we actually get results exactly opposite to what we intended, which is called paradoxical intention. We can learn to see how we are working against ourselves and focus instead on creating the conditions we want in our lives and work.


Principle 5. Look at Yourself from a Distance (chapter 7)

Frankl observed: "Only man owns the capacity to detach himself from himself. To look at himself out of some perspective or distance." This notion of self-detachment can help us lighten up and not sweat the small stuff. This capacity includes the uniquely human trait known as a sense of humor. Frankl noted that "no animal is capable of laughing, least of all laughing at itself or about itself." We can learn to look at ourselves from a distance to gain insight and perspective, including laughing at ourselves!


Principle 6. Shift Your Focus of Attention (chapter 8) When Viktor Frankl was a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps, in order to cope with stress, suffering, and conflict, he learned to shift his attention away from the painful situation to other, more appealing circumstances. We can learn to shift our focus accordingly when we are coping with difficult situations.


Principle 7. Extend Beyond Yourself (chapter 9)

Frankl wrote: "Love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. ... The salvation of man is through love and in love." Extending beyond ourselves, connecting with and being of service to others, no matter what the situation or scale, is where our deepest meaning can be realized. Self-transcendence, by relating and being directed to something greater than ourselves, provides a pathway to ultimate meaning.


These seven core principles support Frankl's key message that we always have the ability to respond to anything that comes our way in life by exercising our capacity to find meaning. Life doesn't just happen to us — we are responsible for our own lives, and it is up to us, like Frankl was able to do even in the Nazi death camps, to actively find meaning in our lives. We cannot be victims, we cannot be passive participants in life and, most of all, we cannot be prisoners of our thoughts!

In chapter 10 ("Meaning at the Core: Life"), chapter 11 ("Meaning at the Core: Work"), and chapter 12 ("Meaning at the Core: Society"), we share how Frankl's teachings, along with insights from our own research, writing, and experiences, can help us focus upon and find deeper meaning in life, work, and society. Another key message in this book from Frankl's teachings and our related work is that meaning must be at the foundation or core of one's life, which includes one's broadly defined work life. Without an understanding of meaning in our lives and work, we are simply like a boat being tossed around at sea without any true connection to others and without a clear direction or purpose to guide us through life's odyssey.

There is a crisis of meaning in the world today. Many people have told us that they feel something is missing. They feel overwhelmed, lonely, and unfulfilled. Generally, they feel disconnected and not fully engaged with their lives or work. Depression is on the rise, and many people simply can't cope with the pace of change brought on by technological, cultural, and social transformations. The relentless pursuit of pleasure and other short-term escapes have only led to even more emptiness. We are told to pursue "happiness," yet happiness is an illusion for many, as it does not take into consideration the natural flow or rhythms of life — the ups and the downs, the joys and the sorrows, the good times and the not-so-good times.

To pursue "happiness" leaves us even more depressed when the state of our lives doesn't measure up to our expectations or falls short of the glorified lives we so often see on Facebook and other social media. The pursuit of power and influence is another illusion. Power is about being strong and dominant, having or trying to have control over others or other things. The pursuit of wealth can be viewed as another form of the pursuit of power. Ultimately, the pursuit of power only leads to frustration because one can never truly control other people or events. A wise person knows that one's only real power lies within and over oneself.

In chapters 10, 11, and 12, we highlight our work in a new discipline we call MEANINGology® — that is, the study and practice of meaning in life, work, and society. While many people define meaning as "significance" or "something that matters," we delve deeper, in a Logotherapeutic or existential sense, to consider the metaphysical aspects of the entire study of meaning. We define meaning as "resonance with our true nature or core essence." When something feels significant or we know that it matters, it is because it resonates with who we truly are. Core essence is what defines us and is at the heart of what makes us unique as human beings. This deeper definition of meaning can apply to our personal and work lives, to organizations, and to societies as a whole. It is also beneficial to look at the converse — identifying what is meaningless to us or what does not resonate with our true nature or core essence. This exercise, among other things, helps us to gain a deeper understanding of the sources of meaning throughout our lives and work.

Another aspect of our MEANINGology work highlighted in chapters 10, 11, and 12 centers on our "formula" for discovering meaning in life and work. While the seven core principles help to focus the learning and discussion of Viktor Frankl's teachings in Logo therapy and Existential Analysis, we felt that there was need for more clarification and guidance on how to put into action the human quest for meaning both individually and collectively. Through our research and experience, we have discovered three elements for finding deeper meaning that can be viewed as an integration, simplification, and extension of the seven Logotherapeutic principles described in the earlier chapters. These three elements are:

• Connect meaningfully with others (O).

• Engage with deeper purpose (P).

• Embrace life with attitude (A).


These elements spell "OPA!" — an easy-to-remember, simple acronym. This mantra for living and working can provide further insights on one's path to meaning. We provide more details about the OPA formula and its practical application in chapters 10, 11, and 12.

Finally, in chapter 13 ("Viktor Frankl's Legacy Continues"), we highlight how Dr. Frankl's legacy continues to expand around the world as the seeds of his System of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis find new soil in which to be planted, cultivated, and harvested. The information contained in this last chapter serves to illustrate that Frankl's memory is eternal, that his wisdom is ageless, and that his life's work continues to influence humanity in significant (i.e., meaningful) ways. But for now, let's take an initial look at Viktor Frankl's life, explore more fully the foundations of his meaning-centered approach, and learn how all of us can apply his groundbreaking philosophy in our own lives.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Prisoners of Our Thoughts by Alex Pattakos, Elaine Dundon. Copyright © 2017 Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Stephen R. Covey ix

Preface xvii

1 Life Doesn't just Happen to Us 1

2 Viktor Frankl 13

3 Principle 1. Exercise the Freedom to Choose Your Attitude 23

4 Principle 2. Realize Your Will to Meaning 47

5 Principle 3. Detect the Meaning of Life's Moments 67

6 Principle 4. Don't Work Against Yourself 85

7 Principle 5. Look at Yourself from a Distance 101

8 Principle 6. Shift Your Focus of Attention 117

9 Principle 7. Extend Beyond Yourself 129

10 Meaning at the Core: Life 143

11 Meaning at the Core: Work 167

12 Meaning at the Core: Society 193

13 Viktor Frankl's Legacy Continues 213

Notes 229

References 239

Acknowledgments 243

Index 245

About the Authors 253

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“This landmark book underscores how the search for meaning is intimately related to and positively influences health improvement at all levels. Reading Prisoners of Our Thoughts is an insightful prescription for promoting health and wellness!”

—Kenneth R. Pelletier, PhD, MD, Professor, University of Arizona and University of California, San Francisco Schools of Medicine; Chairman, American Health Association; and author of The Best Alternative Medicine.

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