Viktor Frankl vs. the Human Potentials Movement

Last week I got a biography from the library about the relationship between Viktor and Elly Frankl, titled When Life Calls Out to us: The Love and Lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl. In the book’s introduction, the author has a discussion of Frankl’s opposition to the Human Potential Movement that became a dominant feature of American discourse in the second half of the twentieth-century.

“Frankl was a major voice in humanistic psychology–a loosely connected array of approaches that arose in the United States in the mid twentieth century. It counteracted the dehumanizing tendencies of both psychoanalysis and behaviorism, which predominated at the time, and offered a more optimistic and less deterministic view of human nature. Frankl anticipated the distortion of humanistic psychology into the American ‘human potentials movement..’ That movement asserted that we all have a right to personal happiness as well as virtually limitless potential to attain it…. At the extremes, the human potentials movement has left many in the clutches of an individualism that plays a role in the loss of community, in the breakdown of marriages, and in boredom, promiscuity, loneliness, greed, addictions, abuse, and other forms of violence….

To Frankl, the human potentials movement and its promise of boundless individual growth and happiness were a pip dream from the start. To him it was a wishful fancy to gloss over the guilt and pain and death that go with being human, to sidestep our personal responsibility to others and the world, to overlook the capacity of people to suffer courageously–even to bring good out of unavoidable adversity–and to ignore the fact that all human beings are capable of extraordinary evil as well as extraordinary good….

When it comes to suffering, self-fulfillment teaching tends to evade, deny, or trivialize it as something abnormal and fleeting. Frankl not only underscored suffering as a normal part of human experience, but he asserted the real possibility of finding meaning in it when it cannot be avoided. In the Holocaust he himself faced incomprehensible evil and loss–after that he was never able to offer a quick fix, to suggest seven easy steps to perpetual joy, or to spell out the secrets for health-wealth-happiness. Rather, he summoned the human spirit to its triumph of love, in service, and even in suffering.”

Further Reading