This issue showcases INPM’s unique mission of developing a big-tent approach to working with meaning in life (MIL) issues. Such an integrative approach can benefit from the rich resources of major therapeutic modalities, without the confines of their historical traditions and philosophical assumptions.
Call it synchronicity or perfect timing. First, I received a very informative manuscript on “Meaning in Life in Psychotherapy “ from Clara Hill, a prominent counselling psychologist, just before leaving for the World Congress for Existential Therapy in London in May, 2015.
Then, right after coming back from Man’s Search for Meaning Congress in Moscow in the beginning of June, I received a brilliant book by Michael Honey (2015), an educated lay person who has spent many years searching for meaning to satisfy his restless soul. (Please see my review of his book in this newsletter.)
Thirdly, I spoke several times in London and Moscow, to numerous psychotherapists and graduate students. I could sense a real hunger for learning how to work with MIL concerns.
Finally, soon after I came back, I witnessed a surge of media interest in Viktor Frankl and logotherapy which enabled him to survive the holocaust; this was primarily caused by the news of a Hollywood movie on Frankl.
In short, since my last President’s report, there has been a confluence of emerging trends related to MIL. Here are 10 main reasons why working with MIL is important in therapy: MIL is the most frequently asked question according to Google.
- It is also the most persistent question in philosophy.
- MIL is the most common issue in crisis situations.
- A fundamental concern for all people.
- Rising Need for Meaning in Life (MIL) in psychotherapy.
- Our survival and well-being depend on it.
- We can’t survive very well if we do not have a reason for survival.
- We can’t achieve our full potential if we do not know ourselves.
- Meaninglessness has been linked to many psychological and physical problems.
- Increasing research support of the role of MIL in resilience and well-being.
Why is MIL Vital to Our Wellbeing?
Here, I will not belabour the research support of the vital role of meaning in wellbeing (e.g., Battyany & Russo-Netzer, 2014; Wong, 2012a). Instead, I want to explain why MIL is essential to both healing and flourishing.
I’ll begin with the “restless soul phenomenon” as described in Honey (2015). This phenomenon refers to our deep-seated yearning for meaning as a fundamental characteristic of human nature.
When things are going very well, we still have the nagging feeling that there must be more to life than having everything. When things are going very badly, we struggle to convince ourselves that there much be more to living than suffering. Either way, our restless soul is crying out for meaning. There is no getting away from MIL concerns, and the quest for meaning permeates every aspect of our lives, both consciously and unconsciously.
Explicit expressions of MIL concerns include: Why this? Why me? What is the point of struggle? What should I do with my life? Implicit or indirect expressions include: Why am I so unhappy at work? Why am I so bored with life? An important part of psychotherapy is to empower clients finding satisfying answers to such Why questions so that they can live healthier and happier lives.
Having a sense of meaning is especially important for resilience in traumatic situations. Frankl’s (1985) classic on logotherapy has made this point abundantly clear. His favourite quotes of Nietzche: “He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.”
MIL is one of the basic tenets in logotherapy. Since Frankl believes that meaning is essential to our mental health as air is essential to our physical health, he also hypothesies that meaning can be discovered in any situation, until one’s last breath. Basically, he recognizes three levels of meaning: ultimate meaning, meaning of life as a whole, and meaning of the moment or the present situation.
Frankl has also developed many effective ways to work with all three types of meaning; unfortunately, Frankl is often misunderstood or distorted in the literature. The best example of such misrepresentation is Heintzelman and King (2014). (See Brown and Wong’s (2015) critique of this paper.)
How to Work with MIL in Psychotherapy in Meaning Therapy (MT)?
Viktor Frankl’s Classic Logotherapy
The main thrust of logotherapy is to orient clients towards meaning – towards something or someone greater than themselves. Although logotherapy is future oriented because of its emphasis on future meaning to fulfill, it also recognizes the importance of past and present meanings.
Past meanings are significant moments and achievements preserved in memories as monuments. Present meanings are the meaning potentials that can be discovered in whatever situations. The chief avenues whereby meaning can be discovered are: creative, experiential and attitudinal.
Embedded in these broad categories are several meaning interventions. For example, Frankl routinely used Socratic questioning to awaken clients’ awareness and insight about their need for MIL. He also actively engaged in exploring what really matters to clients and empowered them to take appropriate actions and attitudes. Dereflection is simply one of the many interventions to redirect clients’ attention and activity away from something troubling to something positive. His support for MIL is direct and clear throughout the sessions of logotherapy, regardless of whether clients bring up MIL concerns. Because of his background and experience, Frankl was deeply convicted that MIL was imperative rather than optional in psychotherapy.
It is worth noting that Frankl’s logotherapy actually maps on Clara Hill’s (Hill et al, 2015) four types of MIL interventions: (a) Support clients in their struggles for MIL, (b)Probe implicit MIL issues & insights, (c) Explore clients stories, values & choices, (d) Plan actions to pursue or implement MIL. However, Frankl’s meaning interventions also include cultivating the attitudes of appreciation of life, affirmation of the intrinsic meaning of life, and the defiant human spirit towards adversities and fate. Attitude-related interventions are crucial in coping with traumas and disasters, according to logotherapy.
Frankl’s logotherapy constitutes the foundation for a more comprehensive and integrative meaning therapy (MT) I have developed over the past 30 years (Wong, 2012b, 2014). Similar to Frankl, I favour a direct approach to oriented his clients to MIL, but I put more emphasis on psycho-education regarding the role of MIL in well-being and resilience. I also place more emphasis on bridging between MT and the positive psychology of meaning research as I mentioned in the last issue of INPM Newsletter.
Wong’s Integrative Meaning Therapy (MT)
My psycho-education approach models after CBT. From the very beginning of therapy, I inform clients about the advantage of MT, such as serving the dual function of working on their presenting problems and fulfilling their potentials for growth and happiness. I will also explain why MIL is an important for healing and thriving. Throughout the therapy, I will teach them useful MIL tools. My approach will communicate that life is not a problem to be solved, but an experience to be lived with openness, courage and wisdom.
Part of the appeal of MT is that it is the most natural way to approach psychotherapy, because it not only appeals to their natural desires for happiness and significance, but also makes good use of the following uniquely human capacities to achieve healing and flourishing:
- The capacity for meaning seeking and meaning making.
- The capacity for understanding your life and problems.
- The capacity for freedom and choice in a responsible way.
- The capacity for relating to others and a spiritual realm.
At its core, MT is concerned with the inescapable aspects of human existence, such as suffering, death, and meaninglessness (Yalom, 1980), and the deep-seated human need for meaning. MT empowers clients to discover their own spiritual/existential grounding so that they can satisfy their restless souls and achieve a fulfilling life.
Although MT is rooted in logotherapy, it is flexible enough to integrate different therapeutic modalities regarding MIL concerns. It also adopts mainstream psychology language and makes full use of the positive psychology research on meaning and happiness. Consistent with mainstream practice, MT makes appropriate use of psychological tests.
Conclusion: Life Goes Better with Meaning
In sum, MT is a comprehensive way to address all aspects of MIL concerns regardless of current circumstances. Therapy at its best can move clients from borkeness to wholeness, from healing to thriving. This is exactly what MT does. Clients can benefit from MT in two ways: (1) A personally designed treatment plan to address your presenting problems, and (2) A collaborative journey to create a preferred better future.
The beauty of MT is that you can incorporate MT in working with MIL regardless of your professions and therapeutic modality. You don’t have to be an existential therapist or a logotherapist. But you need to be attuned to MIL concerns in your clients and need to understand your own MIL issues. Effective use of MIL entails both an existential attitude and a set of MIL skills.
You can learn a great deal about how to work with MT at our Summer Institute, which has been part of INPM’s mission to equip mental health professions with MIL skills. Learning MT can benefit you both personally and professionally.
Looking forward to seeing you at the Summer Institute in Toronto on July 26-27.
- Brown, N. J. L., & Wong, P. T. P. (2015). Questionable measures are pretty meaningless: Comment on Heintzelman and King (2014). American Psychologist, 70(6), 571-573.
- Frankl, V. (1985). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York, NY: Pocket Books.
- Heintzelman, S. J. & King, L. A (2014). Life is pretty meaningful. American Psychologist, 69(6), Sep 2014, 561-574. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035049
- Hill, C. A., Kline, K., Bauvan, V., Brent, T., Breslin, C., Calderon,M., Campos,C., Goncalves, S., Goss, D., Hamovitz, T., Kuo, P., Robinson, N., & Knox, S. (2015) What’s it all about? A qualitative study of meaning in life for counseling psychology doctoral students, Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 28(1), 1-26, https://doi.org/10.1080/09515070.2014.965660
- Honey, M. (2015). I am not invisible: Reflections on meaning and perspective. Toronto, ON: Wakerville.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2012a). The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2012b). From logotherapy to meaning-centered counseling and therapy. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 619-647). New York, NY: Routledge.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2015). Meaning therapy: Assessments and interventions. Existential Analysis, 26(1), 154-167.
- Yalom, I. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books.