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Q. What is meaning therapy (MT)?

A. It is an approach to counselling and therapy that focuses on the human needs for meaning and relationship. The motto for MT is: Meaning is all we have; Relationship is all we need. Both research and common sense tell us that it would be difficult to go through life without a clear sense of meaning and purpose and without supportive relationships. When these two essential human needs are met, individuals are more likely to cope better with their predicaments and live a more rewarding life.

Q. What do you mean when you say, “Meaning is all we have”?

A. Human beings are the only meaning-seeking and meaning-making species on planet Earth. Everything about us is related to meaning—how we think, how we see ourselves, how we attribute meaning to different life situations, and how we tell stories about our own lives and others. The language we speak and the cultural values we hold are also aspects of our meaning systems. Therefore, meaning is all we have to work with in counselling and psychotherapy. If we can help clients better understand themselves, their world, and their predicaments, they will be able to cope better.

Q. What do you mean when you say, “Relationship is all we need”?

A. Research has shown that having a good relationship with clients is a common factor in effective psychotherapy. But, MT goes beyond building rapport and developing the therapeutic alliance. In fact, we regard relationship itself as therapy. Counselling works to the extent that the clients sense that we genuinely care and love them and we believe in their potentials to overcome.

This is how relationship works in a counselling situation. MT begins with the therapeutic presence of the therapist. The therapist is the therapy, because the therapist’s personal qualities of unconditional positive regard, empathy, and genuineness have curative benefits. Furthermore, the entire counselling process—the moment-to-moment fluid and dynamic interactions between the therapist and client—provides many opportunities for genuine encounters and timely intervention. Finally, clients learn how to develop new patterns of relating in an authentic and rewarding manner.

Q. How is it different from the dominant medical model of psychotherapy?

A. The biggest difference between MT and the medical model is that we treat clients as fellow human beings worthy of dignity and respect, because of their rationality, spirituality, and their potential to heal themselves and grow. We will not treat any client as simply a clinical case with some problem to be fixed.

Q. What are the advantages of MT?

A. Each approach to counselling has its own advantage. For MT, there are three noteworthy advantages:

  1. MT is person-centered and holistic. Whatever the presenting problem or difficulty, we will seek to understand the client as a unique person in a unique context. We believe that such approach is most likely to reveal a client’s strengths and weaknesses and unique patterns of coping.
  2. MT is integrative with meaning as the central organizing principle. Since there are many aspects to meaning—cognitive, emotional, behavioral, relational, spiritual, and cultural—the most flexible approach would be to employ the best practices from each therapeutic modality, within a meaning-centered coherent framework. In other words, we are able to tailor our practice to best suit the unique needs of the individual, without losing sight of the basic need for meaning and relationship. Realistically, no single school of psychotherapy is capable of addressing all the complex problems people face. MT serves as a bridge across different therapeutic modalities in order to provide the most comprehensive and appropriate help for each individual.
  3. MT is uniquely designed to deal with any kind of meaning crisis or existential anxiety, whether it is death anxiety or fear of failure. MT capitalizes on the uniquely human capacity for meaning-seeking and meaning-making as the innate potential for healing and flourishing.

Q. In what ways is MT a positive psychotherapy?

A. As a meaning-based positive psychotherapy, MT emphasizes a client’s potential to become a fully functioning person without overlooking the challenges and obstacles. It entails much more than prescribing happiness-inducing and strengths-enhancing exercises. Here are four distinctive features of MT as a positive psychotherapy:

  1. MT holds a very high view of life. It affirms that every life has intrinsic meaning and value, and every person has the potential for growth and making a useful contribution to society. It helps to restore a healthy sense of the true self as the foundation for healing and transformation. It focuses on being and becoming rather than doing.
  2. MT creates a positive, safe, and trusting environment conducive to healing and personal growth.
  3. MT is future-oriented and value-driven. Viktor Frankl’s basic concept of will to meaning points to the future of finding one’s calling and living a worthy life. MT instills in the client a sense of hope—another common factor in effective therapy.
  4. Meaning-based interventions serve the dual purpose of alleviating suffering and enhancing well-being at the same time. For example, if you can discover the meaning and purpose of your suffering, you will find your present hardship more bearable and your future prospects more rewarding.

Q. What is the history of MT?

A. It was first developed by Viktor Frankl in the 30s as logotherapy, which literally means “meaning-oriented therapy.” It was widely known as the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy, in addition to Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology. It became popularized with his publication of Man’s Search for Meaning, which has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. Logotherapy was introduced to North America by Dr. Joseph Fabry, founder of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy in the United States. Meaning Therapy (MT) was first developed by Dr. Paul Wong, with the encouragement and guidance of Dr. Fabry. The first publication on MT was published in 1997 in the journal edited by Fabry, The International Forum for Logotherapy. Further developments of MT were published subsequently (e.g., Wong, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2011, 2013). The main difference between MT and Frankl’s logotherapy is that MT is more integrative and inclusive, as shown in Wong (2014).

Q. Is MT evidence-based?

A. Everything we do in MT is based on empirical evidence. There is mounting research on the importance of meaning and relationship for healing and well-being. Even common sense will indicate that one can’t go through life very well without supporting relationships and without any sense of meaning and purpose in life. Secondly, we make use of the best practices of evidence-based therapies as recognized by the American Psychological Association.

Q. How many sessions are needed for MT to be effective?

A. It can be as few as six sessions and as long as several years; it all depends on your need and situation. Ultimately, how effective MT will be depends on how determined you are to get well and to develop your potential. If you are committed to the process, your life will become better.

Selected Publications

  1. Wong, P. T. P. (1997). Meaning-centered counseling: A cognitive-behavioral approach to logotherapyThe International Forum for Logotherapy, 20(2), 85-94.
  2. Wong, P. T. P. (1998). Meaning-centered counselling. In P. T. P. Wong & P. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 395-435). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  3. Wong, P. T. P. (1999). Towards an integrative model of meaning-centered counseling and therapyThe International Forum for Logotherapy, 22(1), 47-55.
  4. Wong, P. T. P. (2000). Meaning of life and meaning of death in successful aging. In A. Tomer (Ed.), Death attitudes and the older adult (pp. 23-35). New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel.
  5. Wong, P. T. P. (2002). Logotherapy. In G. Zimmer (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy (pp. 107-113). New York, NY: Academic Press.
  6. Wong, P. T. P. (2004). Existential psychology for the 21st centuryInternational Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, 1, 1-3.
  7. Wong, P. T. P. (2005). Existential and humanistic theories. In J. C. Thomas, & D. L. Segal (Eds.), Comprehensive handbook of personality and psychopathology (pp. 192-211). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
  8. Wong, P. T. P. (2007). Meaning-management theory and death acceptance. In A. Tomer, G. T. Eliason, & P. T. P. Wong (Eds.), Existential and spiritual issues in death attitudes (pp. 65-87). New York, NY: Erlbaum.
  9. Wong, P. T. P. (2007). Transformation of grief through meaning: Meaning-centered counseling for bereavement. In A. Tomer, G. T. Eliason, & P. T. P. Wong (Eds.), Existential and spiritual issues in death attitudes (pp. 375-396). New York, NY: Erlbaum.
  10. Wong, P. T. P. (2010). Meaning therapy: An integrative and positive existential psychotherapyJournal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 40(2), 85-99.
  11. Wong, P. T. P. (2011). Meaning-centered counseling and therapy: An integrative and comprehensive approach to motivational counseling and addiction treatment. In W. M. Cox & E. Klinger (Eds.), Handbook of Motivational Counseling: Goal-based approaches to assessment and intervention with addiction and other problems (pp. 461-487)West Sussex, UK: Wiley.
  12. Wong, P. T. P. (2012). 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.
  13. Wong, P. T. P. (2013). A meaning-centered approach to addiction and recovery. In L. C. J. Wong, G. R. Thompson, & P. T. P. Wong (Eds.), The positive psychology of meaning and addiction recovery. Birmingham, AL: Purpose Research.
  14. Wong, P. T. P., & Wong, L. C. J. (2013). The challenge of communication: A meaning-centered perspective. In E. van Deurzen, & S. Iacovou (Eds.), Existential perspectives on relationship therapy (pp. 109-121). Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
  15. Wong, P. T. P. (2014). Viktor Frankl’s meaning seeking model and positive psychology. In A. Batthyany & P. Russo-Netzer (Eds.), Meaning in existential and positive psychology (pp. 149-184)New York, NY: Springer.
  16. Wong, P. T. P. (2015). Meaning therapy: Assessments and interventionsExistential Analysis, 26(1), 154-167.
  17. Wong, P. T. P. (2016). Integrative meaning therapy: From logotherapy to existential positive interventions. In P. Russo-Netzer, S. E. Schulenberg, & A. Batthyany (Eds.). Clinical perspectives on meaning: Positive and existential psychotherapy. New York, NY.