Why Meaning Therapy?
From its beginnings in the work of the great psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, personal meaning as a focus in psychology has flourished. The American Psychological Association’s publication of The Psychology of Meaning and Wong’s The Human Quest for Meaning (2nd ed.) is evidence that meaning is now established. Other books, such as The Positive Psychology of Meaning and Addiction Recovery, have interpreted addiction using meaning as the organizing construct.
Meaning theory does not arise from a specific school of psychology. Its research comes from disciplines as varied as existential psychology, the human sciences, and the liberal arts. Meaning is, thus, an umbrella construct. It examines what human beings require to flourish in t heir lives, despite suffering. In terms of standard schools of psychology, meaning is most closely aligned with cognitive and motivational psychologies.
Meaning therapy arises from theory and it is based on empirical research. Everyone makes sense of themselves, their world, and their place in the world. When their perceptions do not resonate with reality, they suffer unnecessarily. Meaning therapy aims to help clients make sense of their lives in a way that is consonant with their experiences, authentic values, beliefs, and actions. They no longer feel victimized by their (neuro)biology or environment.
Unlike Frankl’s logotherapy, meaning therapy is now a stand-alone therapy. Meaning therapy has been shown effective in helping many populations, including those suffering from cardiac problems, terminal illness, workplace stress, geriatric issues, depression and anxiety, PTSD, and, of course, addictions. Research also indicates that it is effective with multicultural populations.
Meaning & Addiction
Meaning theory and therapy interpret addiction in line with Viktor Frankl, who stated that addiction is “not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying [it].” To put it another way, addiction is a response to living a life that lacks personal meaning.
Those who suffer from addiction are easily bored and depressed. They have a sense that they are different and do not fit in, and they lack a sense of control over their lives. Clients at SCHC typically refer to this vacuum as a “void” or “emptiness.”
Research has shown that those suffering from addictions have a remarkably weak sense of self and external motivations and goals. After addiction takes hold, they become motivated mainly to avoid negative affects. Personal strivings and approach coping skills have long since dissipated.
Addiction is a response to this life. This interpretation accepts that addiction has neurobiological, psychological, and sociocultural components. But it emphasizes that addiction operates at the level of fundamental motivations, beyond neural adaptation, maladaptive coping skills, and socially constructed influences.
Meaning theory is thus capable of addressing different components in addiction. There are more than 70 scholarly journals and hundreds of books with a focus on addictions. One of the struggles in the addiction field is that these research studies conflict on the nature of addiction and how it should be treated. Addiction experts have tended to focus on their favorite theories and avoid research that contradicts their findings.
Using meaning as an organizing construct is the only approach thus far proposed that is capable of integrating results from biological, behavioural, cognitive, motivational, and existential-humanistic psychologies, as well as the growing body of addiction research in the human sciences.
Therapy as Transformational Change
If addiction is a response to a life that lacks personal meaning, then the solution is to live meaningfully. Therapy thus aims to help clients begin the process of finding meaning and purpose.
Mainstream therapies for addictions are generally limited to helping clients attain a measure of physical and emotional stability. Meaning therapy, however, suggests that we can better help clients by moving beyond healing brokenness and toward flourishing in life, despite suffering. Research studies have indicated that recovery is about a transformational change—that is, stable abstinence is the byproduct of living a meaningful life.
Principles of Meaning Therapy
With its roots in Frankl’s logotherapy, meaning therapy is best understood as an existential psychotherapy. Like all existential therapies, it follows specific principles:
- The whole human being is center stage:Therapy treats the whole, complex, unique human being. This principle also indicates that therapy must be client-centered.
- Each person is the author of his or her life: Also known as existential responsibility, authorship assumes that the individual is responsible for making decisions that will dictate the kind of life he or she lives. For this reason, therapists do not tell a client what to do, think, or feel. They offer no ready-made answers. Rather, they help clients in the struggle to find their own answers.
- People grow if they have no need to deny or distort experience: Rogerian principles (unconditional positive regard, advanced accurate empathy, and genuineness) are the foundation for therapy. Confrontation as a counselling style is considered unethical.
- People are relational beings: Relatedness is a foundational construct in psychology. How clients interact in the group, regardless of the content of discussion, is important.
Meaning Therapy has Further Principles
There are little meanings and big meanings: Therapy focuses on the little meanings. What is the meaning that the client ascribes to an experience? What values are authentically important to the client? How can the client respond to an event/condition with responsibility and courage?
Meaning is forward looking: Therapy encourages clients to live in the present but keep an eye on the future. Having a direction in life and pursuing goals demands that clients be future-oriented.
Meaning emphasizes the positive givens of existence: All people face the negative givens of death, loneliness, and inevitable suffering. Meaning promotes the capacity of individuals to transcend biological and environmental limitations. Therapy helps clients develop resilience, face fears, take control of their lives, and turn negatives into sources of personal growth.
Meaning therapy is not technique driven: Therapy helps clients recognize that how they make sense of their lives has led to unnecessary suffering and helps them to find new ways of living consonant with their values. There is no set of strategies or techniques to achieve these goals. Rather, therapists use any strategy or technique, as long as it fits within the meaning framework. Avoidance and approach coping skills, cognitive restructuring, psycho-educational material, motivational interviewing, and behavioral techniques are useful. But therapists recognize that each serves the greater aim of helping clients live meaningfully.
Components of Meaning Therapy
Research indicates that meaningful living has four components:
- Cognitive component: Self-definition/relatedness is the cognitive component. Understanding the self is the foundation for meaningful living: What are the individual’s authentic values? How does he or she assign priorities when values conflict? How does the person attribute responsibility? Attachment theory has shown that self-understanding also includes the quality of the parent-child bond. Socially imposed values and beliefs are also integrated into a person’s understanding of who he is and how he fits in the world.
- Motivational component: Motivations are most productive when they are based on the individual’s self-understanding. Research has shown that intrinsic motivation and goals are far more powerful than extrinsic motivations and goals. Clients begin to make decisions based on what is authentically important to them.
- Behavioural component: Action is essential to meaningful living. Without the client’s taking action, therapy is useless. Practicing new skills while in treatment is a key piece of therapy.
- Affective component: Well-being is not merely a result of the pursuit of meaning or its attainment. It is also a way to evaluate one’s life. Research has also shown that well-being need not necessary be attached to pleasure and comfort. The construct of eudaimonic happiness suggests that living a meaningful life is more fulfilling than living a pleasurable one.
Formats of Meaning therapy
- Group therapy: Group is the main therapy format. Under a meaning framework, group may be cognitive-behavioural one day and family systems therapy the next. Process therapy is a key method of group therapy.
- Individual therapy: One-on-one therapy is generally reserved for issues that clients may not yet feel comfortable enough to share in group, or motivational/behavioral issues affecting one client. Individual sessions are also used for hypnotherapy and EMDR.
- Workshops: Workshops cover neurobiological, psychological, and sociocultural topics. There is a special focus on addiction within a meaning framework.
Results of Meaning therapy
According to SCHC’s research, grounded in client data, meaning therapy has three major influences.
- Increased self-definition: The most salient aspect of clients pre-treatment is a remarkably weak sense of self. They cannot answer the question,“Who am I?” They rely on the external world for guidance, entertainment, and reassurance. Post-treatment, they are more aware of authentic values, are able to reflect on what they are feeling and why, are more aware of the meanings they ascribe to things, and make decisions that are more responsive to their needs and contingencies.
- Increased interpersonal relatedness: Pre-treatment, clients generally have disrupted relationships with family, partners, employers, and friends. Post-treatment, they report renewed efforts to rebuild relationships with those important to them.
- Increased internal motivation: Pre-treatment, clients have external motivations and goals. Post-treatment, there is a noticeable shift toward intrinsic motivations and goals.
Post-treatment, clients reported they had (1) a “road map” to follow, (2) optimism for the future, and (3) confidence that they could succeed.
It is particularly instructive that 2/3 of the research participants post-treatment reported that they would not use substances, even if there were no negative consequences. They had concluded that addiction had doomed any attempt to live a fulfilling life.
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