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Revisiting Our Research on Meaning Therapy and Addictions

It’s been two years since we finished our year-long research study of how meaning therapy influences clients. The study was nominated for an award and the results have been published in a major psychology journal.

A lot has been written about the theory of meaning and meaning therapy. Based on the idea that addiction is a response to living a life that lacks personal meaning, meaning therapy should have helped people develop more fulfilling lives. But theory doesn’t often show up in practice. What we wanted to know was what clients actually gained from it.

We used many different sources to gather data, such as interviews with participants, results of standardized testing in the addiction field, psychiatric assessments, and observations of participants during therapy.

In this blog we revisit some of the more powerful influences we discovered.

Self-Definition, Relatedness, and Motivation

After analysing all the data, it seems that meaning therapy for addictions helps clients develop: a more accurate and sophisticated awareness of themselves
more positive relationships, and motivations and goals that were based on personal values. One of the editors of the published version of the report noted that these three themes are what good therapy is all about. Self-definition, relatedness, and motivation are key themes in clinical, personality, and motivational psychology.

This makes a great deal of sense. As the research showed, those suffering from addictions don’t know themselves. They don’t understand what’s truly important to them or know their strengths and limitations, are disconnected from their physical selves, and struggle even identifying their emotions.

Relationships for those suffering from addictions are very poor. Psychologist Rollo May said that they attempt to connect with others by altering their feelings and mood. But this is only a one-way encounter. Real connection demands an encounter between people, not merely one person changing how he or she feels.

Motivations for our clients/participants came almost exclusively from others and from society. Frank joined the army, not because he carefully considered this as a career, but because his parents pushed him to do it. Desperate for a job, Patrick applied to all sorts of companies. His career choice was the first company to offer him a position.

Tragic Optimism

One consistent result in the research was that all participants said they were living more meaningful lives after therapy.

If you think about this, however, it is very odd. First, in their 30 days of therapy, no one could possibly have figured out how to live a fulfilling life, especially after years of addiction. Secondly, the participants had yet to deal with the wreckage of their past. After treatment, they had to return home to uncertain relationships and, often, uncertain employment. Many needed to deal with creditors and, for some, with medical issues that arose from their addictive lifestyle.

Yet they were optimistic about the future. How? It appears as if their optimism was not based on future happiness or the idea that recovery would be a bed of roses. Rather, it was tragic optimism. Viktor Frankl described tragic optimism as finding meaning in suffering, choosing to use suffering as the opportunity to change, and recognising the importance of living a life of personal responsibility.

To put it another way, their optimism was based on the promise of living a fulfilling life, in spite of relationship and career problems, financial loss, and medical conditions.

Harmony With Others

Results of our study also showed that clients/participants had begun the process of being true to themselves while understanding that they lived on a world that they had little control over.

In active addiction, they used drugs to obliterate themselves. They perceived their daily lives as sacrifices for the family, boss, and society. Blaming something outside themselves as the source of suffering was common. Participants consistently said that one of the greatest benefits of intoxication was that it relieved them from all the outside pressures they felt.

I often borrow the image of a jazz band to help others understand what happened to participants during meaning therapy. A jazz band is a group of individuals, but each is in harmony with the whole. Although individual soloists improvise and create, often taking their lead from others, the soloist is never apart from the group.

In the same way, participants in the study began to recognize what made them individuals. Yet they also recognized that they had to live in harmony in a world that was not always their ideal and often paid no attention to them.

Addiction as a Human Phenomenon

When we examine the research study as a whole, it is obvious that addiction is far more complex than merely a brain disease, poor coping skill, or self-medication. And it’s not a matter of being irresponsible or morally depraved.

The themes we discovered—self-definition, relatedness, motivation—apply to all human beings. And this is the point: addiction is a human thing.

Addiction psychologist Stanton Peele once commented that mainstream theories and treatments showed “a compulsion to bypass human experience”. Our study confirmed that any theory or treatment that is effective has to account for the complicated, whole human being.

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