NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Search for a Meaningful Life

Book:  Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning
I'm rereading the book, Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl. Frankl was a psychoanalyst and holocaust survivor. He developed the existential form of psychotherapy called logotherapy. The book recounts his experiences and the experiences of other inmates in Nazi concentration camps.

Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

A Quest for Meaning
The basic premise of the book and of logotherapy is that life is primarily a quest for meaning, and the primary task for one's life is to seek out what is meaningful. Frankl saw three potential areas where a person could find meaning in his or her life: work (doing something significant, whether it is paid work or voluntary work), love (caring for someone else), and courage during difficult times. 

He posits that suffering in itself is meaningless. What gives it meaning is how we respond to it. According to Frankl, in many cases, we cannot always control what happens to us. But we can control how we deal with it.

In his experiences as a concentration camp inmate, he witnessed that the inmates most likely to survive were those who had the inner resources and found meaning in their lives, despite the cruel and inhumane circumstances. 

He recounts many examples of people who willed themselves to live, against formidable odds, by keeping an internal focus on seeing loved ones again or thoughts of resuming work that was meaningful to them.

Frankl thought of his wife, not knowing if she was alive or dead, picturing her face and imagining what she would say to him. 

Even though he was stripped of all possessions and nearly starved to death, he held onto his conviction that all material possessions and comfort was taken from him, but he maintained the freedom of his mind, his thoughts, and the inherent value of life itself.

One of the most prevalent problems of our times is that people find life meaningless. Generally, as a society, we have more leisure time than our ancestors ever dreamed possible. Yet, so many people don't know what to do with their time, which isn't meaningful to them. They're bored and fill their time with meaningless activities or engage in addictions.

One of the biggest triggers for alcohol and drug abuse is boredom and a feeling that life is meaningless. The alcohol or drugs (or compulsive gambling, overspending, or sexual addiction) gives a temporary reprieve from boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. 

In many cases, it temporarily obliterates the feelings of hollowness. But once the feelings of being drunk or high wear off, at best, the person with substance abuse problems is back where he or she started. At worst, the substances themselves add to their misery in terms of increasing their depressed mood, causing misery for their loved ones, and financial ruin.

It's no wonder that so many people with substance abuse problems find hope and inspiration in 12 Step meetings like A.A. or N.A. For many of them, possibly for the first time, they see the possibility of leading meaningful lives and a purpose greater than themselves, whether they call this purpose "God," "higher power," or a deep commitment to their lives and the lives of their loved ones. This can be a revelatory experience.

Everyday we're faced with obstacles, sometimes small, sometimes life threatening. How we respond to those circumstances and the meaning we find, whether it's spiritual or not, can make the difference in how we transcend our difficulties.

Transcending Our Difficulties with a Sense of Meaning and Purpose
Transcending our difficulties with a sense of meaning and purpose doesn't necessarily mean we're going to be "happy." 

In Western culture, especially in the US, "the pursuit of happiness" is is a much sought after goal--so much so that when people aren't feeling happy, many of them think there's something wrong with them. But happiness can be fleeting and transitory. We can't always feel happy. But we can try to find meaning, as Frankl did, in even the most dire circumstances.

One of the exercises that Frankl gives his clients is to imagine themselves at the end of their lives talking about what was most meaningful in their lives. Even clients who were very depressed found meaningful aspects of their lives. It also gave them an opportunity to think about how short life is and what changes they might want to make so their life would be more meaningful.

At times, we might need help to overcome the emotional obstacles that keep us from finding meaning and purpose in our lives. 

A licensed psychotherapist, who has experience helping clients to transcend trauma and emotional difficulties can help clients to find or reconnect with purpose in their lives. Viktor Frankl was an exceptional psychoanalyst and human being. He seemed to have very strong internal resources that helped him survive and succeed. Viktor Frankl points the way to what's possible and to what we can aspire.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist. I work with individuals and couples to help them overcome emotional obstacles so they can lead meaningful lives.

I provide EMDR, clinical hypnosis, Somatic Experiencing as well as psychodynamic psychotherapy.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

photo credit: Pickersgill Reef via photopin cc