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A Therapy for the Times?
The traditional sources of meaning for many people—money, possessions, work, and some version of retirement Valhalla—have been disappearing fast recently. Facing the effects of these unsettling times in their own and their clients' lives, many therapists may find personal comfort and reenergized sessions by returning to an approach that's been largely forgotten in recent decades-—logotherapy, a humanistic-existential form of psychotherapy that preceded the cognitive therapies—says University of Mississippi psychologist Stefan Schulenberg.
This approach to therapy, which has deep roots in our cultural ethos, was given popular expression in Viktor Frankl's 1946 publication Man's Search for Meaning. As a Nazi death camp prisoner, Frankl asked himself in the book how, under the worst possible circumstances, we may not just endure, but find the kind of purposeful and even joyful motivation to transcend what's happening around us.
In an article in the December issue of Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Schulenberg explains the principal tenet of logotherapy: that the desire for meaning is a fundamental human drive. In fact, logotherapists insist that the drive to find meaning is innate, whereas the drives for power, possessions, and sex are not.
Logotherapy helps people recognize and prioritize their values, such that meaning is discovered through participation in activities and pursuits that are perceived as important by the individual—expressing love and maintaining strong interpersonal relationships, for instance. When one participates in meaningful activities, the perceived meaning of one's life increases, which acts as a protective factor with regard to physical and mental illness. When people do experience illness, logotherapy helps them galvanize the internal resources required to take an adaptive or proactive stance and face their circumstances.
Another feature of this approach is that logotherapists grapple for meaning alongside their clients. Although the ultimate answer of what provides meaning will be different for therapist and client, the journey is mutual. Thus logotherapy offers help to therapists who may themselves be struggling to find meaning these days.
"For logotherapy to be conducted successfully," says Schulenberg, "clinicians must not only . . . apply it clinically, they must learn to live logotherapy as well; and each day, each moment, presents new opportunities to live meaningfully.