Futility and Meaning – 2015

Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©

When I work with clients who have experienced loss, trauma, or other negative events, depression often accompanies those experiences. There are many traditional ways that psychologists work with depression — for example: working through past events, developing self esteem, cognitive restructuring, and encouraging the development of goals. In addition to help with these issues, I have found it is crucial to look at another dimension entirely.

Clients don’t usually bring up topics of emptiness, futility, or meaninglessness, but I find that these are concerns that frequently underlie depression. And I’m not alone. Other theorists have noticed and written about meaninglessness, but it’s not a topic frequently addressed by psychologists today. There are many workshops for therapists on anxiety, depression, and even mindfulness every year, but I can’t remember one that was offered on the existential issue of meaninglessness. 

In the book, Existential Psychotherapy, Yalom reviews the writings of both philosophers and psychologists who have addressed the issues of meaninglessness and meaning. He describes the writings of two philosophers, Sartre and Camus, among others. According to Yalom, Sartre was adamant about his view of meaninglessness. However, in some of his writings, one can discern both a struggle with meaninglessness and a striving for finding and defining a meaning. Camus, on the other hand, started with nihilism, and is known for his existentialist writings, but, according to Yalom, he later defined clear values and guidelines for conduct such as courage, solidarity, and love. 

Psychologists have also presented various ideas about meaning. Most psychiatric and psychological writings address issues such as self, pathology, and development. But some have discussed the importance of meaning.

One classic work was written after World War II when Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who had spent part of the war in the concentration camp, Auschwitz, observed the significance of meaning to the other prisoners interned there. In the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes how the issue of meaning or meaninglessness seemed to determine whether some prisoners survived or died before the camp was liberated. He developed what he called “logo therapy” to address issues of meaning in therapy. As Irvin Yalom points out, Frankl’s own personal meaning came to be helping others to find their meaning.

While Freud emphasized aggression and drive theory in his writings in psychiatry and wrote negatively about religion, Carl Jung explored aspects of psychology emphasizing the unconscious and the collective unconscious. Jung’s stance was from a religious perspective, but he also explored extensively beyond Christian dogma. He himself derived tremendous meaning from his own dreams, and he gave a great deal of attention to dream analysis. He sought and found meaning in religion, spirituality, mythology, and symbolism. He devoted a lifetime to articulating his observations. Although depression dogged him, he sought and found his own meaning in his relationships, reflections, study, work, and writings.

The movement called humanistic psychology, developed in the 60’s, emphasizes self actualization, the process of realizing one’s own strengths, capabilities, and creativity. It also integrated spirituality and became associated with the development of transpersonal psychology. It emphasizes finding meaning and purpose through the development of the self, beyond self, and even transcendence. 

Abraham Maslow, a humanistic psychologist, focused on what he termed a hierarchy of needs. He defined the hierarchy of needs as: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Later in his life, Maslow added one more higher level of need – self transcendence. In an article called, “The Farther Reaches of Human Nature”, he wrote that, “The self only finds its actualization in giving itself to some higher goal outside oneself in altruism and spirituality.”

Carl Rogers is another humanistic psychologist that has made a tremendous contribution to the field, even considered the greatest contribution. He is primarily known for his method of therapy which recommends unconditional positive regard and reflective/empathic listening. In his book, A Way of Being, he states, “A high degree of empathy in a relationship is possibly the most potent factor in bringing about change and learning.” He states, “When I say I enjoy hearing someone, I mean, of course, hearing deeply. I mean that I hear the words, the thoughts, the feeling tones, the personal meaning, even the meaning that is below the conscious intent of the speaker. Sometimes, too, … I hear a deep human cry, that lies buried and unknown far below the surface of the person.” Carl Rogers has stated that a fully functioning person is one who is in touch with his or her deepest and innermost feelings and desires. Rogers felt that people have an actualizing tendency or a need to achieve their full potential. He says that developing one’s potential is what provides meaning. He dedicated his life and capabilities to teaching psychologists, and to helping his clients develop their highest potential and thereby establish what he felt is each person’s ultimate purpose and meaning.

In recent times, there has been an increasing focus on Eastern philosophy and particularly on Vipassana and Zen Buddhism. The great contribution of Sidharta Gautama, The Buddha, around 500 B.C., developed from what he experienced while meditating under the “Bodhi” tree. After sitting in meditation for many days, he saw the morning star, and suddenly experienced his own powerful awakening. He developed what is now called “The Four Noble Truths”: life contains suffering, suffering comes from attachment, the reduction of suffering is attained through non-attachment, and the way to non-attachment is the eightfold path: right views, right understanding, right speech, right effort, right action, right livelihood, right mindfulness, and right meditation. His insights have brought comfort and also meaning to millions throughout the centuries.

I find it is crucial to address the issues of emptiness, futility, and meaninglessness in therapy in order to resolve depression. In addition to discussing my client’s current circumstances related to depression, it’s perhaps the most important aspect of therapy to explore feelings of meaninglessness. It’s interesting to compare the characteristics of someone who is experiencing depression and someone who has come to understand their own meaning. Feelings that are the result of depression are: discouragement, pessimism, low motivation, emptiness, futility, and hopelessness. Feelings and adjectives of someone who experiences meaning are: positive, hopeful, excited, energized, goal oriented, engaged, connected, and motivated. The question is: how do you get from one set of characteristics to the other? I think that there are six factors:

The first is energy. Energy comes with the actualization of what the self is meant to be – with manifestation of the self. Sometimes an effort needs to be made to create and maintain motivation. Without motivation we will remain depressed. Sometimes it’s necessary to specifically focus on developing motivation and to creating it through activity and determination. With perseverance, gradually motivation increases, and so does energy. There is no energy in inertia. We have to make an effort, to move, and to act, in order to create energy.

Second is goal orientation. This requires reflection, planning, and effort in defining and beginning to implement goals. This can be worked on with the coaching aspect of psychotherapy: defining specific goals, working out the steps towards those goals, and persevering in implementing them. In Existential Psychotherapy, Yalom states, “We apparently need absolutes — firm ideals to which we can aspire and guidelines by which to steer our lives.”

Third is task orientation. Task orientation is simply working on mundane tasks like household chores and organization, as well as working towards what we determine will be the most important direction for ourself. It sounds easy but it takes determination and discipline. If we ignore this aspect, we won’t have a strong foundation for the other necessary efforts for finding our life’s meaning. 

Fourth is engagement. It’s necessary to find the one or primary goal or activity which can truly engage us, fulfill our passion, and hold our attention. According to Yalom, even Sartre, who wrote extensively about meaninglessness, arrived at a position that values the search for meaning and paths to take in that search. According to Yalom, Sartre wrote that these include having a home, friendship, action, freedom, rebellion against oppression, service to others, self-realization, and engagement — always, and above all, engagement. The philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” We must find that one thing that is unique to each of us that arouses passion and propels us forward – art, or a person, or a service. 

Fifth is connection. As the philosopher and theologian, Martin Buber, points out, our relationships are of primary importance. There is probably no goal or passion that we can implement and carry out without the input and participation of the people we care about. One of the primary aspects of Buddhist philosophy is interconnectedness or interbeing. Everything — trees, plants, sky, clouds, earth, rain, seas, rivers and human beings are all interconnected, and we are literally social animals. We thrive if we can learn to appreciate the full meaning of interbeing, and by pursuing significant intimate relationship and connection. 

Sixth is spirit. Our life feels ultimately empty if we don’t pursue and implement higher values and activities. This does not mean just thinking about or talking about spirituality. It means actually developing spiritual practices that are energizing, invigorating, and renewing. What are spiritual practices? In the book, Celebration of Discipline, Steven Foster says that study, prayer, fasting, worship, ritual, and community are religious practices. In Buddhist practice, study, training with a teacher, mindfulness and meditation are the primary recommended spiritual practices. Manifesting our own true potential is in itself spiritual – dedicating ourselves to pursuing the full spectrum of our own development. 

One aspect of working on meaning is to look at what has interested or excited my client in the past. Experiences, values, ideas, and goals are relevant in exploring interests. It’s also helpful to investigate what others find meaningful. Friends and family members invest themselves in different life goals and activities, and it’s helpful to review what those are. Then we can explore possibilities of what has – or could have – importance, significance, or meaning in my client’s own life. 

As I said, two of the aspects that are fundamental to meaning are engagement and connection. Yalom states, “On this one point most Western theological and atheistic existential systems agree: it is good and right to immerse oneself in the stream of life.” Even Sartre knew the significance of meaning, and emphasized belonging, service, and the effort to be fully realized. Martin Buber’s premise was that existence is encounter. In his most well known writing, I and Thou, he expressed the view that a person is at all times engaged with the world in one of the modes of “I and Thou”, the relationship with God, or “I and You”, the relationship with others. Buber’s view was that human beings have a far reaching meaning. He believed that finding meaning is itself the manifestation of self transcendence. 

Anxiety about death also underlies depression, and accompanies meaninglessness. In our society, how we deal with dying and with death are topics not often spoken about. We lack guidelines, or any wisdom even, about how to approach serious illness or the end of our lives. It is because the reality of death isn’t a focus of attention, or even in our awareness, that anxiety about death underlies depression. I recommend bringing these concerns into consciousness, and addressing them in a direct way. 

The book, Crooked Cucumber, is a biography of the Japanese Zen Master, Shunryo Suzuki. One night at Tassahara, the Zen monastery that Suzuki founded, David Chadwick, the author, asked a question that he didn’t think Suzuki would answer. He asked, “Of all the things you have been teaching us, what is the most important point?” Suzuki paused and then said, “Everything changes.” The Buddha himself said it this way, “Nothing whatsoever should be clung to.” If we grapple with the reality of impermanence and the fact that all things are inevitably changing, then we naturally come to appreciate, and have gratitude for, all those we love and all that we have in our lives. Gratitude itself, like meaning, is shown to reduce depression. 

By focusing on the reality of death, rather than avoiding it, we can come to understand what is important and meaningful to us while we are alive. It is crucial to reflect on the importance of living our lives fully, developing our unique potential, and on defining our own priorities, purpose, and meaning. About ultimate concerns and the end of life, Victor Frankl stated that there is meaning in demonstrating that one can live and also die with dignity. In Existential Psychotherapy, Yalom states that both Camus and Sartre concluded that “one must invent one’s own meaning and then commit oneself fully to fulfilling that meaning.” 

It doesn’t matter as much what we find meaningful. What matters is that we find something meaningful. It doesn’t matter if it is religion that has been predominant in our Judeo/Christian culture, or if it is mythology, spirituality, and dreamwork like Jung, self-transcendence that Maslow and Buber describe, or Buddhist “realization.” What matters is that we explore the various possibilities that might provide meaning in our life, that we continue to pursue that goal until we know clearly, until we can articulate it, and until we begin to live out in our lives our very own unique meaning. 

The great affair, the great love affair with life, is to live as variously as
possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb
aboard and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. 
Where there is no risk — the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding,
and despite all it’s dimensions, valleys, pinnacles and detours, life will 
seem to have none of its magnificent geography. Only a length.

Diane Ackerman