Therapeutic Approaches to
Problems of Meaninglessness
RAYMOND M. BERGNER, PH.D.*
(Citation: Bergner R (1998). Therapeutic approaches to problems of meaninglessness.
American Journal of Psychotherapy, 52, pp. 1-16.)
* Professor of Clinical Psychology, Illinois State University, Normal, IL.
MAILING ADDRESS: Department of Psychology, Campus Box 4620, Normal, IL 61790-
Abstract: This article describes therapeutic approaches to problems of meaninglessness that beset
many clients. The presentation includes (a) a conceptual formulation of meaningful action and,
by extension, meaningful living; (b) a delineation of some common obstacles to meaning
exhibited by clients; and (c) some therapeutic recommendations for addressing these obstacles.
Therapeutic Approaches to
Problems of Meaninglessness
(Life is) "a tale told by an idiot, full of
sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Shakespeare, Macbeth (V, v, 17)
"How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem
to me all the uses of this world."
Shakespeare, Hamlet (I, ii, 129)
It goes by many names. Clients will say that they feel "empty," "aimless,"
"unmotivated," "apathetic," or "bored." They will relate that their lives "seem pointless and
without any real purpose," that they are "just going through the motions in life," or even that they
"can't see the point of going on." Their therapists may say of these persons that they are
"depressed," "anhedonic," "alienated," "emotionally numb," "demotivated," or "anomic."
Whatever the terms employed, all of these persons are referring to a state where individuals are,
like Macbeth and Hamlet, experiencing a very significant lack of meaning in their lives--a state
of meaninglessness. It is this state of meaninglessness, its little-discussed causes, and its
therapeutic remediation that constitute the subject matter of this article.
Why a Study of Meaninglessness?
Why study meaninglessness and its treatment? Is this not an arcane, "philosophical"
problem that troubles relatively few? Can we not, therefore, safely leave this matter to
specialists in existential therapy? There are very important reasons why we must not do so. The
first of these is that problems with meaninglessness are not in fact rare, but relatively common.
Both empirical studies1,2 and clinical observation3-5 support this contention.
The prevalence of problems with meaninglessness is sometimes masked, not only by
the many different terms in which it is described, but also by the fact that it tends to arise in three
different therapeutic contexts, in two of which it may not stand out in a highly salient and
obvious way. The first (and most obvious) of these contexts is that persons occasionally come to
therapy beset with what has been termed an "existential neurosis"4 in which the central
presenting concern is itself an inability to find sufficient meaning in life. Second, and far more
common, is a situation in which problems of meaninglessness arise as one part of a broader
clinical syndrome such as depression, alcoholism, posttraumatic stress disorder, or obsessive-
compulsive personality disorder.3,5,6 For example, persons who are depressed, especially those
who are suicidal, will frequently describe themselves as without hope, unable to derive meaning
or satisfaction from anything, and plagued by a feeling that there is "no point" to their lives.
Third and finally, problems of meaninglessness are sometimes reported by persons who do not
have a mental disorder, but have come to therapy with some other kind of problem in living. For
example, a highly functioning, 62 year old, divorced woman, came to therapy subsequent to the
sudden death of her only child, a 27 year old daughter. Her goal in coming was to try to come to
terms with this terrible loss, and among the central difficulties she was experiencing was a
significant loss of meaning in her life.
In all such cases, regardless of context, it is critically important that therapists
understand the roots of these painful, and potentially lethal,5 states of meaninglessness in order
to be able to address them effectively. In cases characterized by mental disorders or other
problems in living, it is sometimes possible to do this with conventional therapeutic means,
which fortuitously address both the source of the meaninglessness and of the wider problems
simultaneously. For example, doing grief work with a client beset with a pathological grief
reaction may enable that client to resolve his or her loss, to reinvest in new people, and thus to
find new meaning. However, in many other circumstances, established procedures will not
address the sources of meaninglessness, and it becomes incumbent upon the therapist to be aware
of other explanatory possibilities for this lack of meaning, as well as other approaches to treating
it. Indeed, in some of these cases (especially cases of depression), the sense of meaninglessness
itself will be at the root of the broader problem.3,5,7
Based upon the foregoing, the present article has three central purposes: (1) to
explicate the largely neglected phenomena of meaning and of meaninglessness; (2) to articulate
common sources of meaninglessness that are not at present adequately represented in the clinical
literature; and (3) to present some therapeutic approaches to addressing these sources of
The Meaning of Life Question
The nature of the present concern might suggest that as therapists we need to have
answered that famous question, "What is the meaning of life?" If, after all, we are to help our
clients to find meaning, is it not a prerequisite that we have answered this question for ourselves?
In one sense, the answer to this question is "no," in another sense "yes." Let me explain.
The form of the question, "What is the meaning of life?", suggests (a) that there is
some answer that can be given in the form of verbal propositions, and (b) that this answer could
be universal--that it could capture the meaning of life for all persons. Centuries of attempts to
provide such universal, propositional assertions about life's meaning8,9 have to date yielded no
answer that has gained anything approaching the assent of even a substantial minority of
persons.10 This suggests two things. First and more arguably, it suggests that no such universal
propositional answer may be possible. As Watts11 once stated, "Problems that remain
persistently unsolvable should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way" (p. 55).
Second, it suggests that therapists who would require of themselves that they answer this
question before proceeding therapeutically are in serious danger of never being able to help their
However, if we are to address our clients' genuine concerns about a lack of meaning in
their lives, as therapists we do require knowledge about what makes for a meaningful existence.
If such knowledge cannot be obtained in the form of universal propositional truths, where can it
Empirically, a majority of people report the presence of substantial meaning in their
lives.1,2,10 The most fortunate among them describe their lives in terms such as "full" and
"rich" and "worthwhile" and "satisfying." They do not describe them as "empty" or "pointless"
or "absurd." One such person, when queried, reported that questions about the meaning of life
"don't even occur to me; they don't cross my mind; it's just not an issue for me" (cf.
Wittgenstein's12 famous assertion that "the solution of the problem of life is seen in the
vanishing of the problem"). Further, a great many other persons find parts of their lives highly
meaningful, even if other parts are not. They may, for example, find their family life and their
avocations such as music or sports highly meaningful, even if their work seems to them
somewhat impoverished in this respect. As therapists, we can best help those with problems of
meaning, not by attempting to answer the intractable question of the meaning of life, but by
determining empirically (a) how the majority of people do in fact find meaning, and (b) what
obstacles others most frequently encounter in their efforts to do so.
The Meaning of "Meaningful"
The best single expression to capture the notion of "meaningful" as employed in this
article is "worth doing." An action is meaningful in the measure that its perpetrator finds it to be
worth doing--in the measure that he or she finds it to have a point, to serve a purpose, or
otherwise to possess value. Expressed negatively, an action lacks meaning in the measure that it
leaves its perpetrator asking such questions as "What's the point?", "What's the purpose?", or
"Where is there any value in doing this?" Extrapolating from actions to whole lives, regarded
here as histories of action, a meaningful life becomes one that the individual finds worth living.
Such a life does not leave persons with a sense that their lives are pointless, purposeless, empty,
or a waste. It does not leave them with a feeling that life is on balance "weary, stale, flat, and
unprofitable," or that it is a "tale told by an idiot...signifying nothing."
The bases upon which persons find such worth or value in their behavior (and lives)
are, far from being obscure and ineffable, very familiar to us. They are readily
observable in everyday life and have long been documented in the psychological literature,
although not as a rule in the present connection. These bases are the instrumental, intrinsic, and
spiritual value that persons may, and very often do, derive from their behavior. Let us examine
each of these in turn.
The general formula for instrumental behavior is: P does B in order to achieve X. A
behavior, B, is engaged in, not for its own sake, but because it is deemed instrumental by P in
bringing about some desired state of affairs X.13 The achievement of this state of affairs would
then constitute the instrumental value of the behavior. For example, if a young teacher were
leaving his home in the morning, and his daughter Susie were to ask him why he had to go to
work, he might inform her that he is doing so to make a living for their family and to get young
people to understand and appreciate literature. Such outcomes would constitute instrumental
values of his behavior. In extreme cases, the desired outcomes of instrumental behavior may
constitute highly valued causes around which persons may organize their whole existence (e.g.,
to promote world peace, to protect consumers from unscrupulous companies, to spread the
gospel, or to win an Olympic gold medal).14
Again, intrinsic behavior or "intrinsically motivated behavior" is a concept with a long
history in psychology.14,15 Its formula is: P does B for its own sake. Here, P engages in
behavior B for the value and/or satisfaction inherent in B itself, independently of any
instrumental ends that B may or may not bring about. The individual converses with a friend,
plays a game, listens to music, reads a book, solves a problem, makes love, or plays with the
children, in whole or in part, for the reason that he or she derives value and/or satisfaction from
these activities themselves. A young architect expressed this well when he said to me of his
design work that, "If I wasn't lucky enough to get to do this for a living, I'd do it as a hobby."
Thus, Susie's dad, when pressed by her with further "why" questions, might inform her that he
also teaches because he loves it and finds it endlessly satisfying and challenging in its own right.
Once again here, we encounter extreme cases in which persons become so immersed in activities
such as participating in athletics, creating art, building a business, or caring for children, that
these become core life activities around which they center much of their existence.14
To date, spiritual behavior has received relatively little attention in the psychological
literature (but see 16-18). In spiritual behavior, the person is behaving for reasons that are
characterized by ultimacy, totality, and boundary condition.16,17 In my hypothetical example,
were Susie, failing to be satisfied with her father's answers regarding why he must go to work,
continue to press him with her "why" questions, she might cause him to consider matters that
belong to the domain of spirituality. With regard to ultimacy and boundary condition, she might
cause him to go beyond immediate, limited ends accomplished by his behavior to ultimate ones:
"When all is said and done, what is the ultimate purpose of what I am doing--the purpose that
lies at the boundary beyond which there are no further reasons or justifications?" "In my
behavior, am I acting in relation to some ultimate being?" With regard to totality, she might
cause him to consider questions such as: "What is the purpose, not just of this action today, but
of my whole life?", or "What is the purpose of everything that is; what does it all mean?"
At this level of ultimacy, totality, and boundary condition, we observe some persons,
both religious and nonreligious, who have arrived at personal answers to these questions that
provide enormous value for them in their actions and lives. The religious among them might
give as their ultimate answers ones such as the following: "I believe that in doing this I am doing
God's will," and/or "loving and praising God," and/or "achieving union with God." The
nonreligious among them might profess ultimates such as: "In doing this, I am trying 'to love, to
touch others' lives'"19; or "to do good...to do something worthwhile...to make this world a better
place than the one (I) found...to contribute"20; or "to ultimately achieve full enlightenment."21
Thus, some persons live their lives in light of such ultimates (cf. the classical notion of living
"sub specie aeternitas") and derive the sorts of value from their actions and lives that come from
living in this way.18 (NB: The enterprise of promulgating "the meaning of life" to others may be
seen, on the present analysis, as a case of taking one's own personal ultimate and promoting it as
a universal one to be embraced by all persons.)
A paradigm case of meaningful action.
From the foregoing, it should be clear that deriving instrumental, intrinsic, and spiritual
value from one's actions need not be mutually exclusive. One may, in a single behavior or series
of behaviors, realize all of these values simultaneously. Thus, our hypothetical teacher, with his
single recurrent behavior of teaching young people, may (a) achieve the instrumental benefits of
making a living, enabling his students to acquire an appreciation of fine literature, and more; (b)
derive the intrinsic satisfactions that he finds in teaching; and (c) do something that he believes
has ultimate significance (e.g., fulfill what he sees as God's mission for him in life, or do his best
to make the world a better place for coming generations).
Goffman,22 in his brilliant essay, "Alienation from interaction," begins with a
characterization of what constitutes optimum interaction between persons. He then notes that
this characterization may be used as a single "point of reference" (p. 114) from which all of the
various sorts of failures to achieve it may be understood. In the same way, the case of persons
behaving in such a way as to derive substantial instrumental, intrinsic, and spiritual value
simultaneously may be employed as a unitive point of reference from which all failures to
achieve meaning may be organized and understood. It may be employed, in other terms, as a
"paradigm case"--an optimum or ideal case in which persons are deriving abundantly all of the
sorts of value and meaning from their behavior that seem available to persons.
In support of this conception as a paradigm case of meaningful action (or living) and as
a useful point of departure for understanding failures to achieve it, it is instructive to consider
what many would view as the epitome of meaninglessness, namely, the "absurd" as it is
described in the existential literature.23,24 Consider the excellent example of an absurd world
captured in the following suicide note: "Imagine a happy group of morons who are engaged in
work. They are carrying bricks in an open field. As soon as they have stacked all the bricks at
one end of the field, they proceed to transport them to the opposite end. This continues without
stop and every day of every year they are busy doing the same thing. One day one of the morons
stops long enough to ask himself what he is doing. He wonders what purpose there is in carrying
the bricks. And from that point on, he is not quite as content with his occupation as he had been
before. I am the moron who wonders why he is carrying the bricks"5 (p. 419). This description,
highly reminiscent of Camus'23 classical description of Sisyphus, may be usefully contrasted
with our paradigm case of meaningful action. When viewed thus, what emerges is that the
absurd world it describes is the diametric opposite of our paradigm case. The man's precise
complaint is that, in the world as he finds it, there is no instrumental, intrinsic, or spiritual
significance. His actions, analogized as a pointless carrying of bricks back and forth, accomplish
no valued utilitarian end that he can detect. They possess no intrinsic value for him. And, unlike
Sisyphus, he can find no spiritual or transcendant value in the activity that might enable him to
endure or even to affirm it. The absurd, the quintessence of meaninglessness, is precisely what is
generated when instrumental, intrinsic, and spiritual value are missing from human behavior.
PSYCHOTHERAPY FOR PROBLEMS OF MEANINGLESSNESS
Based on the foregoing analysis, the present therapeutic approach to persons suffering
from problems of meaninglessness is to assess, and to aid in the removal of, barriers that keep
these persons from obtaining the sort of value from their behavior that are characterized in our
paradigm case. The central therapeutic question in each case becomes the following: "What are
the obstacles to this client deriving at least adequate amounts of instrumental, intrinsic, and/or
spiritual value in life; and how might I enable him or her to overcome these obstacles?" In this
section, based upon the relatively meager literature in this area and on my own clinical
experience, I shall (a) describe what seem empirically to be the most common of these
obstacles and (b) offer some therapeutic recommendations regarding approaches to clients beset
For the most part, the recommendations made below will focus on suggested
therapeutic goals. To a lesser degree, they will focus on specific interventions. The reason for
this emphasis is that the goals suggested are amenable to a wide variety of interventions,
including psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, strategic, existential, and solution-focussed
ones. The primary effort shall therefore be to frame these goals in such a way as to be usable by
therapists of many different persuasions.
1. The "Intellectual Searcher" Scenario
In this scenario, an individual reports a search for meaning in which he or she struggles
to find such meaning exclusively by thinking, reading, discussing, philosophizing, and other
primarily intellectual means, but finds that these kinds of solution attempts are to little avail. The
usual diagnosis in such cases is that the individual is not giving value to find value.25 One gives
value by acting, and does so in the following way. One has various "places" to be filled in one's
life, ranging from places for things as mundane and ephemeral as a good immediate thirst
quencher, to places for things as central and enduring as a romantic life partner, a best friend, or
a fulfilling life work. One gives value by actively "casting" or "screen testing" candidates to fill
these places in one's life. One has a place for a good thirst quencher and tries a new drink that
has just come on the market; one has a place in one's life for a long-term romantic partner and
asks an appealing coworker out on a date; one has a place for an interesting, fulfilling, and
financially viable life work, and tries out a new college major that seems to offer such
possibilities. One gives these persons, things, and activities value by giving them a place in one's
life. One then finds value, not by sitting back in the proverbial armchair and speculating, but by
actively engaging them and appraising how well (or ill) they fill these places in one's life.25
When Rogers26 speaks of actualizing oneself by acting in accord with one's "organismic valuing
process," Campbell27 of discovering and pursuing one's "bliss" in life, and Castaneda28 of
following "paths with a heart," I believe it is essentially to the outcomes of this giving-value-to-
find-value process that they are alluding.
Therapeutically, when one diagnoses that clients are involved in this intellectual
searcher scenario, the recommended thrust becomes twofold. First, it is that of helping these
individuals, by whatever means, to abandon their previous solution attempts to seek meaning
exclusively from a thinker/spectator position. Second, it is that of promoting new behavior
wherein these clients, in a role analogous to that of a drama director, actively cast new persons or
activities in vital places or roles in their lives, and evaluate how well these candidates fill these
The anthropologist Carlos Castaneda, in an interview concerning his apprenticeship to
the Indian sorcerer Don Juan, characterized his unhappy state prior to their encounters: "I
couldn't see any way of life that really excited me...this was exaggerated by my habit of
introspection. I was always looking within and talking to myself. The inner dialogue seldom
stopped. Don Juan turned my eyes outward and taught me how to see the magnificence of the
world and how to accumulate personal power."29
In our paradigm case scenario of meaningful action, persons derive substantial
instrumental, intrinsic, and spiritual value from their behavior. The derivation of such value
implies or requires something further: namely, that persons to a large degree are immersed in
their participation in the behavior. They are absorbed in the
conversation, captivated by the lecture, transfixed by the music, caught up in the game, or lost in
their pursuit of the academic or work problem they are trying to solve (cf. Csikszentmihalyi14 on
"flow;" Goffman22 on "euphoric interaction").
Anything that might disrupt this immersion or undivided attentional focus may be the
occasion of diminished meaning or satisfaction with the activity in question. In Goffman's22
term, it may be the occasion for becoming "alienated" from the activity (p. 114). Foremost
among these distractions in my clinical experience is self-preoccupation. The individual cannot
be fully in his or her behavioral participation because attention must be pulled away from it and
focussed on the self. Concerns about how one is doing, how one is being seen by others,
whether one's place with another is secure, and so forth, assume a preemptive importance and
render the person no longer a full participant but now a distracted, otherwise preoccupied, partial
spectator in the activity. Such self-preoccupation has been described amply and well in the area
of human sexuality, where it has long been known that such self-conscious concerns interfere
greatly with one's ability to participate fully and satisfyingly in sexuality.30 The detrimental
effects of self-preoccupation have also been noted in the areas of conversation22 and other
Self-conscious concerns may also serve to alter the self-assigned value of one's
behavior, even when such behavior is successful. What might otherwise have been an
intrinsically satisfying "great round of golf" or "wonderful conversation" may become a far less
satisfying case of "not embarassing myself in front of my friends." What might otherwise have
been a "noteworthy accomplishment of getting my students to understand Shakespeare better"
might instead become a highly unsatisfying case of "being seen as a 'nerd' because I showed such
excitement in class today over what they perceive as stupid and irrelevant matters." In such a
way, persons rob themselves of the sorts of instrumental, intrinsic, or spiritual values that, as
noted above, are essential to achieving a sense of meaningfullness in life.
Straightforwardly, the therapeutic goal in such cases becomes that of helping persons
beset with chronic self-preoccupation problems to overcome this barrier to meaningful, absorbed
participation. As a rule, this will entail addressing the source of this self-absorption, and the first
therapeutic task becomes that of assessing this source and the reason(s) why it is so
motivationally preemptive for the person. Is it traceable to a poor self-esteem, which leaves the
person chronically doubting her place of value in the lives of others?32...a narcissistic
orientation, leaving the person preoccupied with the dire necessity to secure adulation, love, and
other affirmations from those around them?33...an excessively competitive orientation, leaving
the person hyperconcerned with whether he is "winning" his various encounters in life?
Whatever assessment reveals, the task then becomes one of therapeutically addressing this
impediment to full, immersed participation.
3. Inability to Appreciate Significance
Ossorio25 relates the apocryphal story of a man returning from a round of golf and
being asked by another what he has been doing that morning. "Well," the man retorts, "I've been
walking around on grass and knocking little white balls into holes in the ground, and then doing
the whole thing over again" (p. 116). The man, needless to say, has found the activity rather
meaningless. The essential picture here is of a person who cannot appreciate anything other than
the most concrete, and thus meaningless, level of significance. Like people who describe their
work as "pencil pushing" and "paper shuffling," their time with their own children as "baby
sitting," or sexual intercourse as "the old in and out," this man can see no worthwhile
instrumental accomplishment, no intrinsic value, and no spiritual significance in the game of
Some clients, like our golfer, are unable to find any higher order significances in what
they are doing.4, 25 In the cases at issue here, it is not that these clients are engaged in activities
which virtually no one could find meaningful--activities akin to the proverbial screwing in the
same bolt on the assembly line all day. Rather, in these cases, an observer can see that there is
greater significance in what these persons are doing than the persons are able to find for
themselves. For example, one woman, a rather competent and dedicated case investigator for a
state child welfare department, laughed at me cynically when I described her as "working very
hard to protect young children from abuse." Rejecting my description, she asserted that, in her
view, she was "just doing what it takes to get through each day and get my paycheck." A second
client, when describing his work as a teacher, consistently employed expressions such as "trying
to keep the natives from getting too restless," "putting in time," and "trying to make it to the end
of the semester." The one time this man offered a higher order significance description,
"molding young minds," it was with distinct sarcasm and irony.
Therapeutically, the goal here is to help such individuals to appreciate higher order
significances, especially ones that might, as they were for the dedicated social worker, already be
obvious to others in their behavior. I have found it helpful to use the "little white balls" example
as a heuristic device to introduce this whole notion of behavioral value or significance that is
there but is being missed by the behaver, and then to explore with clients significances they may
be missing in their own behavior. Where there is resistance to this, usually based on cynicism,
reluctance to view oneself in a positive light, and/or threat inherent in seeing some higher order
significance,25 the bases of such resistance must be ascertained and addressed. Finally, in some
cases, what might be termed a "disillusionment scenario" must be dealt with: once persons
become unable to see or appreciate higher order values in their behavior, they also begin to
produce their behavior at lower levels. The social worker, unable to see her behavior as
"protecting children from abuse," begins to produce her work as "just doing what it takes to get
through each day and get my paycheck," thus compounding the problem of meaninglessness
with problems of guilt, disillusionment, and diminished quality of action.
4. World Views That Preclude Meaning
Victor Frankl3 once asserted that "Some worlds are worth living in; some are not" (p.
8). Some persons' worlds (or "world views") are such that action within them is stripped of
much of the meaning that it might otherwise have. One famous example of this is the absurd
world in which, as described previously, all action is essentially like that of Sisyphus who was
doomed for eternity to push a great boulder up a hill repeatedly, only to have it roll down again
each time.23 In this world, human action accomplishes no worthwhile instrumental goal, has no
intrinsic value, and possesses no inherent spiritual significance.
A second well-known set of meaningless worlds lie in various reductionistic scientific
views that have filtered down into the belief systems of many persons.3,5 The general formula
for these reductionistic world views is: "A is nothing but B." For example, a composite version
of such a world view would be the following: "Human beings are nothing but a very recent,
utterly accidental, and therefore rather insignificant product of physical processes that began
with the big bang. They are, like all of their evolutionary forebears, organisms--essentially,
organic machines that operate according to deterministic physical laws. That is the end of the
matter: all talk of this ephemeral life form living in some relation to a supreme being, having a
life after death, or finding a valid foundation for its self-invented moral rules is metaphysical
nonsense without any scientific foundation whatever."
To cite a third and final type of world view that is conducive to meaninglessness, there
are a number of personal outlooks, often referred to as "cynical," that reduce persons' ability to
find their worlds meaningful. These would include outlooks such as "Everybody, myself
included, no matter how altruistic he or she may appear, is essentially acting out of self-
interest"4; or "It's a jungle out there, it's survival of the fittest, it's a world where the basic
operative philosophy is 'eat or be eaten'."
All of the above world views, whatever their level of intellectual sophistication, reduce
human actions to ones of lesser value. Everyone, from Ghandi to Hitler to oneself, is doing what
physiochemical or sociobiological or environmental forces dictate, what's best for "number one,"
or what in an absurd or reductionistic world must be regarded as morally equivalent. In such
world views, many
of the values or significances that might otherwise be found in a given behavior (e.g., that the
behavior was done out of love or altruism, that it was virtuous, that it exhibited courage, or that it
pleased God) can no longer be found.
For the most part, the world views at issue here are not irrational in the sense that they
embody distorted logic or fail to square with empirical evidence. Because of this, the suggested
therapeutic approach is not the traditional cognitive therapeutic one of trying to empirically
disconfirm or otherwise rebut the client's current world view; it is, rather, to listen carefully to it,
to convey an understanding of it, and to affirm its inherent logicality and sensibleness. Having
done so, the subsequent tack is to point out to the client that his or her position is not that of a
helpless victim doomed to see the world in the only possible way that it can be seen. It is, rather,
the much more powerful one of author or constructor of a world view.34 Unfortunately, in a
world where there are many viable world views, and no uniquely true or correct one, the client
has constructed one that permits little in the way of meaning. From this position of leverage, of
author and not victim, the client may be shown that he or she can make a choice to reconstruct
this world view in a way that is equally or more realistic, but that permits the derivation of far
greater meaning. Should the client elect to do so, the therapist may then assist in this process
(see the excellent work of Roberts34 for therapeutic approaches to "Worlds and world
5. Critic Disqualification Problems
One of the foremost ways that clients rob their lives of meaning is that they disqualify
their own actions. Operating in the role of self-critic, they adopt certain standards of adequacy
and, when their actions do not meet these standards, they declare them deficient and worthless.32
Two of the most common of these critic standards are recounted in the following paragraphs.
They are framed here as "laws" because I have found the therapeutic metaphor of "passing a
law," with its implication that said law may be "repealed," a highly useful one.
The law of ceaseless productivity.
This law runs as follows: "If some action that I engage in is not constructive (i.e.,
productive of some important utilitarian end), it is without value and a complete waste of
time."32 The person who has adopted such a personal standard lives in a completely utilitarian
world, a world where every behavior, if it is to be counted worthwhile, must be instrumental in
the production of some further important end. Life is essentially work, is essentially about being
ceaselessly constructive, productive, and useful in everything one does. Anything else (e.g.,
playing games, having a conversation, or listening to music) whose value is entirely intrinsic or,
if instrumental, accomplishes nothing important, is a "waste of time." One should never do such
"frivolous," "sterile" things when one could be "accomplishing something."
Some of the sense of meaninglessness that such a critic stance creates is well captured
by two famous literary figures. Emerson35 once described a personal sense he had that "We are
always getting to live but never living." Yeats,36 in a similar vein, stated that "all life weighed
in the balance of my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens."
Obviously, as stated many times in this article, the fact of an action serving to bring about some
significant instrumental end is an important source of meaning for persons. However, when
carried to extremes, when everything is declared meaningful only by virtue of its instrumental
value, persons get involved in a world of infinite regress: A is of value only insofar as it brings
about B, but B only insofar as it brings about C, and so on ad infinitum.5,25 In such a world,
where nothing is intrinsic and/or where there are not the boundaries to infinite regress imposed
by spiritual ultimates, we wind up "always getting to live but never living," always waiting "for
something that never happens."
The therapeutic goal in such cases is that clients, by whatever means, abandon the
practice of subjecting every action to this instrumental standard. Further, and more positively,
they would acquire and employ new standards that would permit them to appreciate the intrinsic
and/or spiritual value of actions, as well as what might be termed "the importance of the
The law of eternity.
Tolstoy,37 at a point in his life when he was contemplating suicide, expressed the basis
for his despair and crisis of meaning in the following way: "What will come from what I am
doing now, and may do tomorrow? What will come from my whole life? otherwise expressed--
Why should I live? Why should I wish for anything? Why should I do anything? Again, in
other words, is there any meaning in my life which will not be destroyed by the inevitable death
awaiting me." For those who, like Tolstoy, have imposed extended temporal duration, and even
eternity, as a standard of meaningfulness upon themselves, the fact of some action or experience
or accomplishment being transient is taken as grounds for finding no meaning or value in it.5,10
"What's the point," they wonder, "if it will be over in an hour...if I must die someday...if both I
and my achievements will disappear without a trace from human awareness some day?"
Therapeutically, clients who have enacted and are repeatedly enforcing the law of
eternity need to be brought to an awareness of what they are proactively doing, of the fact that
they have a choice in this regard, and of their options, especially that of "repealing" this law from
their personal books. Two arguments that may be made in this connection are, briefly stated, the
following. (a) Even in the world that these persons yearn for, where we and our deeds would last
forever, the question of what makes for meaning--the question of how to find value in one's
actions and one's life--would remain.5 Indeed, in such a world, the problem would be even more
poignant: who would want, like Sisyphus, to live forever in a meaningless world? (b) Factually,
we and our experiences and achievements are ephemeral. Despite this, countless individuals
lead highly meaningful lives. Therefore, important bases for meaningfulness, the nature of
which have been detailed above, must exist that in no way depend on eternal duration.
Paradigmatically, meaningful action, and by extension meaningful living, inhere in
immersed participation in activities from which one derives substantial instrumental, intrinsic,
and/or spiritual value. The greater the departure from this paradigm (the existentialist's "absurd"
being the extreme case), the more meaningless will one's existence seem. Employing this
paradigm case as a point of departure, the job of the psychotherapist becomes that of (a)
diagnosing obstacles to clients securing such value in their behavior, and (b) assisting them in the
removal or diminution of these obstacles. The empirically most common of these obstacles, as
well as some therapeutic approaches to addressing them, have been discussed in this article.
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