Meaning Therapy Explained

Meaning therapy is an umbrella construct; it examines what human beings require to flourish in their lives, despite suffering. In terms of standard schools of psychology, meaning is most closely aligned with cognitive and motivational psychologies.

From its beginnings in the work of the great psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, personal meaning as a focus in psychology has flourished. The American Psychological Association’s publication of The Psychology of Meaning and Dr. Paul Wong’s The Human Quest for Meaning (2nd ed.) is evidence that meaning is now established.

Meaning therapy aims to help people make sense of their lives in a way that is consonant with their experiences, authentic values, beliefs, and actions. In recovery, this can help people no longer feel victimized by their (neuro)biology or environment.

Unlike Frankl’s logotherapy, meaning therapy is now a stand-alone therapy. It has been shown effective in helping many populations, including those suffering from cardiac problems, terminal illness, workplace stress, geriatric issues, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and, of course, addiction. Research also indicates that it is effective with multicultural populations.

How Lack of Meaning and Addiction Are Intertwined

Meaning theory and therapy interpret addiction in line with Viktor Frankl, who stated that addiction is “not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying [it].” To put it another way, addiction is a response to living a life that lacks personal meaning.

Those who suffer from addiction can be easily bored and depressed. They have a sense that they are different and do not fit in, and they lack a sense of control over their lives. Our clients typically refer to this vacuum as a “void” or “emptiness.”

Research has shown that those suffering from addiction have a remarkably low sense of self and external motivations and goals. After addiction takes hold, they become motivated mainly to avoid negative effects. Addiction is a response to this life.

Evidently, meaning theory is capable of addressing different components of addiction. There are more than 70 scholarly journals and hundreds of books with a focus on problematic substance use. One of the struggles in this field is that these research studies conflict with the nature of addiction and how it should be treated. Addiction experts tend to focus on their favourite theories and avoid research that contradicts their findings.

Using meaning as an organizing construct is the only approach thus far proposed that is capable of integrating results from biological, behavioural, cognitive, motivational, and existential-humanistic psychologies. As well as the growing body of addiction research in the human sciences.

Therapy as Transformational Change

If addiction is a response to a life that lacks personal meaning, then the solution is to live meaningfully. But it isn’t that easy. Therapy aims to help clients begin the process of finding meaning and purpose.

Mainstream therapies for addiction are generally limited to helping clients attain a measure of physical and emotional stability. Meaning therapy, however, suggests that we can better help clients by moving beyond healing brokenness and toward flourishing in life, despite suffering.

Research studies have indicated that recovery is about a transformational change—that is, stable abstinence is the byproduct of living a meaningful life.

meaning therapy

Principles of Meaning Therapy

With its roots in Frankl’s logotherapy, meaning therapy is best understood as existential psychotherapy. Like all existential therapies, it follows specific principles:

  • The whole human being is centre stage: Therapy treats the whole, complex, unique human being. This principle also indicates that therapy must be client-centred.
  • Each person is the author of their life: Also known as existential responsibility, authorship assumes that the individual is responsible for making decisions that will dictate the kind of life they live. For this reason, therapists do not tell a client what to do, think, or feel. They offer no ready-made answers. Rather, they help clients find their own answers.
  • People grow if they have no need to deny or distort experience: Rogerian principles (unconditional positive regard, advanced accurate empathy, and genuineness) are the foundation for therapy. Confrontation as a counselling style is considered unethical.
  • People are relational beings: Relatedness is a foundational construct in psychology. How clients interact in the group, regardless of the content of the discussion, is important.

Components of Meaning Therapy

Research indicates that meaningful living has four components:

  1. Cognitive component: Self-definition/relatedness is the cognitive component. Understanding the self is the foundation for meaningful living. What are the individual’s authentic values? How do they assign priorities when values conflict? How does the person attribute responsibility?
  2. Motivational component: Motivations are most productive when they are based on the individual’s self-understanding. Research has shown that intrinsic motivation and goals are far more powerful than extrinsic motivations and goals. Clients begin to make decisions based on what is authentically important to them.
  3. Behavioural component: Action is essential to meaningful living. Without the client’s taking action, therapy is useless. Practicing new skills while in treatment is a key piece of therapy.
  4. Affective component: Well-being is not merely a result of the pursuit of meaning or its attainment. It is also a way to evaluate one’s life. Research has also shown that well-being need not necessarily be attached to pleasure and comfort. The construct of eudaimonic happiness suggests that living a meaningful life is more fulfilling than living a pleasurable one.

Formats of Meaning Therapy

  • Group therapy: Group is the main therapy format. Under a meaning framework, group may be cognitive-behavioural one day and family systems therapy the next. Process therapy is a key method of group therapy.
  • Individual therapy: One-on-one therapy is generally reserved for issues that clients may not yet feel comfortable enough to share in group, or motivational/behavioural issues affecting one client. Individual sessions are also used for hypnotherapy and EMDR.
  • Workshops: Workshops cover neurobiological, psychological, and sociocultural topics. There is a special focus on addiction within a meaning framework.
small group meaning therapy

Results of Meaning Therapy

According to our research, grounded in client data, meaning therapy has three major influences.

  1. Increased self-definition: The most salient aspect of clients’ pre-treatment is a remarkably low sense of self. They cannot answer the question, “Who am I?” They rely on the external world for guidance, entertainment, and reassurance. Post-treatment, they are more aware of authentic values, are able to reflect on what they are feeling and why, are more aware of the meanings they ascribe to things, and make decisions that are more responsive to their needs and contingencies.
  2. Increased interpersonal relatedness: Pre-treatment, clients generally have disrupted relationships with family, partners, employers, and friends. Post-treatment, they report renewed efforts to rebuild relationships with those important to them.
  3. Increased internal motivation: Pre-treatment, clients have external motivations and goals. Post-treatment, there is a noticeable shift toward intrinsic motivations and goals.

Find Meaning and Purpose at Georgia Strait Women’s Clinic

As a client of Georgia Strait Women’s Clinic, you will attend one-to-one therapy sessions, group therapy, and workshops all rooted in Meaning Theory. Our clinical staff is trained in numerous therapeutic techniques such as Narrative Therapy, Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, and Dialectic Behavioural Therapy.

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health and/or problematic substance use, reach out today. Visit our website or call our toll-free number 1.866.487.9040.