Does leading a purposeful life help to boost well-being?
We move schools, jobs, and countries in search of our life’s true purpose, and if no revelation is forthcoming, we become frustrated and start questioning the choices we’ve made so far.
Others might feel that they know exactly what their purpose is — be it to teach, spread joy, or save lives — and that will award them renewed energy at every step, as well as the strength to overcome all obstacles.
Some of us may find that our purpose in life keeps shifting as we grow emotionally and intellectually, and so we adjust our life choices to fit the new goals that give us vitality.
Having — or lacking — a life purpose, science has shown, can affect our mental and physical health in numerous and tangible ways. One recent study showed that perhaps intuitively, individuals who believe that they have found their purpose in life enjoy better sleep quality.
Another suggested that, the more we live with purpose, the more our bodies’ stress-related aging processes are slowed down. It comes as no surprise, then, that there is a positive correlation between having a life purpose and enjoying longevity.
A type of traditional psychotherapy called logotherapy focuses on helping people to become more aware of what makes their life meaningful, so that they can overcome the obstacles affecting their quality of life more easily.
What is logotherapy?
Logotherapy was first developed in the 1940s–1950s by Viktor Emil Frankl (1905–1997), who was a psychiatrist and neurologist from Vienna, Austria. Frankl was interested in the importance of life purpose in people’s mental health.
Frankl had the unfortunate opportunity of testing his theories on himself; as a Jew, he was captured by the Nazis in the early 1940s and sent to a concentration camp.
As he later explained, it was his persistence in clinging to his own set purpose — or continuing the life’s work that he had been forced to leave behind — that fortified him and helped him to survive the horrors of the Holocaust.
Later, he laid out the foundations of logotherapy in his best-known book Man’s Search for Meaning, where he famously wrote:
“[E]verything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Logotherapy became known as the “third school of psychotherapy,” offering an alternative to the so-called “first” and “second” schools. These are Sigmund Freud’s, who founded psychoanalysis, and Alfred Adler’s, whose theories revolved around the concept of “inferiority feeling.”
Two of the most prominent techniques used in Frankl’s type of therapy are the paradoxical intention and dereflection. Paradoxical intention aims to break the vicious cycle of anticipatory anxiety, in which we are so anxious about something that we then feel anxiety about becoming anxious regarding our source of worry.
Frankl suggested that one way of enabling someone to distance themselves from this vicious cycle is, as unintuitive as it may seem, exposure to the source of their anxiety.
Dereflection attempts to interrupt another vicious cycle: that of becoming so fixated on something that we want to achieve that we put ourselves under increased amounts of stress, thus making it less likely that we will reach that goal.
In this case, Frankl advised simply taking a break to stop trying so hard to achieve that purpose and allow ourselves to reach a sense of detachment, so as to steer away from the excessive pressure we have placed on ourselves.
Current clinical applications of logotherapy
Since some of logotherapy’s practices advise exposure to feared stimuli to create desensitization — that is, getting used to those stimuli so that their impact is lessened — they can lend themselves well to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which also uses this strategy to treat conditions such as phobias.
“On many levels, logotherapy presents a high degree of compatibility with cognitive behavior therapy,” write the authors of a 2013 article published in the journal Psychotherapy.
Logotherapeutic practices could help with anxiety, depression, and burnout.
They argue that logotherapeutic techniques can be particularly effective in tackling generalized anxiety disorder and depression.
“[T]he exposure procedure […] can motivate the client to face anxiety or fear by making him/her view it as an option,” they write, adding, “One cannot always control his or her anxiety level, but can choose how to react to it.”
It is this reaction to anxiety as it begins to take hold that can be helpful in reducing its levels and minimizing its influence. In making a conscious choice to react to anxiety in the opposite way, we are taking the first steps toward removing it from our lives.
The study authors conclude that “the integration of the concepts of meaning, personal values, and purposeful goals in the depression protocol individualizes the therapy process and would increase well-being and resilience, reducing the relapse rate.”
They say that it is important for people living with depression and seeking treatment to be able to reflect, with the support of their therapist, on what gives their life meaning, what helps them to live with a sense of purpose, and what their personal values are. This can help to tackle their specific context for the condition.
Another way in which logotherpeutic practices can be helpful, some have argued, is to prevent or treat burnout syndrome. While this condition is not currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it has been linked to depression and is sometimes named as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Burnout is characterized by physical and mental exhaustion following long-term overinvolvement, usually in a job or project. This exhaustion can include fatigue, lack of motivation, and a sense of alienation.
Monika Ulrichová — who is an assistant professor at the University of Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic — argues that logotherapy helps to prevent or treat burnout by asking people pertinent questions that will allow them to change the frame of mind in which they are operating.
“[A] substantial part in [the] prevention and treatment of burnout syndrome is living people’s own values — in relationships, in the family, but also in tiny little things. People should move within the limits of ‘I want and I can act differently’.”
Prof. Monika Ulrichová
“People should undergo self-reflection and answer the following questions: ‘Do I really have to?,’ ‘What is going to happen if I do not do it?’ ‘What consequences will there be?’ ‘Do I really have to?’,” she adds.
Meaning, purpose, and perception
Of course, finding meaning in life if you’re stuck in a difficult place is a complex issue, and there is no set recipe. We will all have different motivations, and the same strategies for finding a purpose won’t work for everyone.
Still, in the book The Doctor and the Soul, Frankl suggested that there are three main value types that people can subscribe to that could help them to identify meaning in their lives:
- creative values, or “values which are realized in creative action”
- experiential values, which can be “realized in receptivity toward the world — for example, in surrender to the beauty of nature or art”
- attitudinal values, referring to a person’s “response to the restraints upon [their] potentialities”
In other words, creative activities that engage our talents, openness to finding pleasure and beauty in the world, and the ability to master our responses to circumstances beyond our control are good ways of living purposefully and becoming more resilient.
One study, for instance, found that although stress does impact our health, how we perceive stress can also tilt the balance against us; if we linger on how exposure to stress is taking its toll on us, the impact on our health is likely to be even greater.
Although there is no real shortcut to learning how to find our life purpose and how to become resilient in the face of obstacles, Adam Leipzig — a film and theater producer and author — suggests that asking ourselves five simple questions could lead us in the right direction.
In his TED talk (which you can watch here), he suggests we all take a few minutes to ask ourselves who we are, what we do, who we do it for, what these beneficiaries need or want, and what our final payoff is.
Finding answers to these questions, he suggests, could help us to become more aware of what activities keep us going, and why we ultimately want to keep doing them.