How to live longer and better by finding your purpose



How to live longer and better by finding your purpose

What is logotherapy?
A colleague once asked Viktor Frankl to define his school of psychology in a single phrase, to which Frankl replied, “Well, in logotherapy the patient sits up straight and has to listen to things that are, on occasion, hard to hear.” The colleague had just described psychoanalysis to him in the following terms: “In psychoanalysis, the patient lies down on a couch and tells you things that are, on occasion, hard to say.”

Frankl explains that one of the first questions he would ask his patients was “Why do you not commit suicide?” Usually the patient found good reasons not to, and was able to carry on. What, then, does logotherapy do? 

The answer is pretty clear: It helps you find reasons to live.

Logotherapy pushes patients to consciously discover their life’s purpose in order to confront their neuroses. Their quest to fulfill their destiny then motivates them to press forward, breaking the mental chains of the past and overcoming whatever obstacles they encounter along the way.

The search for meaning

The search for purpose became a personal, driving force that allowed Frankl to achieve his goals. The process of logotherapy can be summarized in these five steps:
  1. A person feels empty, frustrated, or anxious.
  2. The therapist shows him that what he is feeling is the desire to have a meaningful life.
  3. The patient discovers his life’s purpose (at that particular point in time).
  4. Of his own free will, the patient decides to accept or reject that destiny.
  5. This newfound passion for life helps him overcome obstacles and sorrows.
Frankl himself would live and die for his principles and ideals. His experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz showed him that “Everything 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.” It was something he had to go through alone, without any help, and it inspired him for the rest of his life.
Ten Differences Between Psychoanalysis and Logotherapy
The patient reclines on a couch, like a patient.
The patient sits facing the therapist, who guides him or her without passing judgment.
Is retrospective: It looks to the past.
Looks toward the future.
Is introspective: It analyzes neuroses.
Does not delve into the patient’s neuroses.
The drive is toward pleasure.
The drive is toward purpose and meaning.
Centers on psychology.
Includes a spiritual dimension.
Works on psychogenic neuroses.
Also works on noogenic, or existential, neuroses.
Analyzes the unconscious origin of conflicts (instinctual dimension).
Deals with conflicts when and where they arise (spiritual dimension).
Limits itself to the patient’s instincts.
Also deals with spiritual realities.
Is fundamentally incompatible with faith.
Is compatible with faith.
Seeks to reconcile conflicts and satisfy impulses and instincts.
Seeks to help the patient find meaning in his life and satisfy his moral principles.

Fight for yourself

Existential frustration arises when our life is without purpose, or when that purpose is skewed. In Frankl’s view, however, there is no need to see this frustration as an anomaly or a symptom of neurosis; instead, it can be a positive thing—a catalyst for change.

Logotherapy does not see this frustration as mental illness, the way other forms of therapy do, but rather as spiritual anguish—a natural and beneficial phenomenon that drives those who suffer from it to seek a cure, whether on their own or with the help of others, and in so doing to find greater satisfaction in life. It helps them change their own destiny.

Logotherapy enters the picture if the person needs help doing this, if he needs guidance in discovering his life’s purpose and later in overcoming conflicts so he can keep moving toward his objective. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl cites one of Nietzsche’s famous aphorisms: “He who has a whyto live for can bear with almost any how.”

Based on his own experience, Frankl believed that our health depends on that natural tension that comes from comparing what we’ve accomplished so far with what we’d like to achieve in the future. What we need, then, is not a peaceful existence, but a challenge we can strive to meet by applying all the skills at our disposal.

Existential crisis, on the other hand, is typical of modern societies in which people do what they are told to do, or what others do, rather than what they want to do. They often try to fill the gap between what is expected of them and what they want for themselves with economic power or physical pleasure, or by numbing their senses. It can even lead to suicide.

Sunday neurosis, for example, is what happens when, without the obligations and commitments of the workweek, the individual realizes how empty he is inside. He has to find a solution. Above all, he has to find his purpose, his reason for getting out of bed—his ikigai.
According to logotherapy, discovering one’s purpose in life helps an individual fill that existential void. Frankl, a man who faced his problems and turned his objectives into actions, could look back on his life in peace as he grew old. He did not have to envy those still enjoying their youth, because he had amassed a broad set of experiences that showed he had lived for something.

Better living through logotherapy: A few key ideas

  • We don’t create the meaning of our life, as Sartre claimed—we discover it.
  • We each have a unique reason for being, which can be adjusted or transformed many times over the years.
  • Just as worry often brings about precisely the thing that was feared, excessive attention to a desire (or “hyper-intention”) can keep that desire from being fulfilled.
  • Humor can help break negative cycles and reduce anxiety.
  • We all have the capacity to do noble or terrible things. The side of the equation we end up on depends on our decisions, not on the condition in which we find ourselves.
In the pages that follow, we will look at four cases from Frankl’s own practice in order to better understand the search for meaning and purpose.

Case study: Viktor Frankl

In German concentration camps, as in those that would later be built in Japan and Korea, psychiatrists confirmed that the prisoners with the greatest chance of survival were those who had things they wanted to accomplish outside the camp, those who felt a strong need to get out of there alive. This was true of Frankl, who, after being released and successfully developing the school of logotherapy, realized he had been the first patient of his own practice.

Frankl had a goal to achieve, and it made him persevere. He arrived at Auschwitz carrying a manuscript that contained all the theories and research he had compiled over the course of his career, ready for publication. When it was confiscated, he felt compelled to write it all over again, and that need drove him and gave his life meaning amid the constant horror and doubt of the concentration camp—so much so that over the years, and especially when he fell ill with typhus, he would jot down fragments and key words from the lost work on any scrap of paper he found.

Case study: The American diplomat

An important North American diplomat went to Frankl to pick up where he left off with a course of treatment he had started five years earlier in the United States. When Frankl asked him why he’d started therapy in the first place, the diplomat answered that he hated his job and his country’s international policies, which he had to follow and enforce. His American psychoanalyst, whom he’d been seeing for years, insisted he make peace with his father so that his government and his job, both representations of the paternal figure, would seem less disagreeable. Frankl, however, showed him in just a few sessions that his frustration was due to the fact that he wanted to pursue a different career, and the diplomat concluded his treatment with that idea in mind.

Five years later, the former diplomat informed Frankl that he had been working during that time in a different profession, and that he was happy.

In Frankl’s view, the man not only didn’t need all those years of psychoanalysis, he also couldn’t even really be considered a “patient” in need of therapy. He was simply someone in search of a new life’s purpose; as soon as he found it, his life took on deeper meaning.

Case study: The suicidal mother

The mother of a boy who had died at age eleven was admitted to Frankl’s clinic after she tried to kill herself and her other son. It was this other son, paralyzed since birth, who kept her from carrying out her plan: He did believe his life had a purpose, and if his mother killed them both, it would keep him from achieving his goals.

The woman shared her story in a group session. To help her, Frankl asked another woman to imagine a hypothetical situation in which she lay on her deathbed, old and wealthy but childless. The woman insisted that, in that case, she would have felt her life had been a failure.

When the suicidal mother was asked to perform the same exercise, imagining herself on her deathbed, she looked back and realized that she had done everything in her power for her children—for both of them. She had given her paralyzed son a good life, and he had turned into a kind, reasonably happy person. To this she added, crying, “As for myself, I can look back peacefully on my life; for I can say my life was full of meaning, and I have tried hard to live it fully; I have done my best—I have done my best for my son. My life was no failure!”

In this way, by imagining herself on her deathbed and looking back, the suicidal mother found the meaning that, though she was not aware of it, her life already had.

Morita therapy

In the same decade that logotherapy came into being—a few years earlier, in fact—Shoma Morita created his own purpose-centered therapy, in Japan. It proved to be effective in the treatment of neurosis, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and posttraumatic stress.

In addition to being a psychotherapist, Shoma Morita was a Zen Buddhist, and his therapy left a lasting spiritual mark on Japan.

Many Western forms of therapy focus on controlling or modifying the patient’s emotions. In the West, we tend to believe that what we think influences how we feel, which in turn influences how we act. In contrast, Morita therapy focuses on teaching patients to accept their emotions without trying to control them, since their feelings will change as a result of their actions.

In addition to accepting the patient’s emotions, Morita therapy seeks to “create” new emotions on the basis of actions. According to Morita, these emotions are learned through experience and repetition.

Morita therapy is not meant to eliminate symptoms; instead it teaches us to accept our desires, anxieties, fears, and worries, and let them go. As Morita writes in his book Morita Therapy and the True Nature of Anxiety-Based Disorders, “In feelings, it is best to be wealthy and generous.”

Morita explained the idea of letting go of negative feelings with the following fable: A donkey that is tied to a post by a rope will keep walking around the post in an attempt to free itself, only to become more immobilized and attached to the post. The same thing applies to people with obsessive thinking who become more trapped in their own suffering when they try to escape from their fears and discomfort.

The basic principles of Morita therapy

  1. Accept your feelings. If we have obsessive thoughts, we should not try to control them or get rid of them. If we do, they become more intense. Regarding human emotions, the Zen master would say, “If we try to get rid of one wave with another, we end up with an infinite sea.” We don’t create our feelings; they simply come to us, and we have to accept them. The trick is welcoming them. Morita likened emotions to the weather: We can’t predict or control them; we can only observe them. To this point, he often quoted the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who would say, “Hello, solitude. How are you today? Come, sit with me, and I will care for you.”
  2. Do what you should be doing. We shouldn’t focus on eliminating symptoms, because recovery will come on its own. We should focus instead on the present moment, and if we are suffering, on accepting that suffering. Above all, we should avoid intellectualizing the situation. The therapist’s mission is to develop the patient’s character so he or she can face any situation, and character is grounded in the things we do. Morita therapy does not offer its patients explanations, but rather allows them to learn from their actions and activities. It doesn’t tell you how to meditate, or how to keep a diary the way Western therapies do. It is up to the patient to make discoveries through experience.
  3. Discover your life’s purpose. We can’t control our emotions, but we can take charge of our actions every day. This is why we should have a clear sense of our purpose, and always keep Morita’s mantra in mind: “What do we need to be doing right now? What action should we be taking?” The key to achieving this is having dared to look inside yourself to find your ikigai.

    The four phases of Morita therapy

    Morita’s original treatment, which lasts fifteen to twenty-one days, consists of the following stages:
  1. Isolation and rest (five to seven days). During the first week of treatment, the patient rests in a room without any external stimuli. No television, books, family, friends, or speaking. All the patient has is his thoughts. He lies down for most of the day and is visited regularly by the therapist, who tries to avoid interacting with him as much as possible. The therapist simply advises the patient to continue observing the rise and fall of his emotions as he lies there. When the patient gets bored and wants to start doing things again, he is ready to move on to the next stage of therapy.
  2. Light occupational therapy (five to seven days). In this stage, the patient performs repetitive tasks in silence. One of these is keeping a diary about his thoughts and feelings. The patient goes outside after a week of being shut in, takes walks in nature, and does breathing exercises. He also starts doing simple activities, such as gardening, drawing, or painting. During this stage, the patient is still not allowed to talk to anyone, except the therapist.
  3. Occupational therapy (five to seven days). In this stage, the patient performs tasks that require physical movement. Dr. Morita liked to take his patients to the mountains to chop wood. In addition to physical tasks, the patient is also immersed in other activities, such as writing, painting, or making ceramics. The patient can speak with others at this stage, but only about the tasks at hand.
  4. The return to social life and the “real” world. The patient leaves the hospital and is reintroduced to social life, but maintains the practices of meditation and occupational therapy developed during treatment. The idea is to reenter society as a new person, with a sense of purpose, and without being controlled by social or emotional pressures.

    Naikan meditation

    Morita was a great Zen master of Naikan introspective meditation. Much of his therapy draws on his knowledge and mastery of this school, which centers on three questions the individual must ask him- or herself:
  1. What have I received from person X?
  2. What have I given to person X?
  3. What problems have I caused person X?
Through these reflections, we stop identifying others as the cause of our problems and deepen our own sense of responsibility. As Morita said, “If you are angry and want to fight, think about it for three days before coming to blows. After three days, the intense desire to fight will pass on its own.”

And now, ikigai

Logotherapy and Morita therapy are both grounded in a personal, unique experience that you can access without therapists or spiritual retreats: the mission of finding your ikigai, your existential fuel. Once you find it, it is only a matter of having the courage and making the effort to stay on the right path.

In the following chapters, we’ll take a look at the basic tools you’ll need to get moving along that path: finding flow in the tasks you’ve chosen to do, eating in a balanced and mindful way, doing low-intensity exercise, and learning not to give in when difficulties arise. In order to do this, you have to accept that the world—like the people who live in it—is imperfect, but that it is still full of opportunities for growth and achievement.

Are you ready to throw yourself into your passion as if it were the most important thing in the world?





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