Providers of mental health services tend not to take a client’s meaning needs and life purpose concerns into account. How often is a client asked, “Tell me a little bit about your life purpose choices and decisions” or “Are you more a meaning-maker or a meaning-seeker?” The answer: virtually never. These sorts of questions are not part of the everyday landscape that mental health service providers inhabit.
Most psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists, and other mental health service providers don’t possess either a coherent set of ideas or a useful vocabulary that would allow them to chat with clients about meaning and life purpose. Indeed, they may never have thought these matters through for themselves. Have they got a clear understanding about the requirements of meaning making: that is, what it takes to influence, create, and provoke the psychological experience of meaning? Have they thought through how people can be helped to name and frame their life purposes? Most haven’t.
Likewise, most providers have no idea how to chat with clients about their values and principles. Can it really be the case that it doesn’t matter to a client whether or not he is living according to his values and principles or contrary to his values and principles? How mentally or emotionally healthy can a person be expected to feel if he is not making meaning, not living his life purposes, and not living according to his values and principles? If he is living that bereft way, don’t we expect him to feel sad and anxious and don’t we suppose that he may be pulled in the direction of some meaning substitute like addictive behavior?
I’ve written extensively about meaning and life purpose. It is really not so hard to paint a picture of what value-based meaning-making looks like, what it would feel like to make daily meaning investments and seize daily meaning opportunities, what it would take to create your own personal menu and mix of meaning opportunities, and what the process looks like of naming and framing your life purposes. The main problem seems to be that these matters are simply not on the radar of mental health service providers. They are fixated on the current model of “diagnosing and treating mental disorders,” a discredited labeling model that ought to be abandoned, and seem unable to move forward.
To be sure, their training programs are failing them—almost certainly they never took a single class in which meaning or life purpose was discussed. Their leaders are failing them too, as virtually all of them have ties to the pharmaceutical industry and our current pill-pushing mentality. Nor are clients themselves helping much, as they have gotten into the habit of presenting their difficulties in terms of sadness, anxiety, addictive behaviors, and so on rather than as existential difficulties having to do with meaning and life purpose. If a client does not bring it in and his therapist likewise does not bring it up, how will it ever get on the table?
I’ve written many nonfiction books on these matters, books like Rethinking Depression and The Van Gogh Blues, and I recommend them to you. But today I want to recommend a different sort of book of mine. It is a new novel that works as pulse-pounding fiction but that is also an entrée in a new genre that I’m calling life purpose fiction: fiction where the main character makes a strong life purpose choice and then must deal with what life throws at him as he attempts to live his choice.
In the case of this novel, Settled, the choice the main character makes is to champion the creation of a second Israel in a safer location. You may be very interested to see how meaning and life purpose can be handled fictively and how life purpose fiction works. I hope you’ll take a look:
If we want our mental health service providers to do a better job of realizing what actually matters to human beings, how life purpose and meaning issues are implicated in emotional distress, and what they as providers can do to help, I think that the following four steps are basic:
1. Providers must come to their own personal understanding of the value of discussing meaning and life purpose with clients. Do they really believe that issues of meaning and life purpose aren’t vitally important? Can’t they see their way to valuing the importance of meaning and life purpose in human affairs?
2. Providers must arrive at some concepts about meaning and life purpose that they themselves believe and understand. If, for example, you understand nothing about the logic or etiology of cancer or heart disease, how helpful can you be in treating those health issues? If you yourself have no idea where meaning resides or what it takes to make and then stand behind a life purpose decision, how helpful can you be in helping others make meaning and live their life purposes?
3. Providers must adopt or create language that allows them to talk intelligently and intelligibly with clients. This might sound like, “Let me tell you what I mean by a meaning investment and why that might be important for us to talk about” or “There’s a practice I’d like to tell you about called a morning meaning check-in that might help you orient your day around your meaning intentions.”
4. Providers must be willing to bring these matters up with clients if clients do not bring them up themselves. By bringing these matters up they will be better able to tackle what is causing the distress, rather than circling around the “symptom picture” of what the distress looks like. The likelihood may be great, for example, that your sadness is neither biological nor psychological in nature but existential instead. Wouldn’t that be important to get at?
There’s an awful lot that we don’t know about how the mind operates and we should do a much better job of admitting all that we don’t know rather than making up mental disorders right and left. But we do know the following: meaning and life purpose matter. I hope our mental health service providers will get on the meaning and life purpose bandwagon and by doing so provide their clients with the opportunity to actually reduce their existential distress.
And I hope you’ll take a look at my new novel, which I’m betting you’ll enjoy as fiction and which has a lot to teach about how meaning and life purpose operate in the crucible of reality. Please take a look!
Eric Maisel is the author of 40+ works of fiction and nonfiction. He is widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach and leads training and workshops nationally and internationally. Learn more about Dr. Maisel’s books, individual services, trainings and workshops at http://www.ericmaisel.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org