The Happier You

Existential Therapy: Happiness Amidst Pain

Posted Apr 03, 2016

Source: Photo: iStock

A Definition:

Happiness is part of the human condition, but so much gets in the way.

  • That is another part of the human condition.

Spiritual/Existential Therapy is a treatment approach that embraces takes the nature of the human condition.

We are all on this planet for only a short time - perhaps three score and ten, perhaps more, perhaps less. Yes, death and pain are a part of life, but how we frame it can make a huge difference.

A frank engagement of meaning in one’s life can prove to be deeply liberating. Thinkers who have contributed to this psychotherapeutic approach include Victor Frankl, Eric Fromm, Ernst Becker, Carl Jung, Irv Yalom, James Hollis, Seymour and Sylvia Boorstein and Jeffrey Rubin among others.

Meaning, Pain and Happiness:

Spiritual/Existential Therapy is a fusion of contemporary psychotherapy with more time worn traditions found in traditional religious literature. The Christian “dark night of the soul,” the Jewish Mussar Movement and the Buddhist approach to attachment are a few examples in religious practice.

Spiritual/Existential treatment does not promote a particular spiritual solution to psychiatric disorders, but rather address psychological defenses and pathology from the standpoint of their meaning (or lack thereof) – with openness to the unknown

When we frame life's pain in a tapestry of meaning, our struggles become lighter.

Bio-Psycho-Social Meets Spirit:

While modern psychiatry, with its bio-psycho-social model, still holds great value in Spiritual/Existential Therapy, it is not the exclusive narrative of human suffering and recovery. Indeed, we are biological organisms with a genetic endowment that is our biological interface with the world. We are psychological creatures; the product of parenting and trauma – for the good and for the bad – which influences how we psychologically negotiate the world. 

We are also social beings, born into communities, cultures and even epochs that color our experience of the world. Spiritual/Existential therapy takes another influence into account. It is a treatment - both ancient and modern – that is interested in “the soul,” “meaning,”  “purpose” and sometimes “mystery.”

How Treatment Works:

Treatment with a Spiritual/Existential therapist may be quite traditional. 

  • For instance, cognitive therapy may be required for a depressive disorder that has proved to interfere with daily functioning. 
  • Guided imagery may be useful for a patient in a life transition (work, marriage, divorce, midlife or illness) who might benefit from discovering the power of her imagination.
  • Like traditional psychoanalytic work, a careful examination of the patient’s family of origin utilizing good history taking, ‘here and now’ analysis and transference interpretation can all be helpful therapeutic tools in this work.
  • Trauma work, whether EMDR or mindfulness training can be used to soften hurtful memories and encoded fight/flight responses.
  • And, medicine can sometimes help restore equilibrium. Once there, a patient still will be examining core sources of meaning in their life on this planet.

The "Meaning: Cure:

Spiritual/Existential Therapy will, however, also take a strong look at the nature of meaning for the patient – meaning that often has its origins in childhood. What – this approach might ask – are the narratives of meaning that the patient had at home or in her religious life and do they work anymore? As an existential treatment, the patient is challenged to create an “edge” of growth and take some risks outside the confines of the treatment room. 

  • Time (our lives) is short and as a consequence, the task of finding one’s way carries some urgency.

The patient may be encouraged to read, meet or experience the vitality of other traditions and narratives or she may develop a spiritual practice from within her own religious tradition. Some patients reject traditional religious traditions altogether and find meaning–for example– in service, self care, the physical body or writing.

Often a patient will take on a teacher in order to increase her insight into spiritual matters which, in turn, becomes material for therapeutic dialogue. How this is done, without unduly influencing the patient to live out a narrative constructed by the therapist is the stuff of therapy.


  • The Existential approach to an Existential/ Spiritual Therapy requires some urgency and attention in the here and now of the patient’s life. 
  • The Spiritual approach to Existential/Spiritual Psychotherapy opens the patient and therapist towards a mystery that is well worth pursuing.

When done well, salient narratives of meaning – from childhood to the present –are exposed in order to find newer and more appropriate ones. To use a useful metaphor – any gardener worth her salt knows that the ground is only fertile when you turn the earth, otherwise it will lose its vitality.

So it is with human beings. 

Life becomes richer when we confront our precious time here on earth – and turn the ground a bit – with an eye toward spiritual development and, perhaps, an appreciation of the mystery that is all around us.

Appreciation is a kind of happiness. And, its a happiness that can last.


Research Assistant, Gabriel Banschick

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