The Importance of Finding Meaning in Life: An Existential Crisis

Life is all about love.

“What’s it all about Alfie?”

Dionne Warwick

“As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above

Alfie, I know there’s something much more

Something even non-believers can believe in

I believe in love, Alfie

Without true love, we just exist, Alfie

Until you find the love you’ve missed

You’re nothing, Alfie.”

What is life all about? It’s all about love. This popular song from 1966 expresses it all. In his searing book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl has this realization when he is a prisoner in Auschwitz during WW II. During one of the daily marches in the freezing cold during the early morning hours, it comes to him.

The song refers to romantic love, but I believe there is more to it than that. It is also important to love life, family, neighbors, and fellow human beings. But, do we love our lives and fellow people? 

Besides the dreadful Pandemic, there is an epidemic of mass shootings in the United States. Why is this happening? The answer to this question is complicated. In part, the answer lies in how we raise our children. There is also the problem of poverty and racism in the United States. Then there is the easy availability of guns to everyone because of the lack of gun control. Finally, we have to ask if people find any meaning in their lives.

People feel alienated and disconnected. The great 19th-century sociologist Emile Durkheim called the feeling of meaninglessness “Anomie. This term refers to a society losing its norms and values. What develops from this lack of norms is a disregard and violation of the law. Ethics and standards of behavior and belief disappear.

Anomie is connected to existentialism, in which people feel lost because they believe their lives are meaningless. The famous existentialist writer, Albert Camus, wrote a novel existentialist novel called “The Stranger.” In the opening scene, the main character states, “Today his mother died…or was it yesterday…I don’t know.” How could he not know? Because his life and that of others have no meaning. He is in the state of Anomie. Later in the book, he shoots an Arab man and is brought to trial. The prosecuting attorneys are more concerned that he does not cry than about the death of the murdered man. Again, the reason for this is that life has no meaning.

Thought about this way, there should be no surprise that mass shootings and violent crimes exist. For many people in this modern world, life has lost any meaning.

This does not mean that everything is hopeless. Positive Psychology teaches us that people can build meaningfulness into their lives. An excellent psychology website devoted to positive psychology is “Greater Good.” “Greater Good” explores the “science of a meaningful life.” What they do is publish the latest findings regarding a meaningful life. For instance, one research report found that compassion and kindness help build an inner sense of morality and a moral self-concept. Basically, kindness, generosity, and compassion make us happy. Included in this is gratitude because it helps build stronger relationships.

Children must be trained to show these positive characteristics and behaviors. In this way, children need to learn cooperation and service to less fortunate people.

The central concept is vitally important for building relationships with others and society. This connectedness could overcome Anomie.

Human beings are the only beings who can question their own lives. The most extensive quest in an individual’s life is to find meaning and purpose. The questions about the meaning of human life are as old as humanity itself.

Meanings are at the core of our experience and also at the core of whatever we do. It is only through meanings that we make sense of our existence. In life, we find meaning through a sense of purpose which makes life worthwhile. Viktor Frankl (1978) aptly pointed out that a firm sense of meaning is essential for optimal human development. Jerome Bruner (1990) put it more bluntly, noting that without meaning systems, “we would be lost in the murk of chaotic experience and probably would not have survived as a species” (p. 56).

Meaning in life is not just a theoretical construct. Still, it bears human health and well-being (e.g., Jung, as cited in Jaffe, 1970) asserted that the absence of meaning is related to psychopathology.

  Yalom (1980), in empirical research, confirmed earlier clinical observations that living without meaning, goals, or values provokes considerable distress (Yalom 1980).

While pondering what makes life meaningful, several perspectives in the literature are found that cover philosophy and existential psychology. To plan a single definition of meaning, one may ask what the essence of meaning is? But a single generic answer to this question is not possible to find. The meaning of life differs from person to person, from day to day, and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning the specific meaning of a person’s life at the moment (Frankl, 1970). Frankl speaks of the uniqueness of meanings, a quality of a situation, and life since life is a string of unique situations (Frankl, 1970). Frankl postulated that man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives (Frankl, 1970).

Meaningfulness serves several vital functions in human lives (Frankl, 1992). It provides a purpose for our lives. Then it furnishes values or standards by which to judge our actions. In addition, it gives us a sense of control over the events in our life. Last, it provides us with self-worth. When people cannot find meaning for any of these functions or lose or outgrow their once-loved meanings, they become distressed. Many emotional problems result from a failure to find meaning in life. They can be resolved only by finding something to make life worth living (Frankl, 1992).

Do You Wish Your Life Away?

Do You Wish Your Life Away?

“To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living

The other day, I went into a local luncheon restaurant and ordered a cup of coffee and a toasted bagel with cream cheese. The young server smiled pleasantly and said, “Ooooh, I get happier as the time gets closer to 1:00 PM.” I was tempted to get into a short conversation with her about this but quickly surmised that she would react as though I was preaching to her, and I did not want that. However, this little interaction gave me pause for some thinking. After all, I asked myself, how often do all of us engage in the same thinking style as the young woman?

Aren’t we all guilty of wishing our lives away without thinking about it? At work, we watch the clock. We count the months and days until vacation. We hurry to wash the dishes so we can see our favorite television program. Once we reach retirement age, we convince ourselves that real life will begin.

Of course, the reverse of this also happens. How often do we engage in feelings and thoughts of self-pity about the past? How often do we make such statements as, “if only I had done this or that,” or, “If only I this event or that event had not happened,” or, “life has never been fair to me.” We “cry over spilled milk.”

The intent is not to be dark and cynical here. Quite to the contrary, my intent is to communicate the concept of embracing and living life to the fullest. That life is fragile because we never really know what may happen. It is essential to be living in the present moment. This way of thinking is a severe problem because none of us can guarantee that tomorrow will come, and we cannot change the past. Yes, each of us has our past lives, and each of us makes plans for tomorrow, next month, and next year. However, we overlook it now.

The great Buddhist teacher and expert on mindfulness and meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh, expressed it best when he stressed the importance of focusing on this moment because we will never have it again once this moment is gone. Another teacher is our American, John Kabbat-Zinn. I highly recommend his many books for their simplicity and great wisdom about living our lives. Just do an Internet search for him.

One of the most self-destructive ways for us to destroy now is to be obsessed with work. This is also referred to as a “Type A Personality” who runs from task to task, never coming up from work to inhale and smell the fresh air. It is a heart attack to awaken these people if they are lucky enough to survive.

Are you mindful of your life and body? Do you take time to smell the roses? Do you live in the moment or dwell on the past while waiting for tomorrow? 

Perhaps it is time for all of us to practice mindful meditation.

 

Catastrophic Thinking, Of Making Mountains out of Molehills

Do you make mountains out of molehills? This is a more severe issue that may appear on the surface. Whenever anyone spilled anything on the tablecloth, even just a glass of water, my grandmother would become furious when I was a boy. She was not unusual for having that reaction. Sometimes, the littlest things make people angry. One way of thinking about this concept is to realize that some of us turn the most minor incidents into catastrophes. Statistics show that altercations over trivial issues sometimes result in homicide.

To a certain extent, the tendency to make mountains out of molehills has to do with worrying and obsessive thinking. Because of the watch or clock not being precisely set on time, people with OCD become exceedingly uncomfortable, worrying about potentially terrible consequences. For those with OCD, everything must be perfect, or there can be catastrophic consequences. These people live in a world of “what if,” meaning what if the clock is set wrong, and my children get up late for school, and a terrible car accident occurs on the way to school.

This way of thinking and living makes life unbearable for those who worry and the loved ones who surround them. Graham C.L. Davey, Ph.D., conducted a piece of research on why we worry? Interviews of chronic worriers were conducted using questions such as “why worry about getting good grades in school?

*Here are some of the catastrophic consequences that chronic worriers came up with:

“I won’t live up to my expectations

I’d be disappointed in myself.                                           

I’d lose my self-confidence.                                                

My loss of self-confidence would spread to other areas of my life.       

I wouldn’t have as much control as I’d like.                     

I’d be afraid of facing the unknown.                                

I’d become very anxious.                                                   

Anxiety would lead to further loss of self-confidence.    

I wouldn’t get my confidence back.                                  

I’d feel like 1 wouldn’t control my life.    

I’d be susceptible to things that wouldn’t bother me.  

I’d become more and more anxious.                                

I’d have no control, and I’d become mentally ill.    

I’d become dependent on drugs and therapy.                

I’d always remain dependent on drugs.                          

They’d deteriorate my body.                                             

I’d be in pain.                                                                      

I’d die.                                                                                  

I’d end up in hell.”

* From Graham C.L. Davey, Ph.D. 

Another theory states that people men make mountains out of molehills when they feel aggressive and competitive. Aggressive reactions have to do with competing for status. Two men compete for the status of one over the other. In this primitive way of thinking, the most aggressive wins the girl. That is why, as stated above, some arguments over trivial things result in homicide.

Whatever way you choose to look at this, making mountains out of molehills results in frustration and misery for all concerned. It’s better the let these things go. What my grandmother should have done was smile and clean up the spill. Perhaps, if this had been her approach to life, she would not have had a heart condition. It was just an accident.

Instead of exploding, take deep breaths, say a mantra by reminding yourself, “it’s not worth it,” and see the humor in the situation.

Contact Dr. Schwartz at dransphd@aol.com

Aging and Loneliness, A Deadly Combination

“One is the loneliest number”

“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made. Our times are in his hand who saith, ‘A whole I planned, youth shows but half; Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”

Robert Browning

“One is the loneliness number that you will ever do.”

*The Beatles’ version is my favorite.

Aging and Socializing, An Important Connection

Two studies came to the same conclusion: as we age, socializing helps keep our minds sharp and, perhaps, even prevents dementia.

Study 1:

The first study was conducted by Dr. Karen Ertel, a post-doctoral fellow at this writing, at the Department of Society, Human Development and Health at the Harvard School of Public Health. Her team found that those socially integrated (socially active) had less than half the memory decline of those who were socially isolated.

Dr. Ertel’s team collected data from 17,000 Americans who were fifty years older. The subjects were studied for over six years.

Social activity included being involved in volunteer activities, interacting with neighbors and friends, and seeing children, grandchildren, and other family members. Interestingly, those who maintained social involvement also exercised, engaged in intellectual activities such as reading, and were careful about their diets.

Unfortunately, the death of a spouse presents older people with the risk of suffering and grief so much that they withdraw and become depressed. Widows and widowers gradually recover from the losses they suffered. Their ability to resume active lives depends upon the availability of a community to be involved with.

Study 2:

The second study was conducted by Dr. Valerie Crooks, director of clinical trials at the Southern California Permanente Medical Group.

This study focused on women at least 78 years of age who were free of dementia. The subjects were studied from 2001 through 2005 and included 456 women and their social networks.

The findings were that those women with the most robust social networks were less likely to develop symptoms of dementia over the five years of the research.

The strength of social networks included such criteria as to how frequently the subject contacted friends and family, how often they confided in a friend or friends, and whether they had the type of friends that could be confidants.

Discussion:

Both studies clarify that remaining involved helps people maintain physical and mental health. In addition, social isolation has adverse effects on physical and mental health as we age.

Not Only Age:

Some state and restated by mental health practitioners and researchers that social isolation is unhealthy for people of all ages. The research shows that isolation is closely associated with feelings of depression. Of course, the question is whether depression causes isolation or isolation causes depression? It is tempting to suggest that it does not matter because helping people to socialize, regardless of their stage of life, goes a long way toward reducing depression.

We are social creatures and feel better when involved with other human beings. 

1. For the elderly, it is essential to remain socially involved to reduce the chances of developing either dementia or depression.

2. For younger people, it is equally important to have a circle of friends with whom they can talk, have fun, and engage in productive activities.

Health and Education: It’s Heart Breaking to Not Finish Your Education

During the past twenty or more years, I have listened to the complaints of high school students, their families, and the public. The same complaint: “Why do we need a liberal arts education?” The question goes much further than a liberal arts education because it states that children should learn a trade. 

Recent events at one university in Colorado included eliminating language, arts, and other liberal arts classes. 

Research studies conducted during the last twenty or more years consistently show the same results. There is a direct connection between the level of education and heart disease. The lower the level of education, the higher the risk for cardiovascular disease and death. Regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, or nation, these results.

From the American Heart Association, 2019.

Education level may predict the risk of dying for people with heart disease.

By American Heart Association News

“How long people stay in school may play a significant role in predicting how well those with coronary heart disease will fare.

Education level has influenced people’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease. The new study examines just how much of a factor it plays among people with established coronary artery disease due to a buildup of cholesterol and fatty plaque deposits in the heart’s arteries.

Researchers looked at 6,318 older adults in three Atlanta-based hospitals who underwent a procedure to diagnose and assess problems in coronary arteries. Each person completed questions about the highest level of education completed. Other demographic details and medical history followed for four years.

Among the study’s participants, 16% had received a graduate degree, 42% had finished college, 38% had completed high school, and 4% had completed elementary or middle school.

Researchers found that compared to people with graduate degrees, those with lower educational attainment appeared to have a higher risk of heart attack, dying from a cardiovascular event, and overall death.

People with elementary or middle school education had a 52% higher risk of dying from any cause during the study than someone who attained a graduate degree. People who completed high school had a 43% increased risk. College graduates had a 26% higher risk than people with graduate degrees.

The higher risk remained even after adjusting for traditional cardiovascular risk factors like diabetes, high blood pressure and tobacco use, and other demographic characteristics, including sex and income level.

“We adjusted for everything that would be a risk determinant, and despite all that, just the educational level was an independent predictor of outcome,” said the study’s senior author, Dr. Arshed Quyyumi, a cardiology professor at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

“What’s striking is how important the role of education is,” he said. “Most of us practitioners, we don’t ask patients for their educational level when we’re seeing them – and we don’t take any added precautions when you find that somebody may not be as well educated as another person.”

The findings were presented Tuesday at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Paris and published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Quyyumi said the results show a need for increased awareness among physicians to be more vigilant about following through with heart patients to make sure they’re taking medicine and making recommended lifestyle changes to lower risk. It also shows the link between a person’s health and social determinants, factors that influence where and how people live, learn, work and play.

Social determinants of health represent “a phenomenon outside of biology and genetics, outside of traditional risk factors,” said Dr. Clyde Yancy, professor and cardiology chief at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.”

Multiple studies done worldwide consistently show the same results.

The message is clear. Get an education! 

Help is Available. Contact Dr. Schwartz at dransphd@aol.com

http://www.allanschwartztherapy.net

Guess, What? Cursing Can be Good for Your Health

Cursing when it’s painful

http://www.psychotherapy.netThe other day, I caught my finger as I closed the top of my Nespresso machine to make a cup of coffee. Spontaneously and without thought, I shouted out several curse words. I was shocked that I caught my finger, and it hurt. I felt like a clumsy fool for being so clumsy and called myself an idiot. Then I smiled and felt a lot better.

Recently, a female psychotherapy client sat in front of me very abashed. When I asked why she looked upset, she hesitatingly described a painful procedure at the Doctor’s office. She let out a curse word when the procedure became excruciatingly painful. She blushed and felt ashamed of herself. Both Doctor and nurse assured her they were accustomed to patients cursing when undergoing the procedure.

When we are the smallest of children, most of us learn from our parents that curse words are wrong and we must never use them. These teachings are correct. All of us know it is socially inappropriate to express ourselves in ways considered being insulting and in bad taste. 

Recent research informs us that there are exceptions to the rules regarding swear words. A recent article put it this way:

Using swear words can have a wide range of positive effects on your well-being, including pain relief and helping you cope with emotionally challenging situations. 

  • Studies show cursing during a physically painful event can help us better tolerate the pain.
  • Experts say using curse words can also help us build emotional resilience and cope with situations in which we feel that we have no control.
  • Swearing can also provide a range of other benefits, including creative expression, relationship development, or allowing different identities to harmonize by signaling that you feel relaxed around the other person.

We’ve all had plenty of reasons to want to shout the “f word” during the last two years. Living in a pandemic has given us all cause to express our frustrations, whether from the ongoing confusing restrictions to the fear of what may happen if you contract the coronavirus.

It is essential the keep in mind some caveats about cursing. The same research shows the benefits of swearing did not occur in people who admitted to daily swearing as part of their lifestyle. 

Every rule has exceptions. In this context, cursing among friends, especially men, is a way to express warmth, acceptance, and closeness.

Used appropriately and responsibly, outbursts of cursing, cussing, and swearing are an excellent way to handle the complexity of being human in a world that is not under our control.

Swearing can liberate when feeling bottled up with frustration. Curse words can have a calming effect on the complex emotions we are experiencing.