Well, it's that time again; you know, for reflection (and "self-reflection"). As one year comes to a close and a new year gets ready to begin, I propose that each of us view this time period as an opportunity to reflect upon what really matters in life--in our life, in the lives of others, and in the world at large. To get you started, I've done some reflecting on what I call "Our Crisis of Meaning" (Remember, this is a meaning-centered blog!). Before I begin, let me underscore that within the Chinese symbol for the English word, "crisis," lies the very essence of "opportunity." Please keep this underlying meaning in mind as you read my "reflections" below."
Some 50 years ago, Viktor Frankl called attention to three major societal ills: aggression, addiction, and depression. He termed these problems the “mass neurotic triad," a kind of psychological axis of evil. Significantly, this triad comprised more than targets for psychiatric intervention (the views of Tom Cruise and Scientology notwithstanding). The mass neurotic triad was symptomatic of a contemporary world that was missing something; indeed, something vitally important to the nature of human existence itself. To Dr. Frankl, the problems of aggression, addiction, and depression could be traced, in large part, to an “existential vacuum” or perception that one’s life, including one’s work life, appeared to be meaningless. He observed that the existential vacuum was a widespread phenomenon of the 20th century and underscored that these conditions were not truly understandable, let alone “treatable,” unless the existential vacuum underlying them was recognized.
If Viktor Frankl were alive today, I’m sure that he would still be concerned about this mass neurotic triad. In fact, he would probably argue that the problems of aggression, addiction, and depression are worse than when he first wrote about them after World War II.
For example, when it comes to aggression, we see it manifest itself in ways that Dr. Frankl may not even recognize. Besides overt aggressive behaviors, like road rage, air rage, and “desk” rage (e.g., work stress that leads people to engage in counterproductive workplace behaviors that costs employers billions of dollars in lost productivity, insurance payments, and increased security), postmodern society also must confront increasing levels of relationally aggressive behaviors (e.g., recent research evidence suggests that aggressive children in school are perceived as being more “popular” than meeker students). And these illustrations of aggression say nothing about the “shock and awe” mentality that plagues societies on an international scale with wars and rumors of wars.
Insofar as addiction and addictive behaviors are concerned, the situation, I would argue, is very similar. And we’re not just talking about the alarming increases in substance abuse, of both the “legal” and illegal varieties, that concern our modern age. The new millennium has brought us new kinds of addictive behaviors, such as those associated with shopping, telecommunications and the Internet, along with new forms of work (“workaholic”), gambling (“day-trading”), and sexual addictions. Indeed, there is no person left behind when it comes to the powerful reach of the addictive mind.
And to close the loop on the mass neurotic triad, it is a simple fact that depression is occurring more often and at earlier stages than in decades past; that is, when Dr. Frankl first called our attention to this phenomenon. Indeed, the statistics are staggering: about 16 percent of adults will experience depression at some point in their life; about 97 percent of those reporting depression also reported that their work, home life and relationships suffered as a result; women are twice as likely to experience depression as men; depression is the leading cause of disability in women; one in seven men will develop depression within 6 months of becoming unemployed; and so on. Once again, these statistics point primarily to the manifestations and effects of depression on individuals; they don’t even begin to describe the fall-out that comes “naturally” with depression at the family, community, and nation-state levels. Indeed, the implications of depression on such a macro-level can be, and usually are, profound.
The persistence of the mass neurotic triad in the 21st century suggests, as I mentioned earlier, that we are facing a “crisis of meaning” that will not go away on its own, nor will it disappear solely through the pursuit of power (i.e., a correlate of aggression) or pleasure (i.e., a correlate of addiction). But where there is a crisis, there is also opportunity. Hence, a crisis of meaning is also a call for meaning--in our personal lives, in our work, and even in our public policies. And in the midst of the personal and collective suffering that surrounds us, there is hope for a better, more meaning-full future for all.
And, ultimately, as Frankl would say, it is meaning that sustains us throughout our lives no matter how little or how much power and pleasure come our way. It is meaning that can help us address the problems of aggression, addiction, and depression. It is meaning that will sustain us as we face the challenges of everyday life in our relationships, at work, and with society as a whole. However, it is up to each and every one of us to find this deeper meaning in order to reach the levels of human evolution and enlightenment that still await us.
I welcome your thoughts on this issue!
All the best,
Alex Pattakos, Ph.D.
author, Prisoners of Our Thoughts
founder, Center for Meaning
NEW EDITION: Prisoners of Our Thoughts
New edition of Prisoners of Our Thoughts in paperback, Audiobook CD, and digital download formats! Prisoners of Our Thoughts applies Viktor Frankl's philosophy and therapeutic approach to life and work in the 21st century, detailing seven principles for increasing your capacity to deal with life-work challenges, finding meaning in your daily life and work, and achieving your highest potential. Among other changes, this new edition includes a new chapter on how readers of the hardcover edition have put the seven meaning-centered principles into action, both in their everyday lives and even in extreme situations such as in Indonesia after the tsunami (where several aid agencies adopted the book as part of their training and relief programs) and in post-Katrina New Orleans.