Existential Psychology


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“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
– Frederick Nietzsche

Why is it that in the face of bad circumstances some sink into despair or even commit suicide while others rise above or at least face their situations bravely? Viktor Frankl used a compelling equation to explain this phenomenon, which was:

D = S – M or Despair = Suffering Without Meaning

So just like Nietzsche, Frankl recognized that objective conditions were less important in determining resilience than the human capacity to instill these conditions with meaning, to discover the why. In this sense we can see the psychological pull of attributing everything that happens to a benevolent, all-powerful God. Those who believe that their God has a definite plan for them have a ready made source of meaning around all the events in their lives, which comes in handy when these events are tragic.

Suffering can of course come in many forms, physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, but regardless of the form it takes it becomes tolerable when a reason for it can be found while it remains intolerable when a reason can’t be found.

We see then why most strategies designed to help people who are suffering fail. These strategies are tailored around trying to tackle suffering directly, to convince people things aren’t as bad as they believe, for example. But suffering needs to be tackled indirectly by helping them discover their personal meaning, their why.

Obviously we’re not saying that the reduction of suffering is a bad thing, any time suffering can be reduced it should be reduced, but the problem is that the human condition is intrinsically tragic. There are many events over the course of life where reducing suffering is impossible or where trying to reduce it would actually cheapen that which makes us human, like with the loss of a loved one.

When push comes to shove suffering or the lack of suffering is not the problem, meaning or the lack of meaning is the problem. Without meaning suffering seems pointless and the result is despair, with meaning suffering has a point and the result is resilience.