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Brian Ostafin: can life meaning help to manage unhealthy thoughts and emotions?

Can life meaning help to manage unhealthy thoughts and emotions?

When we consider the raw experience of our minds, we are likely to notice a lot of desire. Babies want milk. Children want to play. Adults want to meet their lovers. We are, in large part, ‘wanting machines’. Sometimes, these desires are important to us. As the philosopher Harry Frankfurt puts it, we ‘want to want’ some of our motivations. These are the things that we care about and that give us life meaning. In contrast, other contents of the mind can feel like alien intruders. These are the things we do not want and that give us problems in life. Psychological disorders involve such unwelcome feelings, thoughts and desires. We can suffer from an obsessional focus on using alcohol or drugs in addiction, on trauma-related memories in cases of anxiety, and on thoughts about body shape or weight in eating disorders.

Brian Ostafin

The question of what we should care about – that is, how to create a meaningful life – is as old as the ancient religious and philosophical ideas that human flourishing requires commitment to significant values and goals. More recently, psychologists have begun to examine whether life meaning has clinical benefits. Our research explores the idea that striving for the values that give life meaning can help people to overcome the compulsive pull of unhealthy thoughts and emotions.

In one study with participants who regularly consumed alcohol, we examined whether a brief ‘life meaning intervention’ would reduce the extent to which alcohol-related stimuli automatically grab attention. Attentional bias was measured with the alcohol Stroop task, in which participants see alcohol-related or neutral words presented one at a time and printed in different colours such as red, blue and green. Participants are instructed to quickly identify the colour of the word.

Attentional bias towards alcohol is inferred by the extent to which alcohol- related (vs. neutral) words interfere with naming the colour in which the words are printed. The results showed that compared to a control group, participants who thought about and committed to pursuing intrinsically- valued goals were better able to overcome attentional bias towards alcohol as measured by fewer errors in naming the colour of alcohol-related (vs. neutral) words. Other research in our group has shown that giving a brief ‘life meaning intervention’ protects against intrusive anxiety-related thoughts. In this research, participants viewed a very unpleasant film and were then assigned to a ‘life meaning intervention’ group or to a control group. Later in the study, participants of the meaning intervention’ reported they had less ruminative thinking about the film that they had watched. These studies suggest that life meaning can help to shield the individual from intrusive thoughts and motivations that play a role in psychological disorders. We are currently expanding this work in a PhD project that examines whether life meaning is promising as an intervention for eating disorders.

Although life may be full of unwanted feelings, thoughts and motivations, findings such as the ones above suggest the truth of Nietzsche’s idea that “He who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how’”.

B.D. (Brian) Ostafin, Dr
First name
Addiction; awe; implicit measures of attention and association; meaning in life; mindfulness
Last modified:30 March 2023 11.47 a.m.
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