Meaning and Purpose in Life: Commonplace or Hard to Come By?

This article was originally published at the Huffington Post on 12/31/2014.

In all cultures and at all times, humans have sought to make sense of their existence. Man's search for meaning is a quest as ancient as the dawn of human consciousness.

For at least 100,000 years, humans have buried the dead with rituals and with artifacts, apparently believing that life involves something more than just running from the lion, hunting, gathering, and mating.
It is well established that a sense of purpose is necessary for psychological health, and in turn, for human adaptation and survival. If life did not seem worth it, our ancestors may have given up on running from the lion. If depressed, they may have been less enthusiastic about mating.
Human evolution depends on our motivation and our will to survive, our feeling that life always remains worth the effort.
In the September edition of the American Psychologist ("Life is Pretty Meaningful"), Samantha J. Heintzelman and Laura A. King took note of a uniquely obvious and easily overlooked paradox in how we characterize meaning in life: "It is portrayed simultaneously as a necessity and as something that is next to impossible to attain."
The consistent finding from studies measuring the experience of meaningfulness is that most people say that their lives have meaning and purpose. It is not an experience in short supply.
Anything necessary for survival has to be abundant in nature. A trout needs more than just a bucket of water.
While it is an ordinary part of the human experience, we tend to view meaning as a rare commodity. We approach it as "a construct and experience shrouded in mystery" and readily accept that it must be "chronically lacking in people's lives."
The existentialists have told us that life is absurd and that individuals must create meaning for themselves. The alternative, as commonly depicted, is to journey to a mountaintop to ask a hermit-guru: "What is the meaning of life?"
If that is what it takes, the answer must involve knowledge scarce and precious, and something more than just happiness and satisfaction.
The research shows that "social exclusion reliably leads to lower ratings on meaningful existence" and that social connections enhance the experience. If being accepted by a tribe is all it takes to heighten the emotion, a sense of meaningfulness must not be hard to come by.
A positive mood is also an influence. Individuals who are untroubled will rate their sense of meaning higher. Whatever else a purposeful life may involve, people who are satisfied and content are not likely to feel they are missing anything.
In one experiment, subjects were shown pictures of trees and asked to judge the color contrast. When the trees were shown in the order of the changing seasons, subjects later scored higher on the Meaning in Life Questionnaire.
As Heintzelman and King pointed out, "we live in a world that generally is characterized by natural regularity" and our experience is enhanced by "the presence of reliable patterns or coherence in the environment."
In a world of seasons, sunrises and sunsets, we construct an orderly existence with everyday routines and daily rituals. In that context, it is reasonable to expect people to feel that their existence is in harmony with the natural order.
Because it is essential to our health, we are continuously motivated to seek the experience of purpose and meaning. It is like food, an everyday desire. Like sex, it is not a longing that can be satisfied in a "once and for all" way.
When our ordinary needs are satisfied, we tend to seek more. It is in our nature to search out ultimate pleasures and exquisite flavors. Some people find the next level of meaning in religious enlightenment or ecstasy. Others reach for self-awareness, personal fulfillment or self-actualization. Some people turn inward, others reach out.
The quest for a higher purpose and a greater meaning (the "Holy Grail") is sometimes difficult and it has no end point. Still, it is not a hopeless journey. According to the research, most people easily find meaning, all along the way.Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.

Pouring Salt on the Wound: Psychologists Identify the Effects of 'Institutional Betrayal'

This article was originally published at the Huffington Post on 10/03/2014.

Women exposed to sexual assault in the military suffer more trauma-related symptoms than female veterans sexually assaulted in civilian life. Children abused only in residential care settings are more likely to have difficulties as adults than children who were abused only at home.
Those are the findings from two studies that have helped define the role of "institutional betrayal" in the experience of traumatic stress.
Summarizing the literature in the September edition of the American Psychologist(the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association), Carly Parnitze Smith and Jennifer J. Freyd state conclusively that institutional attitudes, priorities and behaviors significantly influence the development of post-traumatic distress.
To illustrate their point, Smith and Freyd tell the story of Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year-old student who committed suicide 10 days after reporting that she had been sexually assaulted by another student. It was not the alleged rape that caused her despair. It was the response from the university and the community that let her down.
In their research with trauma victims (mostly sexual assault), the authors measured the occurrence of betrayal events and found a consistent association with trauma-related outcomes and symptoms of greater severity.
Institutional betrayal can involve acts of both omission and commission. Retaliation is the most obvious act of commission. A person complains and suddenly the organization turns hostile.
Passive forms of betrayal include institutional tolerance for bad acts, investigations lacking transparency, untimely complaint resolution, inadequate or inconsistent sanctions, and other forms of effective indifference. Filing a complaint carries the risk that you will be doubted, blamed, refused help and denied protection. People take that risk because they trust the institution to "fix it and make it right."
In closed systems (e.g., in universities, the military, churches, corporations, prisons and the NFL), that too often does not occur.
Betrayal can involve acting badly or not acting at all, and it can also vary in terms of whether it is "apparently isolated" or "apparently systemic."
Ambiguity arises when incidents are perceived as solitary, isolated events, "out of character" for a member of the institution. It becomes the football player (or coach) against the coed, the complaint dismissed under the rubric of "it's a he-said she-said." In the case of Lizzy Seeberg, the football player was not questioned until weeks later. From her perspective, it was a case of "she-said-and-nobody-listened."
Institutional betrayal is potent because it represents a profound and fundamental violation of trust in a necessary dependency relationship. In that sense, it is similar to abuse in close relationships - it can be more harmful than abuse by a stranger. The breach of trust, the unreciprocated loyalty, and the exposure to retaliation are like a knife in the back.
Bound to an institution by enlistment, enrollment or employment, victims remain vulnerable while they cope. The coping most typically involves repression and denial, and other anxiety-based disturbances in awareness and memory. According to Smith and Freyd, these adaptive strategies "allow for the maintenance of necessary relationships (even abusive ones) in a way that supports attachment behaviors."
People are attached and dependent on the organization. They may not want to quit their job, quit school, leave the church or go AWOL. This is especially true when the affiliation is an essential element of the individual's identity. You are no longer a professor or a student if you leave the university and no longer a soldier if you choose discharge.
Betrayal events are more likely to occur in institutions of a common character.
The risk features involve power, privilege and prestige, the value placed on group membership, the prioritization of group loyalty, the impulse to protect an image, and an institutional sense of righteousness and entitlement. Penn State is given as an example -- the impulse was to protect the predator to preserve power and prestige.
Families holding incest and abuse secrets are of a relatively similar character. In both cases, blame and recrimination is commonly directed at the abuse victim, the person who disrupted the system.
Anthropologist Janice Harper has observed similar retaliation dynamics in both modern workplaces and indigenous tribal cultures. To describe how groups betray those who complain, Harper uses the terms shunning, shaming and mobbing.
Institutional betrayal is a term for a persistent and pervasive factor in the abuse-trauma-distress equation and the process of secondary victimization. Too often, instead of choosing to make things right, institutions react by pouring salt on the wounds and adding insult to injury.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.


Rock star professor or memory magician? Perhaps you recall.

This is a slightly longer version of an article originally published at the Huffington Post ... the last four paragraphs were cut by the editor. I think this version has a better ending.

The submission to HuffPo was invited - it was to provide accompaniment for a HuffPost TED Weekend video featuring Loftus ("Why Your Memories Can't Be Trusted").

Elizabeth Loftus spoke at a forensic mental health conference in Monterey last year.  

I walked in, saw two “early career” colleagues in the front row seats I coveted, and asked, “Are you here for Loftus?”

They both nodded eagerly.  

I said, “So, you must know she’s a rock star.”  

They both nodded eagerly again.  

In fact, Professor Loftus is like a rock star among psychologists:  great teacher, renowned mentor, brilliant scientist, and in the real world outside academia (where I work), she is a most distinguished professional. That is all well-known and is really no more surprising than finding out that Mick Jagger also plays the piano.  It takes more than that to be admired among scholars, and magic helps.

Loftus (et al) produces research that is elegant and compelling. It evokes a sense of the uncanny, like magic instead of science.  She could actually start that way, saying: “what you are about to witness are some of psychology’s most challenging and foundational concepts in action.” 

The magic part is in the method.  Before the method comes the question: is it a question that can be answered?  For Loftus, the answer goes like this:  we encountered a question that seemed impossible to answer, “so I designed a study …”.  

If I am asked why the sky is blue, I might say “how do you know the sky is blue?” 

You can get punched for responding to a question that way, but as a scholar, I am allowed to make the epistemological inquiry. 

Epistemology asks:  “how do you know what you know?”  

Professor Loftus did get punched (not literally, it was worse) after forcing people to ask that question of themselves. She also provided some answers:  some of what you know may not be true;  just because you remember something doesn’t mean it happened; memories are constructed and created from dynamic (not fixed) associations.  And by the way, I can mess with your mind like you wouldn’t believe.  

Loftus focuses on memory, but the entire perceptual system is the same: what you see isn’t necessarily real.  The sensory information flow to your brain is constant, and all that information must be processed.  The system decides what to store and what to ignore.  If something turns up missing, it just fills in the blanks.  When we are agitated or upset, the process gets messy. The constant threat is sensory overload - too much information (TMI) and you’re toast.  

It is one thing to talk about how our minds can fool us.   An adult remembers going to Disneyland as a child for a picture with Bugs Bunny? No problem.

It is different when you see how our minds can fail us.  What the false memory experiments show us is that reality testing is ordinarily and quite naturally subject to error.  For the sake of her critics, it would have been better if Loftus had explained it the way John Lennon did in Strawyberry Fields Forever: nothing is real … nothing to get hung about.

Loftus correctly notes that your memory is your identity.  If you lose your memory, you’ve lost your mind.  It is a frightening experience. 

It is equally frightening to find that you cannot trust your perception of the world around you.  In evolutionary terms, you may be good at getting food and having sex, but if you don’t know what’s going on, you are the one the lion is going to eat.  

Loftus tells us that if you know something and it is not true, there are real world implications.  Innocent people go to prison,  kids end up eating vegetables, scholars get sued for stating the obvious. Misinformation can lead to war and it is a method of oppression

When you stand up to authority, the first thing they do is say you are crazy: “obviously, you misperceive.”  It is a Catch-22 of the most oppresive sort.  If you challenge authority you must be insane, so why should they pay attention?  

Do it once, they say you’re nuts.  Do it twice, they say you are dangerous.  If you are dangerous, then you can be strapped down, locked up, or tossed out.  

And even if you jealously guard your sense of reality, someone like Elizabeth Loftus might come along and make you think you were attacked by a vicious dog.  I am sure people people have called her dangerous.  

Everyone has the one same deeply held belief.  Paul Simon described it best: “I know what I know … that’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head.”  

Loftus challenges that fundamental assumption (“what do you know?) without mentioning the brain in the back of your head.  That is the core of our science, the idea that psychological processes are real, and that it doesn’t always have to be about body and brain.  Along with everything else, our science is about how the mind works.

Professor Loftus is a warrior for these ideas, and for real people.  Colleagues young and old will gather to hear her speak.

Copyright, Paul G. Mattiuzzi, Ph.D.


Zero Tolerance Policies Gone Wild!

A teenager in Montgomery County Tennessee has become the new poster-boy for a continuing news drama that should perhaps be called:  Zero Tolerance Policies Gone Wild!

Apparently, the aspiring college applicant and ROTC candidate did not know that the truck he drove to school one morning carried a tool commonly used by fishermen (i.e., a knife) - a tool that can be repurposed for use as a weapon.  The young man is being sent to the "alternative" high school program and is now facing criminal charges in Juvenile Court.

Meanwhile in Florida, legislation is advancing that would prevent school districts from punishing students for "brandishing a partially consumed pastry or other food item to simulate a firearm or weapon." It is called the Pop-Tart Bill.  After it passes, the law will probably need to be amended to include food items that can be used to simulate a weapon without first being partially consumed (Banana used as gun in holdup, then eaten).

When it becomes necessary for a legislature to carve out an exception for food items that might appear dangerous, it is clear that zero-tolerance policies are a failed social experiment.

The experts have weighed in on the question, and so has the Obama Administration.


McDonalds Mocked for Remarkable Stress Hormone Discovery?

Banksy gives foot massage 
to relieve an executive's stress. 

New York City minimum wage workers have organized at FastFoodForward.org, thinking that McDonalds is going to give them a raise. They are just poor people complaining about poverty, so to get attention, these activists decided to mock McDonalds. It’s not rocket science and the company is fair game. 

The headlines at Salon.com caught my eye: McDonalds tells workers to ‘sing away stress’ and ‘chew away cares’ … Stress hormone levels rise by 15% after ten minutes of complaining … giant corporation warns employees.

Pulled from the web the day after Christmas, the “McResource Line” must have been the work of consultants hired by HR. 

How else can you explain why a company that takes pride in cooking with healthy low-acid Canadian rapeseed oil (canola) would advise that olive oil can prevent the blues?  

Maybe they were trying to send a message to B.B. King?

The employees were also told:  “two vacations a year can cut heart attack risk by 50%.” 


Aaron Antonovsky's insight on observing Holocaust survivors.

An interview I gave to the Sacramento Bee was published this morning.  I was asked about the escape of Amanda Berry with her child, and the rescue of two other women after years being caged in a house in Cleveland by a sadist.

When interviewed,  I discussed an observation about Holocaust survivors that was made by the late Aaron Antonovsky,  an American-born medical sociologist (doctorate from Yale) who made his career at the Israel Institute for Applied Social Research in Jerusalem.

Antonovsky is not as well known as he should be.  To the extent that he is known,  it is for "a theory" that he called the sense of coherence and a term he coined:  salutogenesis.  


What is workplace retaliation? It's about making people afraid.

What is workplace retaliation?

It is not what most people think it is.

Retaliation is not the same as harassment or “hostilte workplace,” and it is not about people getting revenge or “getting back" at anyone.

Retaliation is about making people afraid to complain or to assert their rights.  It is a subtle, but important distinction.


"A Yale Psychologist Calls for the End of Individual Psychotherapy?" Did I read that correctly?

Here's the back story:  a famous,  well-respected psychologist writes a hugely complex journal article and then gives an interview to TIME Healthland online.  The interview is as confusing as the journal article,  and great controversy ensues in the profession.

Are people being mislead and confused?  Are they being harmed?  Does he have a valid point?

First,  about the harm:  yes,  some people are going to read this as a confirmation of their pre-existing belief that psychotherapy is a waste of time.  But that is not so much harm.  People who are distressed and who realize that it might be a good idea to speak with a professional are going to continue to seek help.  They are the ones who will actually benefit.

Does Dr. Kazdin have some good ideas?  Yes.  He spends a lot of time talking about the fact that psychological disorders and emotional troubles take a terrible toll on society and on the health of individuals.

He also thinks that therapists should be able to offer a "portfolio of interventions."  It is not at all a bad idea to use smart phones and the internet and other technologies to provide some treatments,  as he suggests.

Dr. Kazdin is in favor of prevention and in favor of expanding treatment options.  He wants more people to be trained.

So where does this article go wrong?  

I have written about this before:  "Psychologists Reject Science?  ... Oh My!"

That article was about a movement in the profession to create a new model for understanding mental illness,  a model that views science and the scientific method in a very narrow way.

The goal of the "empirically based treatment" movement is to say that there is one particularly correct way to evaluate the usefulness of treatment.  They say that the only measures that should be used are like the ones they use to test new drugs:  randomized controlled trials ("RCTs").  And from that follows the assertion that therapy isn't worth doing if you don't deliver the treatment according to a standardized protocol.

That in turn means that psychologists all should be trained in some specific way and that we need new training standards to make that happen.  As for those of us who studied liberally and broadly in preparation for our work in understanding the human condition,  well,  some of us are just too old to catch on to the new way of doing things.

This article tries to incorporate that entire agenda.  The journal article reads like a master treatise on the state of mental health in America and the difficult path towards salvation.  Kazdin et al are advocating for the "Machine in the Garden,"  the technology that will transform the human condition.

Where Kazdin and others go wrong is in believing they can fully operationalize what is typically a unique and essentially human interaction.  

There are certainly times when it is relevant to focus on the diagnosis and the symptoms and to apply techniques that have proven their worth in a head-to-head matchup with a drug and a placebo.  "Cognitive Behavioral Therapy" done right and by the book is a godsend for many.

For most people,  however,  the decision to talk to someone and to be honest is a very personal decision and a very personal matter.    

It's like when you call your bank or tech support:  you're sitting there punching those keys,  doing whatever you can to get connected to a human being.

People benefit from therapy in a number of ways and for different reasons.  It is not like speaking to a friend or a family member and it is something different than having your blood pressure checked or your tonsils removed.

Early in my training,  I was told that what people want when they seek a psychologist's help is someone who will be honest with them.  People are relieved and strengthened not because you trained them to tolerate their anxiety or to brood less about their disappointments.  People are relieved when they know that someone has listened to them and understood them,  and when they experience themselves trusting someone.

The metaphor for the psychotherapeutic process is sometimes that of a sanctuary,  a place of safety,  and sometimes that of a crucible,  a place where work can be done.  There are other metaphors that can be applied,  but the consistent finding from the science is that individual therapy works ... for many individuals and in many situations.

Sometimes,  it is useful to drag out a protocol and to apply some empirical treatment rules.  More often,  people benefit from treatment because they have found a personal guide,  rather than someone with a guidebook.

Is individual psychotherapy bound for the dustbin of history?  No,  not at all.

People in distress are not going to stop seeking personal solutions to their personal problems,  just because some empiricist claims there is a better technology.  Psychologists are not the type of professionals who would ever ignore the science.  But we are also not the type to seek simple solutions to complex problems or to understand things narrowly when a broader perspective is called for.

The number of clinicians who use "the couch" instead of a chair will always be limited.  That does not mean that the lessons learned from "the couch" will be lost or that we are soon to see the end of TAU:  "therapy as usual."  Even though you can't put it in a bottle,  prescribe it and market it,  it remains a proven method.