Any branch of psychology that continues to ignore or dismiss the significance of meaning, creativity, and spirituality will fail us.
Make no mistake, my roots are firmly in team science. In fact, I stand in awe of it. Science alone has produced brilliant medical treatments and cures and has conceived sophisticated tools that allow us to investigate our world and new worlds beyond. However, you can’t study the very thing you are without bias. How does one objectively measure or quantify loneliness or sadness or heartbreak or joy or love? Why should we want to? And why the need to pathologize every nuance of human existence, including suffering?
This methodology has long been an albatross around the neck of psychology and psychiatry–double-blind studies be damned. After all, we’ve been researching psychopathology for over 110 years and, in case you haven’t noticed, the world isn’t doing so well. Having adopted the medical model, modern psychology no longer seems to be invested in the philosophical or spiritual exploration of the human condition as it may have at one time. Yet, the impetus for a one-size-fits-all solution to the question of good mental health continues unopposed within the structure of the medical model.
Kevin Gallagher of Point Park University further notes the fallacy of this pursuit:
Unlike the language of physical sciences that focuses on concepts like atoms, gravity, and temperature and exists outside of cultural contexts, psychiatry and social/human sciences study constructs like society, norms, experiences, and emotions. These are built inductively through discussion and interpretation rather than replication and calculation. (para. 32)
Which brings us to quality over quantity–existence over essence. We are outside of nothing. This acknowledgement is not an either-or proposition–science or art. Psychology can do both by returning home to its philosophical roots and not by masquerading as some authoritative subject that is attempting to explain away who and how we are. Rather, it should create a unique space among the other intellectually curious disciplines by fostering an appreciation and further exploration of art, love, beauty, meaning, spirituality, and one’s creative true north. In brief, where are the original ideas in psychology and, moreover, where are the questions unique to existence?
Paradoxically, meaning is spun out of suffering. By attempting to prevent or avoid emotional suffering, or by extinguishing anxiety (as the medical model pronounces), the ability to find our true north is damaged. Earlier this year, Dr. Paul Wong and I detailed this same discussion in our article that points out the severe limits of the medical model: “Likewise, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) handbooks are promoted to explain away any kind of psychic pain in terms of irrational thinking, thus, either blaming or clinically gaslighting clients” (Wong & Laird, 2023, p. 3).
Thus, we flourish most when connecting with others about our struggles and our suffering, and not simply by engaging in cognitive gymnastics. Suffering and anxiety can be a vessel to greater meaning, to something larger than ourselves, by establishing a spiritual and creative center that transcends our current understanding of science, art, and religion. It is not to suffer needlessly, but to give meaning–with respect to culture, race, and socioeconomic status–to the suffering we endure. It is a navigational tool devoted to working through our struggles rather than circumventing them, as those who engage in toxic positivity willfully promote (Reynolds, 2022).
The call to all helpgivers should be thus: let’s be more like fellow travelers to the grave, who suffer and love and all stops in between, and less like clinicians who cling to research, excessively cited essays, or platitudes, as if any of that will help the broken-hearted. In the end, we should demonstrate courage by creating something new and kind. We ought to be raising ideas–not the volume–on the same tired methods. So, let’s embrace the existential ether rather than try to extinguish it and, in the process, avoid the trappings of toxic positivity. Above all else, let us be better by doing better.
Gallagher, K. (2023). Researchers call on psychiatry to abandon biomedical framework. Mad in America. https://www.madinamerica.com/2023/08/researchers-call-on-psychiatry-to-abandon-biomedical framework/?mc_cid=45303ccd0d&mc_eid=855ee3a327&fbclid=IwAR156KCIDGYrzVsOEyQIkbGh7nTeK7tqnhfWGzNjJogJ0aIp4u2IgzE1Bwk
Reynolds, G. (2022). Toxic positivity. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/toxic-positivity
Wong, P. T. P., & Laird, D. (2023). Varieties of suffering in the clinical setting: Re-envisioning mental health beyond the medical model. Frontiers in Psychology. 14, 1-9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1155845