A Woman Counseling Another Woman, Existential-positive therapy

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Existential-positive therapy

Existential-positive therapy is a form of psychotherapy that combines the insights of existential philosophy with the principles of positive psychology. It aims to help clients find meaning and purpose in their lives, while also acknowledging their limitations and challenges. It assumes that human beings are free and responsible for their choices, and that they have the potential to grow and flourish. In this article, we will explore existential-positive therapy, understand its history, development, practical applications and criticisms.


Existential-positive therapy can be traced back to the work of existential philosophers such as Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, who explored the themes of freedom, responsibility, authenticity, anxiety, death, and absurdity. Existential therapists such as Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, Irvin Yalom, Emmy van Deurzen, and Paul Wong applied these ideas to the practice of psychotherapy, emphasizing the importance of finding meaning and values in life.

Existential-positive therapy also draws from the field of positive psychology, which focuses on the scientific study of human strengths and virtues. Positive psychologists such as Martin Seligman, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ed Diener, Barbara Fredrickson, and Sonja Lyubomirsky have identified various factors that contribute to human well-being, such as positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Existential-positive therapy integrates these findings with the existential perspective, aiming to help clients enhance their well-being while also facing their existential dilemmas.

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Principles and goals

Existential-positive therapy is based on several principles, such as:

  • Human beings are free and responsible for their choices and actions.
  • Human beings are capable of growth, creativity, and Self-actualization.
  • Human beings are relational and interdependent with others and the world.
  • Human beings face existential anxieties, such as death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness.

One of the main goals of existential-positive therapy is to help clients develop a coherent and authentic narrative of their lives that reflects their values, goals, and strengths. This can be achieved by using various techniques, such as:

  • Exploring the client’s world-view, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations.
  • Challenging the client’s negative or irrational thoughts and emotions.
  • Encouraging the client to take responsibility for their choices and actions.
  • Facilitating the client’s expression of feelings and emotions.
  • Supporting the client’s exploration of meaning and purpose in life.
  • Promoting the client’s engagement in positive activities and relationships.

Existential-positive therapy can also help clients cope with existential crises, such as facing mortality, loss, or uncertainty. It can do so by:

  • Providing a safe and empathic space for the client to share their fears and concerns.
  • Validating the client’s feelings and experiences without judgment or denial.
  • Helping the client find sources of hope, resilience, and gratitude in their lives.
  • Assisting the client in finding or creating meaning in their suffering or adversity.
  • Empowering the client to make positive changes or adaptations in their lives.

As one existential-positive therapist put it: “Existential-positive therapy is not about finding happiness or avoiding suffering; it is about living fully and authentically in the face of both” (Wong, 2013, p. 7).

Techniques and interventions

Existential-positive therapy uses various techniques and interventions to help clients explore their values, goals, strengths, passions, and potentials. Some of these include:

meaning-entered counselling: This approach helps clients discover or create meaning in their lives by identifying their sources of meaning, such as relationships, work, spirituality, hobbies, etc. It also helps clients cope with meaninglessness or existential crisis by finding positive ways to deal with suffering and adversity (Wong, 2010).

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logotherapy: This is a form of existential therapy developed by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist. It is based on the premise that the primary motivation of human beings is to find meaning in life. logotherapy helps clients find meaning in three ways: by creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or encountering someone; and by taking a positive attitude toward unavoidable suffering (Frankl, 1967).

Existential analysis: This is a form of existential therapy developed by Emmy van Deurzen, a philosopher and psychotherapist. Existential analysis helps clients examine their lives from four dimensions: physical (the body and the environment), social (relationships and culture), personal (identity and values), and spiritual (meaning and purpose). It also helps clients develop their existential skills, such as courage, resilience, creativity, and wisdom (Arnold-Baker, C., & Van Deurzen, E. (2008)).

Positive interventions: These are evidence-based activities that aim to increase positive emotions, behaviours, or cognitions. Examples of positive interventions include gratitude exercises, savouring activities, acts of kindness, goal setting, flow experiences, etc. Positive interventions can be used to complement existential therapy by enhancing clients’ wellbeing and happiness (Seligman et al., 2005).

Existential-positive therapy is a holistic and humanistic approach that respects the uniqueness and dignity of each client. It can be applied to various issues and populations, such as anxiety, depression, addiction, trauma, and existential crises. Existential-positive therapy helps clients to explore their freedom, responsibility, meaning, and potential in life, while acknowledging their limitations and challenges. According to WebMD (n.d.), “Existential therapy helps put a lot of focus on the human condition as a whole. It relies on a positive approach that applauds human aspirations and capabilities. It also acknowledges that human beings have limitations” (para. 1).

Existential-positive therapy also emphasizes the importance of authentic relationships and the search for values and purpose.  As Psychology Today (2021) states, “Existential therapy focuses on free will, self-determination, and the search for meaning—often centring on the individual rather than on their symptoms” (para. 1).

Example therapeutic practice

One example of a hypothetical therapeutic practice that illustrates how existential-positive therapy works is the following:

The therapist begins by asking the client to reflect on their current situation and challenges, and how they affect their sense of meaning and fulfilment. The therapist listens empathically and validates the client’s feelings and experiences, without imposing any judgments or expectations. The therapist also helps the client identify their core values and goals, and how they align with their authentic self.

Next, the therapist introduces the concept of positive existentialism, which is the idea that life is inherently valuable and worth living, despite its uncertainties and difficulties. The therapist explains that positive existentialism does not deny or minimize the negative aspects of existence, but rather embraces them as opportunities for growth and learning. The therapist also emphasizes that positive existentialism is not a fixed doctrine or dogma, but a personal choice and attitude that each individual can adopt.

The therapist then invites the client to engage in various exercises and activities that foster positive existentialism, such as gratitude journaling, savouring positive moments, expressing kindness and compassion, finding flow and engagement, creating positive relationships, and contributing to a greater cause. The therapist guides the client through these exercises and activities, providing feedback and encouragement along the way. The therapist also helps the client monitor their progress and outcomes, using evidence-based measures such as the meaning in Life Questionnaire (Steger et al., 2006) and the Positive Psychotherapy Inventory (Rashid & Anjum, 2007).

Throughout the therapeutic process, the therapist uses quotes from existential and positive psychology literature to illustrate and reinforce the points made. For example, the therapist may use the following quotes:

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” – Viktor Frankl (1959/2006, p. 104)

“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.” – Carl Rogers (1961/1995, p. 187)

“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.” – Dalai Lama (2009, p. 29)

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman (1980/1996, p. 11)

The therapist concludes by reviewing the main themes and insights that emerged from the therapy sessions, and highlighting the benefits of adding positive psychology to existential therapy. The therapist explains that positive psychology can help clients enhance their wellbeing and flourishing, while existential therapy can help clients face their existential dilemmas and challenges with courage and wisdom. The therapist also suggests some resources and strategies for maintaining and extending the gains made in therapy, such as reading books, attending workshops, joining support groups, or seeking further counselling if needed.

The therapist thanks the client for their trust and participation, and expresses hope and optimism for their future.

Adoption of existential -positive therapy

Existential-positive therapy has been adopted by many therapists and counsellors who value its holistic and humanistic approach. It has also been applied to various settings and populations, such as schools, workplaces, prisons, hospices, and multicultural groups.

However, there is not much empirical evidence to support its efficacy, as it is a relatively new and diverse field that lacks standardized methods and measures. Some researchers have suggested that existential-positive therapy can be integrated with other evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), to enhance its effectiveness and validity.

Strengths and criticisms of existential-positive therapy

Some of the strengths of existential-positive therapy are that it can help clients cope with existential anxiety, such as the fear of death, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness. It can also foster personal growth, authenticity, self-awareness, and existential courage. Moreover, it can address various psychological issues, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress.

Some of the criticisms of existential-positive therapy are that it lacks empirical evidence compared to other therapeutic approaches, that it provides less structure than other forms of therapy, and that it can be frustratingly “woolly” or vague for some clients who seek more concrete solutions or guidance. Additionally, some research suggests that existential therapy focused on meaning can help alleviate mental health symptoms but has not been shown to impact a personal sense of well-being.

“The ultimate goal of positive existential therapy is to help clients live authentically and meaningfully in spite of suffering and limitations.” – Paul Wong


Arnold-Baker, C., & Van Deurzen, E. (2008). Existential psychotherapy: Philosophy and practice. The quick theory reference guide: A resource for expert and novice mental health professionals, 47-62.

Dalai Lama (2009). The art of happiness: A handbook for living (10th anniversary edition). New York: Riverhead Books.

Frankl, V. E. (1967). logotherapy and existentialism. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice4(3), 138.

Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press. (Original work published 1959)

GoodTherapy. (2019). Existential Psychotherapy. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/existential-psychotherapy

KMA Therapy. (n.d.). What is Existential Therapy? The Pros and Cons. Retrieved from https://www.kmatherapy.com/blog/existential-therapy-the-pros-and-cons

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Psychology Today. (n.d.). Existential Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/existential-therapy

Psychology Today. (2021). Existential therapy. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/existential-therapy

Rashid, T., & Anjum, A. (2007). Positive psychotherapy inventory (PPTI): Development and validation. Unpublished manuscript.

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Springer Link. (2020). Existential Approaches and cognitive Behavior Therapy: Friends or Foes? Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41811-020-00096-1

Steger, M. F., Frazier, P., Oishi, S., & Kaler, M. (2006). The meaning in Life Questionnaire: Assessing the presence of and search for meaning in life. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53(1), 80-93.

Thurman, H. (1996). With head and heart: The autobiography of Howard Thurman. Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company. (Original work published 1980)

Verywell Mind. (2023). Existentialism—Philosophy and Existential Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-existentialism-5667161

WebMD. (n.d.). What is existential therapy? https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-existential-therapy

Wong, P. T. (2010). What is existential positive psychology. International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy3(1). http://www.drpaulwong.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/what-is-existential-positive-psychology.pdf

Wong, P. T. P. (2013). Existential positive psychology. In K. I. Pargament (Ed.), APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol 1): Context, theory, and research (pp. 279–300). American Psychological Association.

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