More on the Meaning and Purpose of Life

More on the Meaning and Purpose of Life

Did Hitler and Mother Theresa have the same value to humanity?


Hi visitors,

I thought you might enjoy a great email I received from a fan named Jeffrey, along with my reply.


Dear Dr. Burns,

Thank you so much for the incredible effort that you and your team put into your blogs, podcasts, and Facebook sessions. I follow them religiously and found great value in every single piece of content.

As I read your blog on the meaning of purpose of life, I can’t help but want to ask a question that’s been on my mind since I read the Feeling Good book. I had a hard time understanding what you mean when you said that every human being has the same value.

Does Hitler and Mother Theresa have the same value to humanity? Some individuals offer so much more contribution to the world than others, how can they have the same value? I know you plan to address this question in your new book and I can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, I have a hard time resolving this dilemma in my head. I have been an achievement addict all my life.

Thank you again for your fantastic work.



Hi Jeffrey,

Thank you for your excellent question. I’m sure many people have similar concerns, and I’ve thought about this issue for decades, because I’ve had so many depressed patients who were convinced they were “worthless.” So I’ve had to ask myself this question—is it possible to judge the “worthwhileness” of a human being, or a “self,” as opposed to judging specific things they believe, do, or say?

It’s clear that we can judge specific thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. For example, you can make a decision about how interesting or worthwhile this post is, on a scale from 0 (not at all worthwhile) to 100 (extremely worthwhile). Are you with me so far? But to me, that is not the same as judging whether “I,” David Burns, am worthwhile. I don’t think you can judge how worthwhile “I” am! And I certainly cannot judge how worthwhile you, or any other human being, might be. That’s beyond my pay grade, and isn’t something I am interested in attempting either!

It is clear that we can judge many, but not all, of Hitler’s specific beliefs and actions as despicable, heinous, hateful, and destructive. And we can judge some (but not all) of Mother Theresa’s specific beliefs, words and actions in a positive way.

But how do we judge a “self?”

There are several issues I will address in my new book that might be relevant to your question.

  1. Is it possible to judge your own, or some else’s “self,” as opposed to something specific that we think, do or say?
  2. Can we define a “worthwhile” or “worthless” person in a meaningful way?
  3. Does the “self” even exist?

My answers to these three questions are no, no, and no! But then again, I may be missing something really important. And I know, too, that this issue will be intensely controversial, with heated argument, perhaps on both sides.

If you think you can define a “worthwhile” person, or if you think you know how to judge a “self,” as opposed to some specific thought, statement, or behavior, let me know.

One problem to the development of a consensus on this problem has to do with motivation, as opposed to logic. It can make us feel morally superior to judge others as “bad,” and to see ourselves and the members of our own tribe as “good.” Because of the mental high this type of All-or-Nothing Thinking causes, many will have no interest in giving it up.

This is the problem of positive distortions that I dealt with in an early Feeling Good Podcast, and also in one of my early Feeling Good Blogs some time ago. Positive distortions cause violence, hatred, and addictions, as well as mania and narcissism.

Hitler capitalized on Labeling and All-or-Nothing Thinking, telling the German people they were “superior” (e.g. “more worthwhile”), and insisting that Jews and other groups, like the mentally ill, were “inferior” (e.g. “worthless.”) And millions of Germans bought right into it, as do many Nazi’s and white supremacists today.

Humans LOVE to judge others! And motivation often triumphs over truth or logic.

Inherent worthwhileness as a human being is NOT the same as value to humanity, or how worthwhile a given action is or isn’t. Some people contribute a great deal to humanity, others very little, and most of us are somewhere in-between. Is someone who contributes more to humanity more worthwhile than other people who contribute less to humanity?

Can you imagine how weird it would be if you DID believe this? Let’s assume, just as a thought experiment, that you contributed a great deal to humanity, and you concluded that you were therefore “more worthwhile” as a human being.

You and I can have a little imaginary conversation, but you have to agree to several rules:

  1. You have to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
  2. You are not allowed to rationalize or deny anything.
  3. You have to endorse and defend the belief that people who contribute more to humanity are “more worthwhile” than others who contribute less.
  4. You have to agree with the fact that you have contributed a tremendous amount to humanity, in fact, more than almost anyone. That will be something will assume for the purpose of this dialogue.

I’ll play the role of myself, you can play the role of Jeffrey, a fellow who has contributed enormously to humanity.

Now let’s see what happens:

David: Hi Jeffrey, I heard through the grapevine that everyone agrees that you have contributed enormously to humanity, more than almost anyone. Is this correct?

Jeffrey: Yes, that’s correct. My contributions to humanity are legendary! I can’t deny that! In fact, many put my contributions right up there next to those of the Pope and Mother Theresa. And if you wanted to argue that I have contributed MORE than either of them, who could argue with you?

David: That’s so cool, and I really admire all that you’ve done for others. And to be honest, I’m honored, and a bit intimidated, to have this chance to speak to you face to face. I did have a personal question, though, that I wanted to ask, if it wouldn’t be too much of an imposition.

Jeffrey: Oh, you can ask me anything you like. I always answer questions. That’s just one small part of my way of contributing to society and humanity.

David: Great, thanks! So, here’s my question. You’ve stated, I believe, that people who contribute more to society are more worthwhile human beings. Right?

Jeffrey: Right on, David!

David: And it is a fact that you have contributed vastly more than I have. My contributions would be considered average at best. So, you are you thinking, then, that you’re more worthwhile than I am?

Jeffrey: Well, David, it does kind of follow, doesn’t it?

David: So, are you looking down on me right now, thinking that I’m less worthwhile? And do you kind of look down on almost everyone, since your contributions to humanity eclipse those of almost everyone?

Now, it seems like you have two choices. You can either decide that contributions to humanity do NOT, in fact, make you “more worthwhile.” If you take this direction, then you’ve agreed that people who contribute more to humanity are not, in fact, “more worthwhile human beings.”

Or, you can insist that you ARE “more worthwhile” than other people because of all your contributions to humanity. In that case you’ll look like an ass!

The issue here is NOT whether contributions to society are worthwhile. The issue is whether your contributions, or your success, or anything else about you, can make you “more worthwhile” than other people.

It may seem like a subtle distinction, but the implications are tremendous, involving severe depression, if you conclude that you are “worthless” or “less worthwhile,” or aggression, hatred and violence, if you conclude that certain other classes of people are “worthless” or “less worthwhile.”

So here’s the brief answer: “value to humanity” is NOT the same as “(inherent) worthwhileness” as a human being.

You can also argue that inherent “worthwhileness” as a human being is a nonsensical concept, but that brings us to the same conclusion. We can judge the worthwhileness specific thoughts, feelings, skills, traits, or behaviors, but we cannot judge the worthwhileness of a human being.

My take on it only! Thanks so much for keeping the dialogue alive.


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Advanced, High-Speed TEAM-CBT for the Treatment of Depression and Anxiety 

We warmly invite you to attend this fabulous, one-day workshop by Drs. David Burns and Jill Levitt on Sunday, May 20th, 2018. Click on the link above for registration and more information.

  • 6 CE Credits
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You will enjoy learning from David and Jill, working together to bring powerful, healing techniques to life in a clear, step-by-step way. Their teaching style as a team is entertaining, funny, lucid, and inspiring. This is a day you will remember fondly!

In the afternoon, you will have the chance to do some personal healing so you can overcome your own feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. David and Jill promise to bring at least 60% of the audience into a state of spiritual and psychological enlightenment, WITHOUT years of meditation. That’s not a bad deal at all!

You will LOVE this workshop. Seating for those who attend live in Palo Alto will be strictly limited, and seats are filling up fast, so move rapidly if you are interested.

Jill and I hope you can join us!



What’s the Meaning and Purpose of My Life?

What’s the Meaning and Purpose of My Life?

Is love a human need? How about achievement? How do we achieve “self-actualization?” What about Maslow’s hierarchy of “needs?”

Hi visitors, here’s a cool email question about the meaning and purpose of life that I got from a highly esteemed fan.

Hi David,

Looking at the comments thread on your home page, I had a question based on some comments from others. Is it important to know the purpose of your life in order to feel self-contented and happy?

I could not come out with an appropriate answer for myself. Is there really a way to find out what the purpose of your life is, or does it really matter? And even if it does matter, what do we do if we find out our purpose? Maybe that’s not practical in today’s materialistic world.

I read an article on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid. From the bottom to the top of the pyramid, he lists

  • physiological needs
  • security needs
  • belongingness and love needs
  • self-esteem needs through accomplishments
  • and finally, self-actualization.

Here’s my question: Can humans be really happy without any or even many of these missing needs?

Practically, I see it as difficult. But, by cognitive theory it seems to be possible at least to the level of not disturbing ourselves for the missing needs.

To make it short my question, in essence, is this: What can be the true drivers of happiness in today’s times while at least one or more needs is challenged in this need hierarchy, especially love and relationship needs along with the realization of our full potential.




Hi Rajesh,

Thanks for another cool question! I can only ramble a bit and give you my take on it.

I recall reading about Maslow’s “needs” theory in college, in a class on so-called “third force psychology.” The writers in that movement focused, if I recall correctly, on achieving peak experiences, as opposed to becoming less depressed or anxious. At the time, I like the class and found it inspirational.

However, my thinking as a cognitive therapist, and now as a TEAM-CBT therapist, has evolved a great deal from my thinking during my college days. I have discovered that some of these “needs” are not really “needs,” but wants, although this is, of course, extremely controversial.

Individuals who I have treated who thought of love and achievement as “needs” have been very depressed, and sometimes even suicidal. If you read my book, Feeling Good, you’ll find sections on the so-called “Love Addiction” as well as the “Achievement Addiction.”

One potential problem is that if you tell yourself that you “need” love or achievement to feel happy and fulfilled, you may set yourself up for intense anxiety and depression when you are rejected, or when you fail. In addition, it is not really true that adult humans need love or a certain level of achievement to feel happy and fulfilled. Of course, to some people, what I am saying right now will seem like the darkest type of heresy!

In the chapter in Feeling Good on the “Love Addiction,” you can read about a woman who was dumped by her husband, so he could have an affair with his secretary. She was devastated and told herself, “I need John’s love to feel happy and fulfilled.” This thought triggered intense depression and hopelessness.

I encouraged her to do an experiment to test this belief, using the Pleasure Predicting Sheet. She discovered, much to her surprise, that simply being by herself, and treating herself in a loving way triggered high levels of satisfaction. In contrast, a lunch with her husband turned out to be one of the most miserable experiences of her life.

This gave her morale a tremendous boost, because she realized she did not actually “need” her husband’s love. Being around him was clearly NOT a source of happiness or “self-actualization.” She began dating and soon fell in love with a fellow who was far more suitable for her. And of course, the moment she no longer “needed” her husband, he begged for her to return. Instead, she filed for divorce.

This happens almost every time. When you “need” things, they tend to be elusive; when you no longer “need” the universe, the universe will come to you.

Her husband called and said he was enraged with me, because he’d referred his wife to me and had asked me to take care of her in case she became suicidal. I told him, “I did, I did!”

So, to answer your questions from my, admittedly controversial, perspective, there is no one “meaning” or “purpose” in life. Instead, there are an infinite number of meanings and purposes that present themselves in the experiences we have at every moment of every day. For example, right now I am answering your question, and enjoying this dialogue. That’s enough “meaning” and “purpose” for me for the moment. When I finish this blog, I will find some other activity, or purpose.

And as far as “self-actualization” goes, that just sounds to me like another perfectionistic trap. Right now, I’m too busy having fun to care about “self-actualization.” I think life, and the many rewards of life, can be found in the here-and-now, in our moment-by-moment reality, and not so much in the clouds of abstraction.

As a psychiatrist, I don’t usually approach these things from an overly general or philosophical perspective. Instead, I ask my patients to pinpoint one specific moment when they were feeling anxious or depressed on the Daily Mood Log. Then I ask them to rate their negative feelings and record the negative thoughts that triggered those feelings. Then we can identify the many cognitive distortions in those thoughts.

At that point, I bring the patient’s resistance to conscious awareness and melt it away, using Paradoxical Agenda Setting Techniques, like the Invitation Step, the Miracle Cure Question, the Magic Button, Positive Reframing, and the Magic Dial. At that point, we use several methods to challenge and crush the negative thoughts. This usually leads to a rapid and fairly complete elimination of the negative thoughts and feelings, and often ushers in fairly intense feelings of joy.

That’s just a brief overview, of course. If the patient has Self-Defeating Beliefs that get in the way, such as the belief that he or she “needs” love, approval, achievement, or perfection in order to be “worthwhile,” then we sometimes modify those beliefs as a part of Relapse Prevention Training.

Achievement can be very rewarding—but it does not make you more “worthwhile” and is no guarantee for happiness. Same goes for love, approval, perfection, fame, status, or wealth. There’s certainly nothing wrong with love or approval, but it does not make you more “worthwhile.”

One last point is this: physiological needs are true needs. We do need food, air, and water to survive. Without them we die. So the basis of Maslow’s pyramid is valid. But most of the rest of his pyramid consists of wants, not needs. My take on it! Some will probably insist I’m a quack!

You might think of security as a “need.” For example, if you were in a dangerous situation, such as a war zone where bullets were flying, and you had no protection, you could die.

But Maslow includes financial security, health and well-being as “needs.” Well, if you listen to the podcasts featuring live work with Marilyn, you will discover that she experienced “self-actualization” after a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer. But if Dr. Matthew May (my co-therapist) and I had taken the path of believing that she could not feel happy and worthwhile without good health, this “need” approach might have doomed her to ongoing severe depression and anxiety.

And I’ve treated many people with intense anxiety and depression who feared going bankrupt. Five of them actually DID have to declare bankruptcy while I was treating them. And you want to know the really odd thing? The day they went bankrupt, every single one of them recovered! Their feelings of depression and anxiety were not caused by their lack of financial security, but rather from their distorted negative thoughts, thinking (wrongly) that they’d be worthless and unlovable if their business failed. That’s why their negative feelings disappeared–they discovered that their fears were baseless.

By the way, people elevate all kinds of things to the level of needs. For example, someone wrote to me earlier in the week, quite irate, because he did not believe that thoughts create emotions. He said the facts of your life create your feelings.

My goodness! I don’t think he’s read any of my books or listened to the live therapy with Marilyn! I’ve really addressed the idea that our feelings result entirely from out thoughts, and not external events, so many times! But many people still don’t “get it!” And some don’t want to get it!

He gave the example that if your IQ is only average, or even below average, you cannot be happy, since you might want to study physics, but you’re not smart enough to do that!

This actually happened to me in college. I thought it would be super cool to major in physics, but the kids in my class who were majoring in physics—Phil Allen, Farzam Arbab, and Joe Stiglitz—had IQs far above mine, and it simply was not a smart option for me. So, I majored in philosophy instead, which was a lot easier for me. And I’ve loved the road I’ve traveled!

Think about this: Half of the people in the world have IQs below 100—that’s the half-way point, by definition. Half of us have IQs above 100, and half have IQs below 100.

Does this mean that half of the people in the world are doomed to depression? That sounds totally nutty and simply doesn’t accord with the facts! But when you tell yourself that you “need” this or that to feel happy, you turn yourself into a victim.

The fellow who wrote to me was pretty indignant and seemed intent on proving how “wrong” I was! As I’ve said, these issues are sensitive and highly charged for many people, and controversial, to be sure.

That’s why I don’t evangelize too much. I treat people who are suffering, people who are motivated to change. If someone wants to view love or achievements as “needs,” and if this belief system is working for him or her, then that’s totally fine by me.

One last point, just to be safe. I mentioned that love is not an adult human need. When Aaron Beck first made that claim in one of the weekly seminars I was attending as post-doctoral fellow in psychiatry at the U. Penn. Medical School in Philadelphia, I practically fell off my chair and had the thought: “He must be some kind of sociopath to believe such a horrible thing!” But over time, I discovered he was right, and that insight saved the lives of quite a few rejected, lonely and suicidal people I have treated over the years.

When I say that love and achievement are not “needs,” people get annoyed with me as well. Some skeptics remind me about infants with the “failure to thrive” syndrome—they don’t develop properly without love, without being touched, that sort of thing. I think that line of research is valid. For infants, love and nurturing do seem to be human needs. For adults, I think it is more productive to think of them as “wants.”

A Cool Upcoming Workshop for you!

May 20th, 2018  Advanced, High-Speed CBT for the Treatment of Depression and Anxiety A one day workshop with Drs. David Burns and Jill Levitt. 6 CE Credits, $135
You can join in person or online from wherever you live!