My Review of Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope by James T. Webb

It’s very hard to keep your spirits up. You’ve got to keep selling yourself a bill of goods, and some people are better at lying to themselves than others. If you face reality too much, it kills you — Woody Allen

Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens — C. G. Jung

I am currently navigating a PhD course that explores an ignored and understudied subject: the lived experience of gifted adults. This course is part of my PhD program at Brock University (field: Social and Cultural Health Studies—still not sure exactly what this is) which will (hopefully) feed into my dissertation project, which is framed by the following research question: How do gifted adults experience ecological self?

As part of my current course, I read James T. Webb’s (2013), Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope. 

Webb was inspired to write the book based on his own experience of existential depression in his college years. Through encounters with an older roommate and exposure to existential theologians through college coursework, Webb began to question the assumptions he lived his life out of:

He [Webb’s roommate] highlighted the arbitrariness of some of the ways that many people, including myself, choose to live their lives, as well as the inconsistencies, the narcissistic self-delusions, and the grandiosity in many people’s beliefs (p. 2).

Webb’s world began to fall apart as a result of his soul-searching. And, at his lowest point, he contemplated suicide.

Webb credits a caring psychology professor for his salvation. This teacher took the time to listen to Webb and take his concerns seriously. He also provided Webb with tools to manage his discontent, emptiness, and depression so that these issues could work for him rather than against him.

Searching for Meaning is Webb’s way of giving back and paying it forward. It is geared toward those who identify as gifted and may struggle—or have struggled—with disillusionment and despair.

Webb’s main thesis is that those who are bright and gifted are likely idealists, and in a world riddled with abuse, fraud, greed, poverty, and environmental destruction (among other concerns), idealists are more likely than others to experience disillusionment—which can lead to existential depression.

Webb begins the book by describing what idealism is, where it originates (chapters 1 and 2), and its intimate relation to giftednesss (chapter 3). Next, Webb describes gifted idealism’s oft correlates; namely, disillusionment and existential depression (chapters 4 and 5):

In my experience, existential fretting, or for that matter rumination and existential depression, are far more common among (though not exclusive to)—those who ponder, question, analyze, and reflect—even though these people may never have thought of themselves as particularly bright, gifted, talented, or creative (p. 95).

In chapter 6, Webb provides readers with tools to assist them in getting in touch with their unique identity and life’s purpose (Johari’s window, personal coat of arms). These insights, Webb argues, are critical for combating disillusionment:

It is important to become self-aware in order to deal with disillusionment in healthy and productive ways. You must break down the barriers that prevent you from knowing, acknowledging, appreciating, and ultimate accepting who you are so that you can arrange your life to align with your fundamental beliefs and ideals—to live authentically (p. 122).

Webb then describes some unhealthy (chapter 7) anmental healthd more healthy (chapter 8) ways that gifted individuals can cope with their existential concerns. Less healthy strategies, Webb suggests, are: trying to control life, or at least label it, deliberately not thinking using distractions, and numbing one’s mind. More healthy, are strategies like: creating your own life script, using bibliotherapy and journaling, and developing authentic relationships.

Finally, in chapter 9, Webb provides readers with various resources to cultivate a more hopeful, happy, and content life.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Searching for Meaning. I believe its greatest strengths are the tools it provides gifted individuals to turn existential depression into an opportunity for profound personal growth. As a gifted adult who found his way out of existential depression by chiseling out—and continuing to unearth—my true identity, I believe Webb’s ideas are not only interesting: they also work.

While I enjoyed reading Searching for Meaning, I was disappointed at times with the fairly superficial attention Webb gives to some pretty big ideas (for example, various existential theories, Dabrowski’s notion of positive disintegration). These omissions make the book feel ‘light’ at times. In the end, I think these omissions can be forgiven. After all, the book is not meant to be a treatise on existential philosophy!

All in all, I would not hesitate recommending Searching for Meaning to other journeying individuals looking to cultivating wholeness in their lives.