Life, as you may have heard, is difficult. Sometimes, all that's needed to pull us up is a good friend's ear. Or a therapist's chair. Or an hour in a spiritual place.

Or, perhaps you'd like an hour or two with Plato. A growing number of people, mostly in large cities, are paying professional philosophers, generally called "philosophical counselors," to help them think through life's challenges, from how to parent teenagers to how to love well and age gracefully.

"Most people have philosophical concerns, even if they cannot put them into philosophical terms," said Samuel Zinaich, past president of the American Society for Philosophy, Counseling and Psychotherapy and an associate professor of philosophy at Purdue University Calumet in Indiana.

Those concerns, he said, "can be as simple as how to raise children, how to have a good relationship with one's spouse, how to be a friend. These were all philosophical questions a long time ago that are being reintroduced."

In fact, while philosophical counseling is billed as the next big thing, the concept is as old as Aristotle. Ancient philosophers, Zinaich said, "were very concerned about how to live a right kind of life" -- mental health issues included. "The history of philosophy is 'How should we live? How do we live a life that is emotionally appropriate?' "

Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, applied philosophy "lost its status" to newer disciplines, such as psychiatry and psychology, Zinaich said. About two decades ago, the practical uses of philosophy re-emerged as another way to work through the dramas of daily life.

"I'm all for it," said David Mayo, emeritus professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Over the years, he and students in his ethics classes have tackled moral issues, including sex and love, God, good and evil and the meaning of life for a used-car salesman.

"Philosophy is stepping back from the immediate, practical problem at hand and reflecting on the situation. What are the elements of your life here? You've got a marriage that isn't as exciting as it was supposed to be when you were 14? What's missing? What do you really value? What don't you value? Can these things be resolved? If you could press a magic button, how would you change things?"

More common in Europe

Unfortunately, Minnesotans eager to sit at the feet of a modern Plato will have to wait. While philosophical counselors are abundant in Europe (Zinaich has an Israeli friend who makes her living as one), they're only slowly hanging up shingles in the United States. New York City, for example, has about two dozen philosophers certified by the American Philosophical Practitioners Association (APPA), said Andrew Fitz-Gibbon, an assistant professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Cortland.

The APPA lists one Minnesota member, but he said his practice is still in its infancy. (Don't despair: You might consider taking a philosophy course or reading one of the recommended books in the accompanying box.)

The dearth is largely the result of strict standards of practice established by the American medical establishment, Zinaich said. Although philosophers have advanced degrees and can be certified as "philosophical practitioners" by the APPA after a three-day training program, therapists are licensed by their respective states and must have far more extensive training in the assessment and treatment of complex issues, such as mental illness.

"Severe depression would be better suited to a combination of [traditional] counseling and medication," said David Schrader, president of the Delaware-based American Philosophical Association, another professional organization. A philosophical approach, he said, is better suited to "routine difficulties ... when you are able to sit back and take a look at yourself."

Zinaich concurs. While he is a professor, and not a practitioner, he is often approached by students seeking his advice. "I'm very cautious and skeptical when someone comes to me and asks me to talk to them about a serious issue," he said. "Psychologists have behind them a body of empirical studies. Philosophers don't. I had a student once come up to me and say, 'I'm going to commit suicide.' I told him, 'You really need to get professional counseling. I'm not qualified to help you.' If they say, 'I feel so depressed,' I say, get thee to a doctor, get on medication, and then come back and we'll talk."

Other times, he feels fully qualified to engage with his students. "When a student comes into my office and says, 'I don't know where I fit, I don't understand life, my parents want me to be this, but I want to be this,' those are questions I feel qualified to answer."

Merging philosophies

Many professional thinkers believe, though, that there is room for everyone at the table as we try to discover the meaning of happiness or, at least, why we can't seem to throw anything away. The best practitioners draw insights from many disciplines, they say, including psychology, philosophy and religion.

If nothing else, musing philosophically makes for great conversation-starters about things that matter to us. Relationships, for example. "When you're younger, the foundation of relationships is based on pleasure," Zinaich said. "As you get older, the need for a deeper relationship emerges into something we'd call 'character friendships.' These are relationships based not on anything I can get from you, but instead on mutual support, affection and love to get through the tough times."

And aging? "Not something to be avoided," Zinaich said. "With age should come wisdom, learning, virtue. Is the length of life most important? Or the quality of life? Can you live a life that is consistent with your values, that is productive and useful? Can you be a good citizen and friend?"

And, finally, we must know: What is the meaning of happiness? "Aristotle listed five things: pleasure, honor, virtue, money, and a life of reflection," Zinaich said. "I tend to believe that the life of the mind, reflection, is the best guide to all those other things."

The University of Minnesota's Mayo, too, is bullish on Aristotle. "It's not the payoff at the end of the road," he said. "It's the satisfaction that comes with doing things well. A happy life is one where you are doing what it is your nature to do. The person who really enjoys work is unbelievably lucky. Someone who gets to do what they really love to do, not just eat, but use their mind, have satisfying social interactions and a good sex life, that's a happy person."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350

Wire services contributed to this story.