by Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D
What can different types of psychotherapy tell us about living a happier life?
*Posted June 28, 2015 in his Psychology Today blog. Permission granted to publish here.
In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, we have considered some of the ways psychoanalysis, Jung's analytical psychology, and existential therapy approach the problem of finding happiness. Freud's secret, we have seen, is, in part, to take a more realistic (though some would say pessimistic) approach to the attainment of happiness, working in therapy toward a more modest goal of "common unhappiness" in place of "neurotic misery." Happiness, he suggests, is all relative. Life consists inevitably of at least some suffering, tragedy, loss, sadness, and, therefore, unhappiness.
But this was not a new insight proffered by Freud. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, said something similar which followers of Buddhism have known for thousands of years: Life is suffering. Suffering causes unhappiness. The source of this suffering is attachment, desire or dukkha. Happiness requires relinquishing these attachments, addictions and desires. Psychologist Albert Ellis, considered the "grandfather" of CBT, started out as a Freudian psychoanalyst, but eventually applied his life-long fascination with classical philosophy, including that of Buddhism, to his own cognitive form of psychotherapy he called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).
For Ellis, like the Buddha, the root of unhappiness has to do with attachment to the world meeting our often unrealistic or irrational expectations. The more we can let go of these irrational expectations or beliefs about life, people, ourselves, replacing them with more realistic and rational ones, the happier we become. But how is this done? Ellis actively engaged in "disputation" of these unrealistic expectations regarding the way life "should" be, "ought" to be, or "must" be, directly challenging the patient or client to reconsider the veracity of these often deeply held but self-defeating convictions. As with Beck's Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, which evolved directly from REBT, the point is that how we think about things influences how we feel and how we behave, for better or worse.
The goal of REBT is to transform these irrational or distorted beliefs and demands on reality into more rational, realistic preferences. Such unrealistic or irrational expectations set us up for frequent frustration, resentment, anger, rage and, over time, embitterment see my prior post), since reality repeatedly fails to meet our expectations or demands. Thus, for example, the belief "life must always be fair," becomes "I would prefer life to be fair, but I can accept that sometimes it may not be." Now, one's happiness is not determined by whether life is fair or not, or whether one has a significant other or not, or whether one is wealthy or not, receives the grade desired in a class, or even whether one has problems with his or her physical or mental health. For instance, can you still live a meaningful, fulfilling, and happy life despite your psychological or physical symptoms? One is no longer rigidly attached to things always being a certain desired way, but goes with the flow, accepting rather than fighting reality as it is right now. Whatever it is right now, which changes constantly like water in a rushing river. To cite the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."
Here we arrive at the nexus between so-called happiness and acceptance hinted at by different religions and various spiritual psychologies such as Psychosynthesis, Transpersonal Psychology, and Jungian analysis. Marsha Linehan (see my prior post), the clinical psychologist who created Dialectical Behavior Therapy, incorporates this concept of "radical acceptance" into what is fundamentally a form of cognitive behavioral therapy with a distinctly spiritual twist. For Linehan, who specializes in treating borderline personality disorder, the fundamental dialectic or polarity, for both patient and therapist, is acceptance (or validation) and change: patients must learn to accept reality as it is right now for them, while, at the same time, acknowledging the need to change themselves and their reality in the future.
This sort of "radical acceptance" or nonjudgmental stance toward themselves allows for some measure of happiness in the moment despite the fact that they (like all of us to some extent) are needing to improve themselves and better their lives. Mindfulness training, a method based on traditional Buddhist meditation techniques, is an integral part of DBT utilized to help patients with awareness and self-acceptance in the here-and-now. As practitioners of Buddhism have known for so many centuries, the more mindful we can be of our constantly changing river of feelings, sensations, thoughts, fantasies, and so forth, observing with some detachment rather than judging and clinging to them, the more contented, joyful and happy we can be, which is why mindfulness has also become a common component today in the so-called Positive Psychology movement.
Positive psychology (Seligman, 2007), another basically cognitive behavioral therapy, has been around now for more than two decades, and defines itself as a strengths-based therapeutic approach that concerns itself primarily with promoting people's growth and happiness rather than focusing, like mainstream psychiatry and psychology, on their deficiencies, pathology and problems. Like existential and humanistic therapy, positive psychology pays close attention to that which enhances such life-affirming human experiences as love, beauty, joy, awe, and creativity, as well as one's sense of satisfaction, contentment, meaning and purpose in life. For positive psychologists, these positive life experiences are, in part, cultivated via the development of self-efficacy, resilience, and learned optimism (see Seligman, 1991), which all have to do with how we interpret and respond to adversity.
The secret, says Seligman, is to transform oneself from pessimist to optimist by learning and practicing new cognitive skills and behaviors to amplify and accentuate positive emotions, express innate talents and strengths, and view failure and misfortune as merely a temporary setback, a circumstantial challenge that can be overcome, rather than personalizing, generalizing, and catastrophizing the event. Optimism, then, in positive psychology, is equated with happiness, whereas pessimism is equated with unhappiness, dysphoria, and depression. So, how one answers that old proverbial question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, how we perceive, interpret and deal with adversity in life, may, at least partly, determine our happiness.
Finally, both religions and psychotherapies like existential therapy, Jung's analytical psychology, Adler's individual psychology, positive psychology, transpersonal psychology and many others recognize the value and therapeutic power of both being fully and totally engaged in life, in caring for and being part of a community, and committing oneself to submitting to or working in the service of something greater than or beyond ourselves. For some, this may mean devoting one's time, or at least some portion of it, to doing good deeds, such as feeding the hungry, helping the poor, sick and disadvantaged, or entering politics to try to change the system for the better.
For others, it is submitting one's will to his or her conception of God, some "higher power," or surrendering one's ego to the will and superior wisdom of what Jung called the Self, and then seeing what it is that we are being called, like the biblical Jonah, to do. Or some combination of both. In any case, ultimately, our happiness may hinge on whether we have the requisite courage and fortitude to find and fulfill our destiny, to move toward meaning, purpose and wholeness. This journey may not always be joyful or pleasant, as it will likely be fraught with tragedy, tedium, despair, pain, fear, failures and confusion. But our happiness will come from confronting and overcoming these challenges head on, from accepting our existential burden of freedom and responsibility for ourselves, our fellow humans, and our own future, and, like the mythic figure Sisyphus (see Part One), from willingly shouldering and embracing whatever fate metes out to us with dignity, integrity, and grace. Only then can we hope to attain the satisfaction and happiness of Sisyphus.
NOTE: This is Part Three of a series of postings on "Secrets of Psychotherapy: Ten Ways to Help You Be Happy" by Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. Copyright 2015. It is partly derived from my recently published textbook chapter "Existential Therapy: Confronting Life's Ultimate Concerns" in Contemporary Theory and Practice in Counseling and Psychotherapy by Tinsley, H., Lease, S., Giffin Wiersma, N. (Eds.), SAGE, 2015, pp. 323-352.
*To read his previous articles go to https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/201506/secrets-psychotherapy-ten-ways-help-you-be-happy-3
Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist (PSY11404) practicing in Los Angeles, and a former pupil and protégé of existential analyst Dr. Rollo May. In addition to specializing in providing existential and depth psychologically oriented psychotherapy to adult patients for close to 40 years, Dr. Diamond is a former member of the Forensic Panel for the Santa Clara County Superior Court and Approved Panel of Psychiatrists and Psychologists for the Superior Court of Los Angeles County (Criminal Divisions), conducting forensic evaluations and serving as an expert witness in various criminal cases. Dr. Diamond is presently a professor at Loyola Marymount University and faculty member at Ryokan College (Los Angeles), has taught at the C.G. Jung Institute-Zurich (Switzerland), John F. Kennedy University, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, was Assistant Clinical Professor and Training Clinic Director at Pacific Graduate School of Psychology (now Palo Alto University), and served as a Clinical Supervisor for students at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology (Los Angeles). He is the author of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity, with a Foreword by Rollo May (1996), and has contributed chapters to the bestselling anthology Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature (1991), Spirituality and Psychological Health (2005), Forensic Psychiatry: Influences of Evil (2006), the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion (2009), the Encyclopedia of Theory in Counseling and Psychotherapy (in press), and is currently completing a chapter on "Existential Therapy" for the forthcoming text Contemporary Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (2015). Dr. Diamond serves on the Board of Editors for the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, is a regular contributor to Psychology Today, maintains a private psychotherapy practice in the Beverly Hills area, and is a consulting psychologist for a forthcoming television program produced by the creators of the popular, Emmy award-winning show Intervention.