Tag Archive for counselling

Book Review: Authentic Happiness By Martin E.P. Seligman

You might have thought that being a psychotherapist I would have lots to say about being happy.  This isn’t strictly true though.  Therapists, if I were to be precise, know a lot about unhappiness.  Theories abound explaining our depressions, anxieties, and problems in living.  We don’t have a particularly good grasp of happiness, which is kind of strange since this is what most of our clients are searching for.

Martin Seligman is an unusual psychologist in that he has devoted his career to researching happiness.  His book, ‘Authentic Happiness’, promises to reveal what makes a person happy and is packed with interesting research to back up his point of view.

At heart, Seligman resuscitates the idea of ‘virtue’.  If this sounds a little old fashioned then it is.  The ancient Greeks were the first to suggest that virtue was the basis of a good life, and they go back over 2000 years!

The trouble with ‘virtue’ or ‘good character’, from a psychologist’s point of view, is in the ‘operational definition’.  That is to say how to define and measure it.  After all, if you can’t define and measure virtue, then you can’t conduct research to find out if it does indeed matter.

Seligman attempt to solve this problem was to first search for virtues that all societies have in common.  He came up with the following list:

– Wisdom and knowledge.

– Courage.

– Love and humanity.

– Justice.

– Temperance.

– Spirituality and transcendence.

As an act of scholarship this is an extremely valuable list.  What Seligman does next with the list of virtues is to further refine them into a list of 24 ‘signature strengths’.  The key to happiness, for Seligman, is to work out what your signature strengths are, and find work, play and family life that let you practice them often.  To help you do this, and rate your progress towards achieving happiness, Seligman offers the reader numerous questionnaires.  If you visit the Authentic Happiness Website you can even fill them in online.  Registration is free and offers you averaged information about other people’s scores too which is fun.

This book offers more than just this theory.  The book also provides a valuable analysis of how to find happiness in your past, present and future.  Perhaps sobering for a talking therapist, Seligman argues that understanding your past is not the key to being happy about it. Rather Seligman suggests we should cultivate gratitude for the people who have helped us, and forgive the people who have hurt us.  It is in the gratitude and the forgiving that we come to remember the past as happy.  For me, this was the most valuable lesson I learnt from the book.

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Male: The Gender Of Extremes.

Men have produced some of the most spiritually transcendent philosophies the world has ever seen. Christ, Buddha and Mohammed all lived at the dawn of history yet still remain revered by many. These were not just great thinkers, but great human beings.  But not all men are like this. The male gender has also produced some of the worst rogues on record. Two of them, in the shape of Hitler and Stalin, in the 20th century alone.

One theory is that whilst women converge to the mean on the spread of the population, men tend to have a broader spread across the population. The “average” man and woman may be the same, but the differences in spread accounts for why more men are to be found at the extremes.

Take intelligence as well documented example. On average, men and women are equivalent when it comes to IQ. Because women tend to converge to the mean, this means that in the “super intelligent” section of IQ, there is four times as many men as women. It also means that in the “super unintelligent” sector of IQ, there are also four times as many men as women. As a consequence, more men are either super intelligent or super unintelligent compared to women.

This difference in spread of IQ may help to account for why there are so many Nobel laureates who are men, but also why there are so many men in prison. Indeed illiteracy is phenomenally high in the prison population, which is, of course, a population of mainly men. Arguably you need a degree of literacy in order to participate and succeed in modern society, and indeed, defend oneself against the state. As a result there are more men who are ill equipped to succeed and prosper in society than women.

These patterns have not just been found in IQ but in other measures of personality. This does not restrict itself to psychological scores but can be seen in other areas of experience.  Take education as an example.  Girls are more likely than boys to be good all-rounder’s.  Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to be good in certain provinces of learning but bum out completely in other areas of learning.

Men, so it seems, are more likely to be found at the extremes of behaviour. As a gender, we seem to have evolved to be specialists rather than generalists.  Why this might be so, however, is an open question.  My best guess is that much of behaviour evolved as a ‘sexual ornament’ to attract a mate.  The selection pressures to develop unique talents were therefore higher for men than women.  But because you can’t be extremely good at everything, this means that men are consequently extremely bad at other things.  This might create a pressure in sexual selection toward the extremes of ability/inability in men.  But it’s just a thought.

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Can Cbt Help ‘Biological’ Depression?

We can all feel low and poorly motivated from time to time.  But for as many as 30% during our lives, our low mood and lack of motivation just won’t shift.  Often, despite our best efforts, and the efforts of those who care for us, our low moods exhaust our ability to cope.  We have become depressed.
mental health
The question for mental health practitioners is how best to help someone who has become depressed?  One treatment strategy, the medical approach, involves prescribing an antidepressant.  These work on the neurotransmitters in the brain cells to improve our mood.  The other strategy is to use a proven psychological approach like counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

On the face of it looks confusing for the patient.  Is my depression a biological illness, or a psychological problem?  The reality is that depression is best seen as both biological and psychological.  Just two sides of the same coin.

It is certainly true that for some patients, their depression falls more towards the biological, and for others their depression falls more toward the psychological.  One theory suggests that the more a person excretes catecholamines in their urine, the more the depression has a biological component.

For talking therapists like myself, the interesting question is, are the interventions I use effective for people with these biological markers of depression?  In a recent study by Oei in the journal Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, patients with high levels of catecholamine’s and low levels of catecholamine’s  were each given a course of CBT.  Although the high catecholamine’s group had a higher score of depression severity at the start of therapy, both groups showed the same rate of improvement overall.

What does this mean?  Well in short it suggests that CBT is an effective treatment for depression, even for people showing evidence of a high ‘biological’ component.  This will bring some comfort for those people who are depressed and don’t want to take medication.  CBT also holds the advantage that you learn the skills to stay well which, if practiced, will help keep you well for the long term.  Unfortunately with medical approaches, the depression can sometimes return once the medication is stopped.

My own view is that antidepressants and talking therapies like CBT both have a role to play in the treatment of depression and often work extremely well together.  But if you really don’t want to take tablets, CBT or counselling really is an effective option for many people.

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About Happiness

“Happiness is an imaginary condition formerly often attributed by the living to the dead, now usually attributed by adults to children, and children to adults.”

Thomas Szasz cited by Lorie, P. and Mascetti, M.N. (1986)  The Quotable Spirit – Divine, mystical and inspirational quotations.  Macmillan Publishers Ltd.: London.  p.26.

In therapy, clients often present because, in one way or another, they consider themselves to be ‘unhappy’.  When asked what they want from therapy, they often say they want to ‘be happy’.

What the quote above highlights, however, is that happiness is a slippery concept.  Rarely, if ever, can we declare our current felling state as one of ‘being happy’.  Perhaps the nearest we can achieve is to look back over our lives and attribute particular periods as being ‘happy’ ones.

But were those times really ‘happy’?  If we were to examine our happy experiences of the past more closely, we would find those periods to include other emotions like disappointment, frustration, anger or sadness.

Even when looking to our past, then, our periods of happiness seem to evaporate with closer examination.

Why, then, is happiness so illusive?

One reason, I think, is we look towards happiness as a destination … something we need to work towards, a way of being with the world that we need to achieve … something that is marked by the absence of other, less pleasant emotions.  We want to be rid of our anxiety, depressions and disappointments, and replace them with something different.

Viewed in this way, however, happiness just becomes something that, like Szasz points out above, is attributed to other people, or times and places in our lives, but never now.

If we examine our experience closely, however, our feeling states are always mixed.  We feel fear and anger and upset and resentment etc., at all times of our lives.  There are few, if ever, truly ‘happy’ moments.

What does this teach us?  My view is that happiness is way to travel, it is not a destination.  Our experience will always be filled with ‘negative’ emotions.  Simply turning away from them … or worse, wishing them away to a future without them, is ultimately futile.

It is only in accepting, feeling and experiencing our world as it is, can we come to live ‘happy’ lives.  Happiness, in other words, is not somewhere we have been, or plan to go, but it is something we do  … furthermore, it is something we do despite our difficult circumstances.

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Homosexuality Can’t Be ‘Cured’ – But Can We Accept It?

Over the last 200 years or so, there has been ongoing debate about the relative role of psychology and biology in a range of human behaviours.  Autism and homosexuality are two good examples that research has placed firmly on the side of biology.  For many years professionals tried talking therapies to help people with autism and homosexuality overcome their ‘afflictions’.  In both cases all they served to do was increase the distress of the patient, and their families, by making them feel responsible for their behaviour.
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With respect to homosexuality, the psychiatric profession for many years held it to be an illness.  This is no longer the case.  Although the causes of homosexuality are still debated in nuance, there is increasing consensus that it is biology that determines a person’s sexuality, not psychology, upbringing or indeed, personal choice.  Interestingly there are different biological reasons for male homosexuality and female homosexuality, rather than a unified reason that accounts for both.

Furthermore, a survey of all published research about therapies that have tried to change a person’s sexuality has shown that it has always failed to do so, and often causes harm.  This has recently led to the American Psychological Society issuing a declaration that therapy to change a person’s sexuality does not work, with the implication that it is unethical to try to do so.  Pressure is being put on the British Psychological Society and the Royal College of Psychiatry to issue a similar statement.

Given this backdrop it is alarming that a recent study in MBC Psychiatry found that as many as 1 in 6 therapists have attempted to change at least one person’s sexual orientation  in their professional career.  On the face of it this seems to go against the evidence.  I wonder, though, if something more subtle is going on – namely a difficulty knowing how to deal with gay clients who are unhappy about their sexuality.

In the life history of most gay men there is likely to be a period when they couldn’t accept their sexuality, and therefore really didn’t want to be gay.  The pressures of family and society to conform to a heterosexual norm seem insurmountable for many men.  It is clear that many gay clients have a lot of soul searching to do before they form an acceptance of their sexuality.  Indeed, it could be argued that many gay men, though superficially accepting and adopting a gay lifestyle, still suffer from a hangover of ‘internalised homophobia’ that continues to impact on their emotional wellbeing and ability to form meaningful relationships.

Given the very real unhappiness that finding oneself gay can bring to a person, it seems understandable, if ill advised, to try and help the person to lead a straight lifestyle.  I suspect this, rather than a real belief in its possibility, that has led so many of my colleagues to try and change a persons sexuality.

It is within this backdrop, however, that the real danger to gay men’s well-being lies – namely in those religious organisations that still offer ‘treatments’ for homosexuality. Against the grain of science but in the name of God, such organisations can only serve to enhance gay men’s unhappiness with their sexuality, and not in fact offer any real solution to it.  At best all they can hope to achieve is an asexual life where sex and relationships are sacrificed for a supposed ‘greater’ ideal of ‘what God wants’.  I can’t see this being beneficial to the individual, or, indeed, society.

Homosexuality will continue to be a contentious issue, not least because it raises tensions between individual behaviour and social and religious mores. All I can do as a therapist is help everybody, gay or straight alike, to be more accepting of homosexuality.  It is in accepting others how they really are, that we are best able to learn to accept ourselves as we really are.  Psychological health, after all, starts by seeing the world as it really is, rather than how we think it should be.

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