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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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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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If The Gay Scene Is The Answer, What Is The Question?

This weekend hundreds of thousands of gay men from around the country and abroad are descending on Manchester to celebrate gay Pride.  These showcase events celebrate the diversity of gay culture, and offer an opportunity for men of all ages to stand together – out and proud.  But such festivals of gay culture hide some very disturbing truths.
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First, for many gay men, there is only one thing worse than coming out as gay … and that is finding out what the gay scene is like.  In my experience, young gay men’s expectations of the gay scene is of a community of like minded men through which they can find love and fulfilment.  The reality is often lots of shagging but very little by way of community, and even less of fulfilment.  Indeed for many gay men, they find the gay scene predatory, sleazy and demeaning.  What’s going on?

I guess the first thing to clear away is the psychological baggage some gay men bring to the gay scene.  Let’s face it; accepting that you are gay is tough.  Ever since you were a kid you picked up social messages that being gay was wrong or weird or antisocial.  Sometimes those messages were literally hammered home in the form of physical attack.  Sometimes in the street, and sadly, sometimes from brothers and fathers too.

So gay men bring a stock of self hatred to the gay scene.  Of course we see what we expect to find.  Our eyes seek out the stereotypes we were led to believe existed and our mind gravitates on them, often with aversion.  This is a process psychologist’s call projective identification.  We see those aspects we dislike in ourselves in other people, and then hate them for it.  Another name for it is internalised homophobia.

Many of my gay clients struggle with this internalised homophobia.  They go onto the gay scene, unaware and unprepared for what it has to offer, then recoil in dismay at what they find.  If we can clear our minds of such notions, what is really there in the gay scene?

Well I think a lot of what happens on the gay scene reflects not on gay men, but on the fact gay men are men.

Let me explain.  In girls, they develop into social creatures interested in faces and emotions from the day they are born.  Girls brains are not marinaded in testosterone.  Boys’ brains are, and this king of the male hormones kills off much of the social brain in boys.  Baby boys are less interested in faces and connecting and more interested in action and adventure.

As boys develop into young men testosterone again begins to shape their brains and they start to become interested not only in sex, but pecking order.  It’s just as important to boys and young men to know where they stand in the pecking order of life as it is for girls to connect and make friends.

Inhibited by a brain not wired for ‘community’, and testosterone fuelling the brain with action and sex, young gay men are thrust into a testosterone rich environment which prises, above all else, sexual beauty and the pecking order it creates.  As men’s brains are also driven by the automatic need to seek out beauty, the young and the gorgeous rise to the top, and everybody else falls in behind – which of course, is virtually everybody.

It wasn’t always like this.  In the 80’s and 90’s gay men had a cause to fight.  With regressive laws like the infamous Section 28, which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, and the AIDS pandemic killing young gay men by the thousand, there was much to get angry about.  Gay men petitioned, protested and confronted the establishment to end their oppressive law making and provide the services to help gay men die with dignity.

Things are different now.  With antidiscrimination legislation protecting gay men’s working, and let’s face it, shopping rights, we now live in a different era.  With civil partnerships, gay men can now pay taxes on an equal footing with their straight counterparts.  The pressure now is to normalise and assimilate gay men to a straight moral order.

So this leads me to ask a different question.  If the gay scene is to be more than simply establishing a pecking order based on youth and beauty, and the opportunity for young men to feed their testosterone driven sexual appetites, what does it need to be?

Well in my work with gay men, I see the social isolation, alienation, and drink and alcohol problems fueled by the commercial gay scene.  The gay scene might be in full on party mode, but the male brain isn’t making the connections it needs to sustain and nurture lives, old and young.  Gay men need community, not more drinking opportunities, and I see very little by way of community action bringing it about.

The commercial gay scene may be an answer to one question … but perhaps it’s not the right question to be asking.

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Want To Lose Weight? Laser Your Gut !

We all know blokes are prone to putting on the pounds around our guts.  We know its not good for our health but mores the point we don’t like it, our partners don’t like it, and now there appears to be a way of getting rid of it that is painless, quick and doesn’t involve diets or exercise – sound too good to be true?  Read on …
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Lasers have been used in a wide range of medical procedures for years.  Rodrigo Neira, a plastic surgeon, noticed in 2001, that if he shone a laser at a culture of fat cells, the laser emulsified the tissue.  He reported his findings to the second South American Congress on Plastic and reconstructive surgery.

Later he showed that shining the laser onto fat tissue made fat tissue easier to remove by liposuction.  These findings were reported in the Aesthetic Surgery Journal (Vol. 22, p. 451).

The next step was to see if lasered fat cells would cause a loss of weight without liposuction.  The results were promising and reported in the journal Lasers in Surgery and Medicine (Vol. 41, p. 799).  The average lasered person lost 3.51 inches of girth.

The lasers seem to cause holes to form in the fat cell membranes. This allows the fat into the intercellular spaces.  It is then claimed that this fat is then harmlessly cleared by the body.

Although this technology is still relatively new and unproven by medical standards, it is now available.  It is not cheap though, a 20 minute laser consultation costs approximately £250 … but the provider Harley Fit claim you can loose up to seven inches in one treatment.

From my perspective, I am convinced the lasers do emulsify the fat which then passes through the body naturally.  The problem is that it may not destroy the fat cells themselves.

Fat cells work like a ratchet system; our bodies can produce new ones, but not destroy old ones.  This system will suffer from the Achilles heel of all fat reduction systems; it will trick the body into believing it is in starvation mode, and the fat may just pile back on.

If the results justify the hype, this truly is a remarkable breakthrough.  To hold on to your gains though, you are will still have to address your eating and exercising habits.

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How Big Is Your Sexual Ornament?

According to Geoffrey Miller, author of The Mating Mind, in evolutionary terms, the mind “… makes most sense as an entertainment system designed to stimulate other brains …” (p. 155) … but what is he referring to?

Well all species develop what are called ‘sexual ornaments’ to display their fitness as a mate.  Take a peacock for example.  His elaborate display of feathers is a sexual ornament which demonstrates the health of his body and, by implication, his genes.

There are a couple of features to sexual ornaments worth mentioning.  First of all they display fitness because they invest excess resources in order to develop them.  If our male peacock was ill or unable to forage successfully, his plumage would not be so symmetrical or ornate.  He would be using all the resources he had available simply to survive.  So a sexual ornament, in evolutionary terms, demonstrates fitness over and above that which is simply needed to survive.

Second, it is usually the males who develop the most ornate sexual ornaments in order to attract the females to mate with.  In biology, the males are ‘the salesmen’ and females ‘sales resistant’.  But surely this is not true in humans? Think again.

Well according to Miller this might indeed be the case.  In fact it could be argued that the human mind itself is a sexual ornament designed simply for the seduction of a mate.  With the human mind we have the capacity to go beyond simple physical sensory appeal.  Our brains work with ideas and concepts, things that could, if developed, be used to display sexual fitness as a sexual ornament.

If you are struggling to survive you may have fewer spare resources available for the development of the intellect.  A man, who has the leisure to develop his interests, creativity and compete in a wide variety of activities, is demonstrating his excess of resources.  It is argued that such abilities and capacities can, in themselves, be seen as the human male equivalent of the peacock’s feathers.  Our minds, in other words, are there to develop and woo the opposite sex with a dazzling demonstration of competence in the higher pursuits.  Some activities perhaps, like being a pop musician, sportsman, or even stand up comedian, attract more competition from males for this reason.

So if I ask ‘how big is your sexual ornamentation’, don’t necessarily think below the belt, or size of your muscles, think of your successes in business, your profession, the arts, and even how you tell a joke or sing a song.  In evolutionary terms, the art of courtship in humans goes much further than the body beautiful.  In fact it can quickly transcend it.  Which is perhaps why good looking men develop no personality, and the best stand up comedians look like clowns?

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The World Cup And Testosterone

Women are often baffled by men’s reactions to sport.  Indeed some men are baffled too.  As the World Cup will soon be upon us, and the nations euphoria will build on mass before, no doubt, we have to console ourselves at the loss of yet another penalty shoot out, I thought it might be useful to reflect on what’s going on … in our brains.
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The key to understanding men’s reactions to the World Cup, or any sport for that matter, is testosterone.  From as early as being an unborn child, testosterone shapes and dominates men’s brains.  It literally kills off ‘female’ parts of the brain, and builds the male brain that will seek out beautiful girls … and sport.  So how is testosterone implicated in sport?

Researchers have found that leading up to a competition; men’s brains become flooded with testosterone.  This is the same whether we are competing or simply watching.  The testosterone gives us our sense of excited anticipation, but it also gives us a belief that our team cannot lose.  Given that our brains evolved over millions of years, it’s easy to see why such excitement and confidence could give us an advantage.  Going to hunt or war is going to be more successful if fuelled by excitement and self confidence.

Researchers have also found that if we, or our team, should win, our testosterone levels fly through the roof.  This is a natural high, not dissimilar to cocaine, and it’s addictive.  The natural high these elevated levels of testosterone give us makes us behave with a cockiness and self assuredness that can drive women bonkers.  Women have a testosterone rush with sport too, but with only about 10% of the testosterone of what a man gets, even the keenest women isn’t going to view the World Cup in the same way as a man.  As a result, this part of being a man is permanently off limits to women … they just don’t get it.

You can see this male typical behaviour down the pub.  The excitement and confidence make us wear silly hats and face paint and we bond with our fellow supporters.  The modern equivalent of hunting the wild boar.  If we win … happy days … our testosterone soars and we party on the high.  As our team progresses through the World Cup with (hopefully) win after win, you can see the effects of this group narcosis everywhere, in the proud display of flags and national colours.

But what if we lose?  Well I guess we’ve all experienced that flat feeling when the final score comes in.  The game is over.  All hope has gone.  We have lost.  Men silently finish their drinks and mooch off home feeling despondent, often for days at a time.  It is as if your emotional world has just collapsed.  Why is this?  Well researchers have found that if our team should loose, our testosterone levels also collapse.  As a result, the fuel for the natural high dries up, making is sullen and unresponsive.  We experience a mild depression and self doubt. We even lose interest in sex.  This is a hormonal crisis for men.  A sort of male PMT.

Because women don’t experience the high, they can’t relate to the low either.  Any attempts to explain your feeling of despondency is bound to fail.  Women are biologically not equipped to ‘get’ what we are going through.  The best thing to do is disappear off to the shed for a few days, and wait for our hormones to get back to normal.  Space and time will heal; just let her know that’s what you need.

But what if we don’t lose, what if we actually win the World Cup?  Well we can expect a testosterone high that we will last for months.  The nations feel good factor will skyrocket.  It might even boost our economic output.  Eventually, of course, our bodies will return to normal.  But we will remember the testosterone fuelled euphoria for the rest of our lives.  I hope we win.

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Are You One Of The 6 In 10?

As a blogger on men’s mental health, I’m often struck by the difficulty some men find admitting they have a problem they can’t resolve themselves.  I think some of this is cultural.  As a society we don’t treat mental health as seriously as we should.  The NHS services for mental health are often seen as the Cinderella services, receiving the least funding and overwhelming demand.    I think it’s also something about men.  Our instinct when faced with an emotional crisis is to retire to the ‘garden shed’ and try and work it out for ourselves.  But we can’t always do it on our own.
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Mental health problems affect the majority of us at some point in our lives.  A recent survey by the mental health charity Together found that 6 out of 10 Britain’s have had a period of their life when  they have found it difficult to cope mentally.  70% had suffered from stress, 59% had suffered from anxiety, and 55% from depression.

As a professional I know that it is much easier to treat disorders like stress, anxiety and depression if men present early.  All too often men present after years of suffering, which makes treatment longer, more complicated and more expensive.

Men who present early make the quickest recovery.  What’s more, the mental health skills they learn mean they are better able to cope with future problems much more effectively.  Modern treatments for things like stress, anxiety and depression are not just about helping with the current problem, but teach the skills and knowledge you need to prevent it from happening again.  I’m struck by the number of men that say to me ‘why wasn’t I taught this before’, or ‘everybody should know about this’.

My advice if you are finding it difficult to cope right now is get the right advice early.  What you learn may mean the next time you go to the garden shed to reflect on a problem, you have the right tools to know what to do with it.

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Another Aggression And Gene Link Found In Men

Research by Kevin Beaver at Florida State University has found a link between the low-activity version of the gene MAOA and gang behaviour in men.  This gene, which is rarely found in women, has been shown to be related to aggression in men who have been abused as children.

Beaver found that men with low-activity MAOA were twice as likely to join gangs as men with the normal version.  Furthermore, of gang members, men with low-activity MAOA were four times as likely to have used a weapon, compared to men with the normal version of the gene.

This is the latest in a number of studies that relate genetics to aggression in some men, some of which I have reported here.  Men with the XYY chromosome variation have long been identified as more aggressive than the more common XY chromosome variation, and are overrepresented in the prison population.

What these studies are showing is that, for some men, aggression is likely to be a problem for them, and those around them – for genetic reasons.  Furthermore these men, in principle anyway, could be identified by genetic testing.  It follows that these men could be targeted for early intervention before their aggression causes them difficulties.

Anger is the only emotion that, if seen in excess, is dealt with by the criminal justice system rather than the health care system.  What is disturbing about this is that the criminal justice system may be good at ‘containing’ these aggressive men, but offers precious little to address their underlying emotional regulation issues.  In fact I have worked with many men who have received repeated prison sentences for aggressive behaviour – in none of these cases did the criminal justice system offer anything to help the man understand and moderate his aggressive behaviour.

I can’t help thinking that if ‘aggression’ was something identified by women as an issue within their ranks, aggressive behaviour would have become a health care priority a long time ago.

Things might be about to change.  The American Psychiatric Association has been reported recently to be considering ‘aggressive behaviour’ as a distinct clinical diagnosis.  If they proceed with this, and I hope they do, this might force service providers and clinicians to provide services for these men – many of whom, as I have repeatedly shown, often have a biological predisposition to aggression.

It seems to me to make sense to address the cause of aggressive behaviour in some men.  Such a strategy may well reduce the burden on the criminal justice system, and the social distress these men’s behaviour causes, not least to the men themselves.


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