Debating Human Happiness

Knowing the Nature of the Beast
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Oct. 17 2002 1:57 PM

Debating Human Happiness

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Not only is acknowledging our biological limitations important in the organization of political life, as you persuasively argue in The Blank Slate, Steve, but in the organization of mental life as well. Clinical psychology and psychiatry, like Stalinism, has been pervaded by a Lysenko-type myth that all the "disorders" are treatable and all equally so. We just need to find the treatment that works.

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Indeed there are treatments that do work but only for some problems. Panic disorder and blood phobia are almost curable by specific psychotherapies. Manic-depression is eminently containable by specific drugs. But schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and unipolar depression are only modestly relievable. Overweight is only slightly and temporarily treatable (except by gastric bypass). Transsexualism is untreatable (except by changing the genitals). When I think of all the dollars and heartache that have been thrown away on the scam of dieting, I think about class-action lawsuits. (See What You Can Change ... And What You Can't.) I think these impasses tell us about the nature of the beast more than they do about what new therapies are just waiting to be discovered.

The premise of the therapeutic century just passed—that the primary job of the therapist is to rid the patient of bad feelings—was largely misplaced. The best therapists can do with sadness, anger, and anxiety is to help patients live in the more comfortable part of their set range. Evolution stamped dysphoria pretty indelibly into the psyche of the human species. It was the dysphoric hominids that survived the bad weather of the Pleistocene, not the blithe ones.

There is an additional premise that both talk therapy and drug therapy now need to adopt. I call this premise "Dealing With It."

Steve, do you know how the training of snipers is done?

It often takes about 24 hours to get into position and another 36 hours of motionlessness before the sniper can get his (or her) shot off. The sniper is usually very sleepy when he finally shoots. The therapeutic approach to sniper training would be to teach snipers various anti-fatigue tricks or give them wakefulness drugs. That's not what's done. Snipers are kept up for days in training, and they practice shooting while they are falling-over sleepy, until they get very good at sleepy sniping.

What does this "nature of the beast" argument suggest about therapy? That therapists, in the knowledge that the best they can do with many troubles is to move people into a somewhat more comfortable part of their set range, should help teach patients to deal with it. We need to discover the best methods of helping people to function well even when feeling bad—to do end runs around their problems. This is a theme of my translation of the Good Life—using your signature strengths, rather than correcting your weakness, to bring gratification. There are an enormous number of superbly functioning people who work, love, and play effectively even when depressed or anxious. Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln were prime examples. The goal of a life free of dysphoria is a snare and a delusion. A better goal is of good commerce with the world. Authentic happiness, astonishingly, can occur even in the presence of authentic sadness.

Martin Seligman is Fox Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, former president of the American Psychological Association, and the author of Authentic Happiness.

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