What can we learn from philosophers

On Psychotherapy

On New Year’s day I was reviewing the New York Times newsletters, which show up in my email.  The newsletter on Wellness featured an article titled “The 7 day Happiness Challenge” which outlined steps to improve happiness, such as “Taking Stock of your relationships”, making an 8 minute or more phone goal and “Keeping Happiness Going all Year Long” which outlined setting specific goals. Following this article there were a series of links to various articles on ways to  have more energy, improve your nutrition, and increase your happiness. While all laudatory goals, these types of articles all implicitly suggest that if we only follow these or other similar steps we will feel better, be healthier, and of course be happier.  The problem is implementing, and consistently following these or similar steps/strategies is way harder than these articles suggest. This sentiment is best captured in the old Yiddish proverb, “we plan, God laughs.”  This proverb has been put forth in many similar sounding ways, but captures the notion that our best made plans often fail to come to fruition.  The same sentiment is also captured by the famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns, “ the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” which comes from the poem, “To a Mouse.” 

The above articles are only one example of the type of Positivity approach critiqued by Mariana Alessandri, in her new book, “Night Vision: Seeing ourselves through Dark Moods” (1).  Alessandri discusses her thoughts on how to better understand what she refers to as our “dark moods”, depression, pain, anger and grief.  Alessandri is particularly critical of the focus on positive thinking that is reflected in the self-help movement and has proliferated into the world of “influencers” and self-help gurus. Alessandri, like others, such as Barbara Erenright, has traced the philosophy of positive thinking back to the seminal work of Norman Vincent Peale, “The Power of Positive Thinking” (2) which argues that if we think positively we can make good things happen in our lives.  Alessandri’s critique focuses on how failure to achieve positive results can result in our feeling worse. Moreover, she suggests that self-help gurus’ and influencers’ careers are in some ways dependent on our continued struggles to achieve the happiness, wealth, and success that they encourage us to aspire to and achieve. While this critique can be made of mental health professionals, and other professions that need people struggling with problems to exist, Alessandri focuses on how positive thinking strategies are unlikely to succeed and thus reinforce a cycle of feeling worse and then seeking more strategies.  This sadly reminds me of a client of mine who would cite the many self-help books he read and strategies he tried, all to no avail, and to an increased sense of failure. 

One of the current trends that is increasingly present in the work and thinking of therapists is the focus on skills. As a therapy practice we have noticed that more and more of our potential clients are interested in learning skills to better manage their painful emotions, cope more effectively with stressors in their lives, and improve their communication with their spouse or partner. In addition, parents are increasingly requesting therapy services for their children  that focus on teaching their child more effective skills. The emphasis on skills appears to be a product of multiple forces. First, a skills based approach is easily accessible and understood which may explain its popularity with therapists and clients.  Second, it reflects ongoing shifts in the field of mental health which has increasingly emphasized models of treatment that are more skills based, or at least more amenable to being understood from a skills oriented perspective.  Mindfulness is but one of many examples of such an approach, but many therapists who utilize cognitive behavioral therapy, DBT  (dialectical behavior therapy), and ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) emphasize teaching patients useful skills to help better manage their anxiety and depression, cope more effectively with stress and overcome past traumas.  Similarly, the work of John Gottman (3), on marriage, has a large skill based component.  Clearly all these approaches involve much more than teaching skills, but the emphasis on skills is a strong component and one that has seemed to characterize the work of many therapists and the thinking of many potential clients.  

While I am by no means diminishing the value of learning and mastering new skills to help us all grow and develop, I am concerned that these approaches, particularly when understood in more simplistic ways, miss the complexity and contradictions involved in being human.  In the Hidden Brain podcast, featuring Tamra Gendler (4), Gendler argues that far from being fully aware of our emotions and desires, we are driven by emotions, desires and urges out of our awareness, as well as by social forces and pressures.  Gendler focuses on the work of ancient Greek philosophers and how they sought to understand human experience.  She draws on the work of Socrates to explicate the historical origins of the idea that we are far from fully aware of and in control of motivations, and how working to be more self-aware is of critical importance.  Gendler also highlights the work of Plato (5) and offers her perspective on his ideas that our actions, thoughts and feelings stem from the three components of our “soul”, which she translate into non-spiritual terms: “appetites” or animal desires such as for food and sex; “spirit” which Gendler frames as related to social influences; and “reason” or more rational and conscious thinking. Gendler also notes that modern social psychology has repeatedly demonstrated how people behave in ways that are incongruent with their stated beliefs and values, and how we are far more easily influenced by factors out of our awareness, particularly social pressures.  Famous studies such as the Miligram punishment study, Philip Zimbardo’s prison study and a myriad of other studies (6) identify how people are greatly influenced by social pressures, pressures often contrary to their stated values and beliefs (4).  Gendler also noted that modern psychologists such as Daniel Kaniman (7), and Amos Taversky have repeatedly demonstrated how we are far from consciously in charge of our actions and choices.  Finally, she notes that the work of Freud is clearly reflective of this view, i.e., that we are often motivated by “unconscious” urges or drives and that many of our difficulties are reflective of unconscious conflicts (conflicts out or our awareness).  

One of Gendler’s key points is that we are often not fully aware of our motives and needs,  and that we often behave in contradictory and seemingly illogical ways.  Gendler details how Greek philosophers (as well as Buddhist philosophers), Freudian theory, the work of social psychologists, and even the work of neuroscientists all point to the reality that we are far from being the captains of our own ship.  Moreover, Gendler stresses that self-reflection and exploration of our motives, contradictory desires and beliefs is an important, if not essential, part of understanding ourselves.  

As a practicing therapist of many decades I frequently find myself reflecting on the struggles and challenges my clients, and all of us as human beings, face in a world that appears increasingly complex, anxiety provoking, and dangerous.  Recognizing and keeping in mind that many of the challenges that we currently face are questions that human beings have struggled with for several millennia is both comforting and humbling.  It also helps me keep in mind that simplistic solutions and assumptions while often appealing are akin to eating junk food when hungry: they will fill you up but they will not nourish you and will likely make you feel worse in the long run. Gendler notes that Socrates famously claimed to know little. This humility from one of the wisest men who lived, is an important reminder that we might all do better to keep in mind that we are less in charge of ourselves than we would like to believe and that easy solutions are often not easy, and sometimes are not really even solutions at all. 


  1. The Grey Area, Podcast, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/seeing-ourselves-through-the-darkness/id1081584611?i=1000639715607.  This podcast features a discussion with  Mariana Alessandri, professor of philosophy at University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley.
    • Much of this discussion comes from Alessandri’s most recent book, Night Vision: Seeing Ourselves through Dark Moods by Mariana Alessandri (Princeton; 2023)
  2. The classic work on the power of positive thinking is Norman Vincent Peale’s, The Power of Positive Thinking, published in 1952. 
    • Peale was a proponent of the idea that one can make good things happen in one’s life by thinking positively.  This philosophy underlies many self-help books and ideas. In fact, Peale goes so far as suggesting that a main reason for not achieving one’s goals is insufficient positive thinking/motivation. 
  3. John Gottman, PhD, along with his wife and partner, Nan Silver, PhD, have an extensive body of work on marriage and on therapy and self-help strategies to assist married couples.  A classic work is, “The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work,” 1999. 
  4. The Hidden Brain,  Podcast, https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/what-would-socrates-do/. This podcast features a discussion with Tamar Gendler, professor of philosophy at Yale. 
    • Gendler has a variety of accessible youtube videos as well as having written a number of quite dense treatises on philosophical topics. 
    • Peale’s work and the Positive Psychology movement have been the subject of extensive criticism, see Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright Sided” for a detailed critique of this movement and its negative consequences. 
    • An older work that provided a stark critique of the power of positive thinking and the notion that if we are sufficiently positive we can accomplish great things is William Ryan’s,  Blaming the Victim. Random House, 1971, which addresses how lack of success and happiness are attributed to failings of the individual and neglect the impact of our circumstances and broader social factors on our lives.  
  5. Plato’s, The Republic, offers a discussion of his theory or model of the 3 parts of our mind, in his words, our “soul”, which influence our behavior. 
  6. For an understanding of social psychology and the large body of research that suggests we are far more influenced by external factors (as opposed to conscious choice) the reader is directed to an excellent compendium of social psychology research, the classic work by Elliot Aranson, Timothy Wilson, Robert Akert, and Samuel Summers “Social Psychology” now in its 10th edition. 
    • The work of Robert Cialdini, particularly his classic text, “Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion” is an excellent book that repeatedly demonstrates how we are far more influenced by social or external influences than most of us tend to believe. 
  7. Kahneman, Daniel.  Thinking and Fast and Slow, 2011. Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winning psychologist. In this book he details how people have two ways of thinking: Fast, which is more intuitive and emotional, and Slow, which is more rational and logical. A clear implication of his work is that we often operate in the Fast mode and make decisions that are not always logical or well founded.