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Albert Ellis

Set the controls for the heart of happiness

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed there was no newsletter last weekend. Apologies. The reason for this is I have journeyed deep into the warm, pulsating heart of the happiness movement. Last Thursday I took part in a conference on Positive Psychology at Wellington College (the pioneer of well-being classes), and then I went down to Dartington, in Totnes, Devon, to take part in an Action for Happiness two-day happiness festival.  I left Dartington, I kid you not, while a choir stood on the misty lawn singing ‘happy, happy, happy clappy!’ I felt like a rehab patient leaving the Priory.

Anyway, abandoning my usual dour demeanour, I admit that both events were great fun, and encouraging. My sense is that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is becoming less positivistic (in other words, less dogmatic in its claims to objectivity and scientific truth) and more responsive to the role of philosophy and ethical reasoning in the search for the good life. (On that point, it’s sad that Christopher Peterson, one of the more philosophical voices within Positive Psychology, died this week. Here’s his beautiful last blog post).

I organised a philosophy discussion circle at Dartington – the first time I’ve facilitated one – and I think everyone involved really felt the benefit of that sort of open Socratic inquiry into what the good life means for us. As the Quakers well knew, there’s something very egalitarian and democratic about a discussion circle – there’s no expert or priest or higher authority ‘up there’ while the masses kneel beneath them. Everyone is equally at the front or at the centre. And facilitating a circle discussion seemed to involve letting go of control and letting silences happen – both quite difficult for me!

I also came away from the events hopeful that the Positive Psychology / happiness movement is aware of the risk that, in deifying certain emotional states or personality types as ideal, you pathologise their opposites. If you say that happiness is ideal, there’s a risk that sadness becomes an unacceptable failure. If extroversion is absolutely good, then introversion could be deemed absolutely bad. If optimism is always healthy, then pessimism becomes toxic. That sort of thinking is far too black-and-white, and I believe it actually causes suffering rather than mitigating it, by making introverts or pessimists feel worse about themselves. After all, introverts and pessimists have important social roles to play too, particularly in chronically optimistic short-term societies like ours.

We have many different moods and dispositions, and sometimes the best way to transform the difficult ones is to accept them rather than demonise them. In the words of Rumi, in what I think might be my favourite poem:

Learn the alchemy true human beings know: the moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door opens.
Welcome difficulty as a familiar comrade.
Joke with torment brought by a Friend.
Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets that serve to cover, and then are taken off.
That undressing, and the beautiful naked body underneath, is the sweetness that comes after grief.

I’ve given a lot of talks in the last month or so on the relationship between ancient philosophy and CBT,  and often someone in the audience criticises CBT for being shallow, simplistic, mechanistic, capitalist and ‘not dealing with root causes’. Usually such critics are therapists or counsellors in other traditions, annoyed that they didn’t get any public money. My answer is typically that I expect other forms of therapy to get public funding in the future – it’s already happening for approaches like mindfulness therapy – but you can’t expect to get any government funding without a convincing evidence base. Anecdotal case studies by psychologists simply won’t cut it anymore. As Freud proved, they’re too easy to fake.

It is also clear to me, however, that CBT is not for everyone and the research still has a long way to go to work out how to help more people. But what saddens me is that some therapists fail to find anything to celebrate in the government’s new support for talking therapies. Nor do many lay-people see the young national mental health service as something to fight for. The Improved Access for Psychotherapies (IAPT) policy is still very young, and vulnerable (as Paul Burstow MP, former minister for care services, recently emphasised). We shouldn’t assume it will stay in existence without our protection.

Richard Layard, the economist who more than anyone helped get IAPT funding, warned at Dartington that not all allocated funding is coming through and that as much as half of all children’s therapy services are being closed (I’ve asked him for stats to back up that claim). It is a very recent phenomenon for government to take mental illnesses like depression and anxiety seriously. If you believe in talking therapies, not just CBT but any talking therapies, then please support IAPT. I am all for expanding the range of therapies available on the NHS, as long as they are evidence-based.

Idealistic champions of adult education like RH Tawney are long gone.

Meanwhile, one thing that struck me as we discussed various ‘happiness policies’ at Dartington, was how little anyone spoke of adult education. Likewise, not one political party mentioned adult education at their conference. Schools, academies, universities – they’re all in the news constantly. But adult education is completely off the political radar at the moment. Adult education was a central part of the socialist vision for thinkers like RH Tawney. But no one in parliament cares about it now, none think it worth fighting for. At least Action for Happiness is trying to do something for adult education, albeit in a rather informal and unstructured way. It is a noble attempt to spread ideas about the good life and the good society – inspired, I believe, by Richard Layard’s experience of attending a Quaker reading group for many years.

The Octagon Room at Queen Mary, University of London

Talking of reviving adult education, we had a seminar at Queen Mary, University of London yesterday evening, in the beautiful Octagon Room, which was once a library for East End workers back in the 19th century when Queen Mary was known as the People’s Palace. We had a great group of participants come and talk about their work – including Philosophy Now, Philosophy In the Pub, Skeptics In the Pub, Pub Psychology, Sapere (a charity that does a lot of work with Philosophy 4 Children), Niki Barbery Bleyleben (good name!) who runs discussion groups for mums, and many others. We videoed the presentations and will put them up soon, along with the report I’m writing on philosophy clubs, and the website,, which will finally launch next week, I promise!

One of the things I suggest in the report is that the contemporary grassroots philosophy movement is in part a product of the 1960s, and that decade’s radical reformation of academia and demand that it ‘look beyond the campus’ (in the words of the Port Huron Statement). In that spirit, here is a 2008 BBC Radio 4 documentary by Nick Fraser on ‘1968: Philosophy in the streets’, with contributions from philosophers including Simon Critchley and Alain Badiou.

One of the participants at our seminar was Paul Hains, who together with his wife Brigid recently launched the excellent online magazine Aeon. I’m not just saying that because he occasionally sponsors our philosophy club events – the essays it publishes are really very good. Check out this one by Ross Andersen (whose Atlantic articles on philosophy are typically excellent) on dendrochronology and the threats facing the oldest trees in the world

Here, from the Futility Closet blog, is some advice from 1820 on how to fight ‘low spirits’, in a letter from Sidney Smith to Lady Georgiana Morpeth:

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you. 1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana,

Very truly yours,

Sydney Smith

Did you see the BBC 2 series on the history of the stiff upper lip? It was excellent, and managed to get the history of emotions onto mainstream TV. Well done to my supervisor, Thomas Dixon, for contributing to the programme (he’s now a leading historian of public crying, or a ‘sobbing guru’ as someone put it on Twitter). Check out the blog posts he wrote about the research behind the show.

Talking of stiff upper lips, a fortnight ago I participated in an excellent seminar on Stoicism and CBT at Exeter University. Here’s a blog on Stoicism and its uses today that came out of it – expect some very good posts in the future from some of the seminar participants.

I admire Jenny Hartley and Sarah Turvey of the University of Roehampton for their pioneering work over the last decade on reading groups and book clubs. Their latest project is taking reading groups into prisons. They have expanded the number of such groups from 4 to 30. Great work.

Here’s a BBC radio programme about the fast-developing science of hallucinations.

From 3 Quarks Daily, here’s communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor in an hour-long discussion with Confucian philosopher Tu Weiming, asking if we’re leaving the secular age.

And here’s an essay with Tu Weiming explains why he thinks we’re moving beyond the Enlightenment and philosophy is taking a ‘spiritual turn’.

I’ve had some wonderful emails from people who have read the book over the last fortnight – thank you very much. It means a huge amount to me and makes me feel the hard work is worth it. You can help me in my work by buying the book for yourself or others, spreading the word, or writing a review on Amazon or Good Reads. We finally got an offer from the US (hooray! thanks for your support on that). There’s still a lot of work to be done, so your help in promoting the book is hugely appreciated.

In the meantime, here is a photo of the nominees for this year’s Booker Prize, with Will Self at the back showing how to do book promotion.

See you next week,


The Vickys: can you be paternalist without being patronising?

Two news stories caught my eye this weekend. Firstly, the British government wants to launch a voucher scheme so every parent can take parenting classes from a range of providers. One of them is called the Parenting Gym, and is owned by Octavius Black, the millionaire school-chum of David Cameron’s, who made his fortune through Mind Gym, a corporate well-being consultancy.

The other story was that the Templeton Foundation has given a multi-million-pound grant to Birmingham University to set up a Jubilee Values and Character Centre. The press release says:

How does the power of good character transform and shape the future of society? What would be the wider social, cultural and moral impact of a more grateful Britain?  What personal virtues should ground public service?  How can fostering character traits like hope and optimism be help working towards a better British society? The Centre will initiate a national consultation on a proposed curriculum policy for character building in schools, and will run a 10-year project at Birmingham called ‘Gratitude Britain’.

These are the two latest trumpet-blasts from a movement which has been dubbed the New Paternalism. The phrase originally appeared from Nudge psychologists like Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who call their nudge policy interventions ‘libertarian paternalism’. They want to nudge people in pro-social directions without them realising it (hence it’s ‘libertarian’ – because the citizens are so dumb they don’t realise they’re being guided).

But there are other New Paternalists who are much bolder. They want to instil good values in the citizenry, create good habits, foster good character. They are similar to Victorian paternalists like Matthew Arnold, but they take his lofty Hellenic philosophy and try to put it on a firm evidence base, to create a science of resilience, optimism and other ‘character strengths’.

I call this movement the Vickys, after the tribe in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. It’s a steam-punk novel about a future society that has fragmented into a collection of tribes or ‘phyles’, each with their own culture and moral code – including a Nation of Islam tribe, a neo-Confucian tribe, and the Vickys, who are cyber-engineers and who follow Victorian customs. Success in this society is all about what phyle has accepted you.  Your character’s flourishing depends on your phyle’s network and moral culture – – and if you don’t have a phyle, you’re screwed. In the plot, the leader of the Vickys hires a nano-engineer to code an interactive ‘gentleman’s primer’ to cultivate the character of his niece – except it gets stolen and discovered by a street orphan, who subsequently rises to the top of her society.

So the real-world Vickys include, in the US, Martin Seligman and the Positive Psychologists, who have got enormous backing from Templeton for their research into character strengths and resilience training, and who launched a $125 million course in resilience-training for the US Army. Like Stephenson’s Illustrated Primer, they want to create a computer-automated course in moral education – an app for character. The Vickys also include  include self-control psychologists like Roy Baumeister, and champions of ‘social and moral capital’ like Jonathan Haidt and Robert Puttnam.

The UK Vickys include Wellington headmaster Anthony Seldon and his new colleague, James O’Shaughnessy, who left the Number 10 policy unit last year to set up a chain of Wellington academies; Matthew Taylor of the RSA; Matthew Grist and Jen Lexmond of Demos; the Young Foundation; David Goodhart of Prospect Magazine; Danny Kruger, another former Tory advisor who wrote Cameron’s ‘hug a hoodie’ speech and who now runs a charity for former prison inmates; Lord Richard Layard of the LSE; and, more speculatively, Alain de Botton, whose recent writings have called for a shift beyond liberalism and back to a more interventionist paternalism. Anthony Seldon described the New Paternalist ethos in the Telegraph this week:

Character, and specifically its neglect, is the number one issue of our age. A society that is not grounded in deep values, that doesn’t know who its heroes are and that lacks a commitment to the common good, is one that is failing. Such we have become… The riots in British cities in August 2011 were the catalyst for the creation [of the new Jubilee Centre for Character and Values]. As the fires subsided, a call was heard across the nation for a renewed emphasis on communal values and ethical teaching, which would discourage such events happening again. It is an indictment of us all that such a centre should ever need to have been established…The development of a sense of gratitude among people in Britain will be at the heart of the work. The character strengths it will advocate are self-restraint, hard work, resilience, optimism, courage, generosity, modesty, empathy, kindness and good manners. Old-fashioned values, maybe. Some will sneer, and ridicule them as middle class or “public school”. But these are eternal values, as advocated by Aristotle and countless thinkers since.

I am interested in this movement, and attracted to some aspects of it. My book is very much about the new fusion of ancient virtue ethics with modern empirical psychology, and how this new fusion is being spread by public policy in schools, the army and beyond to foster character, resilience, eudaimonia and other such ideals. I got into the scene when Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helped me overcome depression in my early 20s, and I then found out how much CBT owed to ancient Greek philosophy. I’m a huge fan of Greek philosophy and its practical therapeutic use today, so a part of me loves the renaissance of virtue ethics in modern policy.

But we have to be aware of the ideological and political context of these efforts in mass character education. It can all too easily seem like rich people telling poor people to buck up and be a bit more moral. It can ignore the economic and environmental context and how that dynamically feeds into character. I’m not saying character is entirely caused by economic context. But it’s certainly a factor – Aristotle himself knew that. He insisted eudaimonia was as much made up of external factors like wealth and the kind of society you live in. If you’re too poor or your society is too unequal, he warned, it would be very difficult for you to achieve eudaimonia or for your society to find the ‘common good’.

Jeffrey Lebowski

Rich people tend to attribute their success entirely to their character, as if they simply have the right values, and poor people are poor because they don’t.  Very rich people like Sir John Templeton or Andrew Carnegie love to think they became incredibly wealthy because they worked out the primal ‘laws of the universe’ – and then they go around giving money to people like Napoleon Hill or Birmingham University to prove it. They insist that anyone can become as rich as them, they just need to follow these basic cosmic laws. It’s the philosophy of Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire in the Coen Brothers’ film, who turns out to have married into money. This laissez-faire / law of attraction philosophy goes down fairly well in America, because some millionaires like Carnegie really were self-made men – although look closer and you’ll see that an awful lot of America’s billionaires had the benefit of going to Yale or Harvard, like Templeton, Gates, Zuckerberg and others.

In the UK, it’s a lot harder to sell this emphasis on values and character, because we have a much more obviously class-ridden society, that is still to some extent dominated by the 7% who went to private school. And many of the New Paternalists went to private school. It becomes hard to sell, basically, when a privileged clique insists that social instability is purely a consequence of bad values. Let’s face it: it’s easier to have values like optimism when you grow up in an environment that tells you from the start that you are special, an environment that is filled with opportunities to develop your talents, that rewards effort, that creates the expectation of success, that gives you a sense from the start that you can influence your society and be listened to by your government. To create such an environment takes money (an average of £15,000 per pupil a year in independent schools, as opposed to £6,000 a year in the other 93% of the country. The most expensive schools cost over £30,000 a year).

On the other hand, if you grow up in (let’s say) a deprived inner city environment that is physically ugly, crowded, occasionally violent, where there’s never enough money, where crime pays (at least in the short-term), where the government is seen as an intrusion and threat, where your school tells you to rein in your expectations, where you are immersed in a media that celebrates everything you don’t have, that’s going to affect your values. As Jerome Kagan, the great neuro-psychologist, recently put it, the best prediction for depression is poverty. (On the other hand, you may very well end up with more resilience than someone from a more protected background, and a driving ambition to either reform your community, or escape it – both quite different to the ‘gratitude’ the Templeton Foundation wants to foster).

So I think that if you want to sell values / character education, you need to be aware of this problem. You need to be aware of the dynamic interplay between environment and values, rather than focusing exclusively on the one or the other. And you need to ask yourself: what is the connection between values and politics – or between the cultivation of a good character, and the cultivation of a good society? In the service of what political ideology are you teaching values? And you can’t say ‘character has nothing to do with politics’. That in itself is a political, libertarian, laissez faire response.

I worry (and I’m not the only one) that a character education course that emphasizes optimism and gratitude is going to be laissez faire and in the service of the status quo. The emphasis on public service can also be quite laissez faire. It’s a public school ethos dedicated to serving Queen and Country – serving, rather than trying to reform. However, character education is not necessarily in the service of the status quo. There’s also a great tradition of values education on the Left, which tries to train young people both to engage with their society and change it – like the Joseph Rowntree Trust, for example.

Ideally, character education would not drill young people in any one ideology, whether that be laissez-faire capitalism or Quaker reformism. It would give them the capacity to critically reflect on all such values, to be aware of their flaws, to try and choose the best path for themselves and their society. It wouldn’t ignore politics (we’re trying to create good citizens after all) but it wouldn’t become mindless propaganda either. That sort of nuanced approach is not easy. It takes money and leisure – and the sort of confident teacher who thrives on challenging feedback from their well-informed students. That’s why Aristotle thought philosophy could only the pursuit of propertied gentlemen – it’s hard to do well on a mass scale.

West Point cadets

There’s a danger, again, of a class divide in our approach to values education. Take the US Army, which has long tried to teach values and character. The officer class study Hellenic philosophy at West Point, as part of the Cadet Leader Development Studies course. They get the opportunity and leisure to consider and reflect on values in a manner worthy of autonomous sovereign agents (or gentlemen). The privates, meanwhile, get drilled in resilient thinking by Martin Seligman’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness course. Their spiritual fitness is evaluated by a computer questionnaire and given an automatic score. There is no leisure to reflect on or criticise the values in which they are drilled. You couldn’t have an entire army of autonomous philosophers, could you? That has to be confined to the officer class (so the argument goes).

But a democratic society of equals is different to an army. Are we prepared to try and educate a whole society of autonomous citizens capable of critical and reflective thought? Or is that just for the lucky few, while the masses get drilled in unquestioned good habits?

I’ll end with a quote from Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, where Nell, the young orphan, learns the meaning of intelligence:

[Nell says:] “The Vickys have an elaborate code of morals and conduct. It grew out of the moral squalor of an earlier generation, just as the original Victorians were preceded by the Georgians and the Regency. The old guard believe in that code because they came to it the hard way. They raise their children to believe in that code– but their children believe it for entirely different reasons.”

“They believe it,” the Constable said, “because they have been indoctrinated to believe it.”

“Yes. Some of them never challenge it– they grow up to be smallminded people, who can tell you what they believe but not why they believe it. Others become disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the society and rebel– as did Elizabeth Finkle-McGraw.”

“Which path do you intend to take, Nell?” said the Constable, sounding very interested. “Conformity or rebellion?”

“Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded – they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”

AA Long on Marcus Aurelius and the Self

Here are some highlights of Professor Anthony Long’s talk yesterday at the Institute of Classics in London, on ‘Marcus Aurelius and the Self’. A.A. Long is probably the greatest living expert on Stoicism, and one of four people responsible for its remarkable revival in modern life – the other three are the French academic Pierre Hadot, the American academic Martha Nussbaum, and the New York psychotherapist Albert Ellis, who took Stoicism and revived it in cognitive therapy.

These four people are all heroes of mine, whose work has changed my life. They all have very different personalities and approaches to Stoicism. What Long brings to Hellenistic philosophy is a careful exploration of what the ancients meant, and a willingness to grapple with difficult questions, and to tease out the paradoxes and problems within these ancient philosophies (indeed, one of his books is called Problems in Stoicism).

That’s a vital role, because, as you’ll see in his talk, there are a lot of problems and paradoxes in Stoicism. In his talk, for example, he explores Marcus Aurelius’ idea of the self. He shows how the Stoics played a key role in the invention of the self, through their idea of humans possessing a ‘hegemonikon‘ or ‘ruling faculty’ within our psyche, through which we can become ‘master of our soul’. And yet, with typical tenacity, he leads us delve into the paradoxes of this idea of our ‘divine ruling faculty’.

Is my hegemonikon, my conscious ethical self, really ‘me’, while the other bits of me (my body, my passions etc) are not really ‘me’? That’s a possible interpretation of Stoic thinking. But the Stoics, including Aurelius, also thought that the hegemonikon was a fragment of the divine Logos – of the great cosmic network of consciousness that connects all beings. In which case, is the hegemonikon really ‘me’ or rather a part of the great Logos, and therefore not ‘me’?

Is my hegemonikon really just God dreaming that I exist, or am I dreaming that God exists? Who is really real – me or God? If all our minds are connected through the Logos, then do ‘I’ exist or am I one little synapse in the Great Brain?

Long explores how Marcus Aurelius tries to delineate the self, reduce it to its bare essentials. Yet he delineates it so much, until it is just a small point of consciousness in a world of flux, that one really has to wonder what is left. And what is the pay-off for this delineation of the self? Why do it?

I suggested that it could be a mystic process – when one has separated oneself from everything (the past, the future, the body, opinions, passions) and become a point of pure separate consciousness, then one can suddenly expand into ‘cosmic consciousness’. The isolated consciousness becomes joined to the great ocean of consciousness. Perhaps…But Long wondered if there was much evidence of the attainment of such cosmic consciousness in Aurelius. What he seems to see there is more a sense of pessimism and even desperation.

I tagged on to the dinner afterwards, and had the pleasure of chatting a bit with Anthony and his wife. What great people. Anthony is fascinated by the movement to take Stoicism beyond academia, and fascinated by how people are using Stoic ideas in their lives. He remarked how the great philosopher Bernard Williams was rather scornful of Stoic therapy, and Long said: ‘I think the thing was, Williams had never really suffered’.

Long really believes in the value of Stoic ideas in modern culture, and really believes they can help ordinary people’s lives. At the same time, he clearly sees the worth in preserving the intellectual rigour of our approach to Stoicism, and really trying to discover what the ancient Stoics meant. That means not only exploring the ‘techniques’ or ‘exercises’ of ancient philosophy as Hadot did (and God bless Hadot for his work) but also being prepared to roll up one’s sleeves and grapple a bit with some thorny questions. What we see in Long’s talk is a great mind who is willing to roll up his sleeves and grapple with ideas.
I’ve divided the talk into two parts, both are below:

CBT…the TV channel!

Thanks to Tim Le Bon for drawing my attention to the Beck Institute’s YouTube channel. It’s full of great videos of Aaron Beck talking about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Here are two of them – the first, Beck talks about CBT treating post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers. The second, Beck talks about who influenced CBT, including particularly Albert Ellis.

A blueprint for ‘Philosophical CBT’

Imagine being able to practice philosophy through the NHS. The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In fact, therapists and counselors in the UK are beginning to put together something called ‘Philosophical CBT’, which could radically change how people see philosophy and the wider humanities.

CBT, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, is now at the heart of the British government’s mental health policy. Successive British governments have committed a combined £580 million to a policy called Improved Access for Psychotherapies (IAPT), which hugely increases the availability of CBT through the NHS, and will train 6,000 new cognitive therapists by 2014. It is the boldest expansion of mental health services anywhere in the world.

While many mental health charities have welcomed this initiative, others in the mental health industry have fiercely criticized it. Therapists from other traditions say it has too much of a ‘one size fits all’ approach, and that 8 to 16 weeks of CBT only offers a short-term fix that ‘papers over the cracks’. Others have criticized CBT’s intense focus on an individual’s thoughts and beliefs rather than their socio-cultural and economic context.

Speaking personally, I found CBT very useful when I had depression and anxiety in my late teens. I went to a CBT support group: there wasn’t actually a therapist present, but we followed a CBT tape course, did the ‘homework’ and, after a few weeks, I stopped having panic attacks and got on the long road to recovery. That experience of CBT piqued my curiosity, because CBT reminded me very much of ancient Greek philosophy.

I started to research CBT, and interviewed the two founders of it – Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck – and discovered they had been directly inspired by ancient Greek philosophy, particularly by Stoicism, which insisted that ‘it’s not events, but our opinions about them, that cause us suffering’. CBT also takes from ancient philosophy the ‘Socratic method’ – Socrates’ idea that humans can be taught to examine their minds, bring unconscious beliefs into consciousness, and then rationally consider and challenge any beliefs that make them sick.

Ellis and Beck took ideas and techniques from ancient philosophy and brought them into the heart of western science, but in doing so, they removed any mention of ethics, values or the ‘higher meaning’ of life. They also removed the social, political and religious aspects of ancient philosophy, and turned it into a ‘tool-kit’ of non-moral, instrumental techniques for the individual. Beck then tested out the therapeutic effectiveness of these techniques with a barrage of empirical tests. This impressive body of evidence for CBT is what convinced our government to put half a million pounds into making it more available.

Yet something was lost along the way. Ancient philosophy wasn’t merely a set of instrumental techniques for the individual. Schools like Stoicism, Epicureanism and Scepticism also offered ethical theories about the good, which linked the personal to the social, cultural, political and cosmic. These schools didn’t agree on whether God existed or whether there was a higher meaning to human existence, but at least they recognized that was a conversation worth having. CBT narrowed the focus down to just the individual, and the result is a somewhat atomized and amoral version of self-help.

What we’re now seeing is the rise of the so-called ‘third wave’ of cognitive behavioural therapies, including mindfulness-CBT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Positive Psychology. These therapies often engage more directly with Eastern philosophies (particularly the mindfulness techniques of Buddhism), and in the case of ACT, they’re less afraid to include questions of values in therapy.

Positive Psychology has also included some mention of the ancient Greek philosophical schools that gave rise to CBT. Jonathan Haidt, for example, includes the Stoics and Aristotle in the course on ‘flourishing’ that he teaches at Virginia University. But on the whole, few cognitive therapists are aware of the links between CBT and ancient Greek and Roman philosophies, sadly. The emphasis is on training new practitioners and putting them to work, rather than teaching them where their techniques come from, or allowing them to question some of CBT’s ethical assumptions.

That’s beginning to change, however, thanks to a handful of therapists and counsellors here in the UK. Last year, a psychotherapist called Donald Robertson brought out an excellent book called The Philosophy of CBT, which expertly traced the many connections between ancient philosophy and CBT. He’s started to give workshops in ‘resilience’ that combine CBT, Positive Psychology and ancient philosophy.

Tim LeBon is another who has championed the integration of CBT with philosophy. His 2001 book Wise Therapy argued for the synthesis of philosophy and traditional therapies – including CBT. Tim was one of the first to set up a philosophical counseling practice in the UK, but found that the market for PC was small and that many clients benefitted more from a combination of philosophy and more traditional therapy rather than from philosophy alone. He undertook specialist CBT training and now combines a private practice with NHS work. Tim has successfully run workshops on ‘the good life’, which teach ideas from philosophy within the format of group discussions, and believes such a workshop could be adapted to work successfully within the framework of the NHS. You can read my interview with Tim about philosophical CBT here.

The UK is uniquely well-placed to develop ‘philosophical CBT’. We have in this country a wealth of talented people who are interested in the therapeutic benefits of philosophy – people like Mark Vernon, Antonia Macaro, Julian Baggini, Clare Carlisle, Alain De Botton, Robert Rowland Smith and others. And we also have a government uniquely committed to mental health services, and to a therapy whose roots are in philosophy. It would be valuable to strengthen the links between these two movements, as people like Donald and Tim are beginning to do.

Philosophical CBT would bring together the empirical, practical focus of CBT, and the more values-conscious, open-ended and participatory approach of philosophy. It would bring together the sciences and the humanities, drawing on the best of both worlds.

It would teach practical and evidence-based techniques for self-management, but also explore the original philosophical contexts for these techniques, and create a space for philosophical discussion about wider questions – what am I seeking? what is the goal of life? what is the good society? – which could be discussed in a non-directive and open way, with a facilitator who drew links to different philosophical answers to these ‘big questions’.

As the psychotherapist and philosophical counselor Antonia Macaro puts it: “It’s useful to combine the reflective approach of philosophical counseling with a more practical, therapeutic one (for instance that of CBT) because then you’re better equipped to help people to clarify conceptual and value issues as well as make concrete changes if they want to. That combined approach doesn’t really exist so far – people like Tim and me have had to bring the two together piecemeal.”

How and where could we practice this ‘philosophical CBT’? First of all, we could provide workshops for cognitive behavioural therapists who are interested in exploring the historical and philosophical roots of CBT, and who want to discuss some of the wider assumptions of CBT – for example, what do we mean by ‘flourishing’ or ‘the good life’?

Secondly, clients and service users could be given access to philosophical CBT workshops on themes like resilience, flourishing and the good life. The NHS already provide ‘self-help workshops’ at their IAPT centres around the country, so there is a space and a precedent for this.

And thirdly, philosophical CBT could inform how we teach well-being in schools. The government has already looked at teaching Positive Psychology in schools: the problem with Positive Psychology is it presents itself entirely as a morally neutral science of the good life. That means it teaches a technocratic, instrumental model of the good life that leaves out goodness. It leaves out the important role of ethics, and of practical deliberation over values and ends. It tells people to seek a ‘higher purpose’, but leaves out any deliberation over whether the purpose you’re serving is good or bad. It tells people to seek ‘flow’ by engaging intensely in an activity, but leaves out the question of whether the activity you’re engaging with is genuinely worthwhile or not.

You can’t teach the good life without bringing in these subjective questions of values and ends. Positive Psychology tries to steer clear of ethical debate (that would be messy and unscientific), but the result is a process where people passively consume happiness techniques and ‘thinking styles’, and are deprived of the possibility of engaging in a conversation about the good life.

And the source material for ‘well-being classes’ is typically badly written, bureaucratic and (I’m sorry to say) soulless. Why not at least mention some of the original source material for these ideas? Philosophers like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Plato are some of the greatest writers our culture has ever produced – so why not introduce young people directly to them?

It’s exciting that our government is taking well-being and mental health seriously, both in schools and in the wider society. But the danger of the ‘politics of well-being’ is that it becomes technocratic, illiberal and elitist. The scientific experts get to decide what ‘well-being’ means, and the masses are simply conditioned in the correct techniques and lifestyles, rather than being empowered to engage in the ethical conversation as autonomous reasoning persons.

Philosophical CBT could be one way forward, combining the evidence-based approach of CBT with the more open-ended and values-conscious approach of philosophy. And it would introduce people to philosophies that connect the personal to the social and political, and that empower us not merely to overcome emotional disorders, but also to follow richer and more examined lives.