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Distraction therapy, or ‘shut up and deal’

Last week, a reader called Tom wrote in with this story:

I am finally coming out the other side of a pretty deep existential crisis (possibly a result of drug use) and I am seeing the colour flood back into my life. I have just turned 29. The last 5 years have been pretty bleak and filled with crippling anxiety. Everything I once believed and valued seemed to be lies and the world felt hollow. I then began looking for the truth.

The deeper I looked into philosophy, Buddhism, meditation, health and fitness etc the more questions and uncertainty I created for myself. This ramped up my motivation to find the answers.  The more I looked, the more uncertainty I created, and the more I needed to look. During this period my anxiety became crippling.

how_the_frisbee_took_flightFortunately I was able to realize what was going on and pull myself out of this cycle. I decided for a period that I would cut everything out of my life that caused uncertainty. This included reading or listening to any self help, philosophical, health and fitness etc article or podcast. I focused on filling my days with play, eg frisbee, non-fiction books, comedy, eventually friends. Within two weeks to a month, I felt like a completely different person.

I think there is a tendency for thinkers/sensitive types, whatever you want to call us, to over-think and intellectualise depression. I think in hindsight, if I had just ridden out the depression, I would have fallen back into life fairly quickly. However, my need to find answers lead me down a rabbit hole of depression and anxiety.

I will still have questions because that is my nature. However, I now understand the importance of diverting my attention and hope I am now better able to ask whether a particular line of intrigue is helpful or unhelpful to my quality of life.

I like Tom’s advice. Sometimes, in the darkness, we need to give our minds a rest, and find a distraction. Games are good for that. It reminds me of Billy Wilder’s film, The Apartment. Shirley Maclaine’s character has tried to kill herself with an overdose. Jack Lemmon’s character finds her, resuscitates her, and then tries to keep her awake and busy by playing cards with her. When she asks him what’s the point in life, he replies: ‘shut up and deal’ – a line she repeats to him at the end of the film, when she has recovered and they’re in love.


One of the few philosophers who understood our need for distractions amid the existential confusion was Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician. He’s a fascinating figure – he was one of the leading mathematicians of his age, he almost died in a riding accident, and then had a sort of near-death experience (known as his ‘nuit de feu’ or ‘night of fire’), after which he became a religious philosopher. But he’s fascinating even if you’re not theist –  he’s really the first existentialist philosopher, in that he has an acute sense of the mystery of existence and the absurdity of human endeavour.

His Pensees, or ‘thoughts’, are a collection of brief meditations on existence. Here’s one of them:

449407The only good thing for men is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short what is called diversion.

That is why gaming and feminine society, war and high office are so popular. It is not that they really bring happiness…What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think about our condition, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.

That is why this man, who lost his only son a few months ago and was so troubled and oppressed this morning by lawsuits and quarrels, is not thinking about it any more. Do not be surprised: he is concengrating all his attention on which way the boar will go that his dogs have been so hotly pursuing for the past six hours. That is all he needs. However sad a man may be, if you can persuade him to take up some diversion he will be happy while it lasts….Without diversion there is no joy, with diversion there is no sadness.

Now, Pascal is being somewhat hyperbolic here. His ultimate hope is that we will make a leap of faith beyond boredom and diversion and put our trust in the Christian God. Personally, I believe in the Socratic approach – I think we can learn to discover and challenge the core negative beliefs underlying our suffering. But we can’t do that all the time. Sometimes we just need a break from our ruminations.

There is even a type of therapy built around just this insight, called ‘Distraction Therapy’. Therapists have experimented with using different forms of distraction to take patients’ mind off their physical pain, such as games, videos and music. One experiment projected nature sounds and images into hospital rooms when patients were receiving a painful bronchoscopy. The ‘significantly reduced pain’ in the patients, apparently.

You won’t feel a thing

Many hospitals now use distraction therapy, like Chelsea and Westminster, which is teaming up with the musician Brian Eno to design ambient light and sound installations to take patients’ minds off the pain. Imagine Brian Eno jumping into the operating theatre, in full glam regalia. That would be distracting.

So the next time you have the blues, you could go to a psychodynamic therapist, lie down, and really pick that scab. Or you could try the Billy Wilder approach: shut up and deal.

This week’s highlights from the philosophy, psychology and politics of well-being

Welcome to new subscribers – lots of you have subscribed in the last week. Hope you enjoy the newsletter, it typically veers between interesting links on the philosophy, psychology and politics of well-being, and the occasional brief essay about something that’s caught my eye. This week will be mainly links (phew!)

On Wednesday we had our biggest-ever meeting of the London Philosophy Club, in the main hall at Conway Hall.We discussed the relationship between ancient philosophy and modern cognitive therapy (which I also discussed in this article in The Times this week) and more generally the tricky relationship between science and ethics. It was great – you can read a brief write-up here. There will be a brief segment about it on the BBC World Service on Saturday, on the World Today Weekend show (I’ll post the link on the blog). LPC also got a write-up in a Spanish paper this week.

The Skeptic movement had a major policy success this week, when they managed to get libel reform into the British government’s legislation programme. This means Skeptic journalists like Ben Goldacre or Simon Singh can say that a bogus health remedy is bogus without getting sued. Congrats to the Skeptics – that’s a great result and shows what an organised and committed movement can do. I had the pleasure of meeting Sid Rodrigues at Conway Hall, who runs Skeptics In the Pub, and has just started working at Conway Hall. I also got to meet Neil Denny, host of the Skeptic podcast Little Atoms, when I was on his show last week. Two people who have helped the Skeptic movement grow in the UK.

Conway Hall has a festival coming up on philosophy and film by the way, at the end of June, at which London Philosophy Club is doing some events. Details here.

Facebook has got into social engineering – it’s launched a feature where people can announce they have agreed to organ donation, as a sort of online organ donor card and also as a way to encourage other people. Networked empathy, it has been dubbed, or ‘easy virtue’. Meanwhile, the Atlantic covered an academic conference that brought together some stars of viral YouTube videos, including that anesthetized kid after the dentist and Two Rainbows Guy. Love that guy! One of the topics the conference explored was how internet memes can spread racial prejudices, or challenge them – like ‘shit white girls say about black girls‘, which I enjoyed.

Some education stories: Michael Gove, UK education minister, gave a speech warning our society was becoming more and more unequal because the 7% who are privately-educated get all the best jobs – even the radicals are posh, like George Monbiot (who reacted with wonderful indignation and a call to close all private schools). One could, at least, take away their charity status.

Private schools like Wellington are trying to spread the success of the private school model by setting up chains of academies, which is more than some other independent schools are doing. But the success of such schools is not just a question of ethos or teacher skill. It’s a question of wealth, of how much money is spent per pupil, and the inequality of the social and economic environments in which British children grow up. I don’t think you can dodge the inequality problem by focusing entirely on character and values (as David Cameron has tried to do).

The New York Review of Books has an interesting review of a new book on the problems facing US universities at the moment (not enough money for public universities and community colleges, while wealthy private colleges perpetuate social inequalities through their admission policy).

Meanwhile, I recently discovered the brilliant 1980s BBC TV comedy, A Very Peculiar Practice, thanks to a Guardian article about the best TV shows ever, which puts it at number 5. It’s about a medical practice at a British university during the Thatcher era (inspired by the writer’s time at Warwick University), and is so funny and intelligent about campus life, eccentric academics and the various competing philosophies of higher education and well-being. The doctors in the campus practice include a drunk Scottish disciple of RD Laing who wrote a book called Sexual Anxiety and the Common Cold and who finds a psycho-sexual cause for any health complaint (even appendicitis); a bisexual feminist doctor who attacks the phallocentrism of the patriarchal university system (‘illness is something men do to women’); a neoliberal doctor who takes consultancy fees from Big Pharma to prescribe students tranquillizers; and a bleeding heart liberal who isn’t sure what he believes. It’s so good! There’s an episode on YouTube, but I’d go ahead and order the DVD, it’s such an intelligent and funny take on higher education.

The importance of a balanced diet

Time magazine caused a big kerfuffle with its cover photo this week of a mom breast-feeding her four-year-old son – the story is about ‘attachment parenting’ ie letting your children breastfeed and sleep with you until they’re six or so. Sounds like something from Martin Amis’s London Fields. It’s a pretty funny cover (not sure the child will thank his mother for the publicity in later years) although mothers complained it has sensationalised an important and sensitive issue.

The Occupy movement has published is May manifesto – less work, more benefits, higher taxes. How will we pay for it? Tax the 1%, Jeffrey Sachs tells the US government in his new book, The Price of Civilisation, and stop spending $900 billion a year on the military – six times what it spends on education.

In the UK, government education spending is being cut to cover the deficit, particularly on higher education (tuition fees) but also on youth services and early care services, where there is not private money to step in. The City needs to do more to pay its social debt or it can expect more protests. One bit of good news is a new youth academy being set up in Hackney by Plan B – why are twenty-year-old rappers leading the way and not rich British businesspeople?

Maurice Sendak, the author of Where the Wild Things Are, sadly passed away this week. Here’s an article considering his work from a psychoanalytic viewpoint.

Congratulations to the School of Life on its new series of self-help books which launched this week. I’m speaking at the School of Life this coming Tuesday about ancient philosophy, cognitive therapy and the politics of well-being. Come along!

Here’s a good example of citizen journalism: one girl at primary school has started to photo-blog her school’s lunches (see right). Shocking stuff. Jamie Oliver has already tweeted his support for her fearless campaign.

No more newspaper reviews of the book so far this week, hopefully one in Observer on Sunday, although Richard Layard did say something nice about it, which is very kind of him considering I take a few jabs at his Utilitarianism in the book.

Finally, something for the weekend: lovers of dance music might enjoy this archive of radio mixes from DFA (the label set up by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and Tim Goldsworthy of UNKLE). Some wonderful mixes for you to bop to.

Right, that’s enough for this week. Usually it’s more about philosophy and psychology, there was just more good stuff on education this week.

See you next week,