Why are we so obsessed with therapy?

What is of value tends to be lost or perverted if we turn all that is therapeutic into therapy.


Not so long ago, therapy was widely seen as something only for the seriously disturbed or neurotic, overeducated Americans.

Now, all that is good is being turned into therapy. Rather than seeking help on Dr Freud’s couch, people are turning to Monty Don’s allotment or Jamie Oliver’s kitchen to soothe their troubled psyches.

Ancient philosophy is also undergoing this process of therapisation. Today is day six of “Live Like a Stoic Week”, an experiment led by a group of academics and psychotherapists as part of an ongoing project to “examine the implications of ancient healthcare and philosophy for our own society”.

At its best, this trend marks a recognition that many of the personal struggles we face are not “psychological problems” of a more or less medical kind, but part and parcel of the confusing and often difficult search for meaning, value and purpose. Gardens, kitchens, literature, philosophy and art can all help in this quest. However, what is of value in them threatens to be lost or perverted if we turn all that is therapeutic into forms of therapy.

For example, it does seem to be true that, on the whole, people benefit from having some engagement with the outdoors, and for some, spending time in the countryside is a better “treatment” for depression than pills or talking cures. But that does not mean there is something called “nature deficit disorder” for which the prescription is “ecotherapy”. Contact with nature is not like vitamin D: something we need a minimum dose of, or else we stop functioning. It is simply something that most – but importantly not all – find an important part of a good, rounded life.

There are lots of things that fulfil such roles, but it would be absurd to think of their absence as disorders and their introduction as treatments. Most people would rather have a good, intimate relationship than not. But that does not mean the single suffer from “partner deficit disorder”, the cure for which is marriage.

The things we value tend to make us feel better, but that is not primarily why we value them. If you love your partner, for example, she will almost certainly make your life happier. But the reason you will stick together through hard times is that the relationship with her is valued more than how being in it happens to make you feel.

Philosophy is an even clearer example. The only good reason to embrace a philosophical position is that you are convinced it is true or at least makes sense of the world better than the alternatives. I’m not a stoic because I do not agree that we are all fragments of an all-pervading divine rationality which is providentially organising the world, or that Epictetus was right to say you should not be disturbed if your wife or child dies or that “my father is nothing to me, only the good”. To become a stoic is to endorse the truthfulness of its world view and accept its prescription for how you ought to live, not just to like how it makes you feel.

Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive-behaviour therapy, and Albert Ellis, founder of rational-emotive behaviour therapy, both appropriated Stoic ideas for their own ends, as does the philosopher Richard Sorabji, who says of Stoicism: “I choose the bits which I find helpful and I don’t take the full theory.” Such cherry-picking is perfectly legitimate. What’s objectionable is praising the joys of scrumping as though it were on a par with the care, dedication and understanding of growing an orchard.

In muddying the waters between philosophies of life and therapy, people do therapy a disservice, too. Therapy is often criticised for merely providing crutches, tools and strategies for coping, not treating the whole person. But at its best, that is all that therapy can and should do. Developing a comprehensive outlook on life, along with a set of values that guide us, is far too important a matter to be left to therapists. The therapist’s job is to help clients get back to the position of being able to pursue their own quests through life, not deliver them to their destinations.

The most misguided aspect of Stoic week, however, is the collection of “data”, in the form of well-being questionnaires taken by self-selecting participants before and after. Not only is this a badly designed experiment which will prove exactly nothing, it just is not how a philosophically based “way of life” should be assessed. It would be as stupid to become a Stoic because tests showed it tended to make people happier than Aristotelianism as it would to choose your religion, or lack of it, on the basis of which one tended to make people feel better. Latter-day Stoics should not seek to vindicate their approaches through “evidence-based” measures of output. The idea that all that is good can be measured should be rejected, not embraced, by advocates of finding meaning through engagement with things of value in the world.

Stoic week has a valuable part to play in getting people to think more about how the deepest issues in their lives might not be just local psychological difficulties but concern more profound questions about how to live. But please, let’s not reduce all that’s true, good and beautiful to techniques and interventions to cure the blues and put smiles on our faces. Seek first what is true and of value, and then whatever happiness follows will be of the appropriate quantity and, more importantly, quality.

Julian Baggini is the co-author of ‘The Shrink and the Sage’


React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: In House Counsel - Contracts

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading supplier of compliance software a...

Recruitment Genius: Associate System Engineer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Associate System Engineer r...

Recruitment Genius: Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Executive Assistant is required to join a l...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - B2B, Corporate - City, London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Zoe Sugg, aka Zoella, with her boyfriend, fellow vlogger Alfie Deyes  

If children are obese then blame food manufacturers, not Zoella

Jane Merrick
Amos Yee arrives with his father at the State courts in Singapore on March 31  

Singapore's arrest of a 16-year-old YouTuber is all you need to know about Lee Kuan Yew's legacy

Noah Sin
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat