Psychotherapy and the Quest for Happiness

June 4, 2009

This book is addressed to would-be "existential" psychotherapists and is written for their instruction. Since there surely cannot be enough of them to provide a viable readership, the book must depend for its success on reaching a wider audience, and in truth there is nothing in its pages to deter the non-specialist reader curious to learn more about existential psychotherapy.

What fires Emmy van Deurzen's enterprise is an entirely understandable dissatisfaction with the current vogue in and beyond therapy circles for "happiness" and "positive psychology" as the answers to our mental, spiritual, economic and political troubles. She points out convincingly enough that there is more to life than happiness, and that its one-sided pursuit makes a travesty not only of our own experience of life, but also of the preoccupations and observations of philosophers down the ages, especially the so-called "existentialist" ones.

Van Deurzen's background is in (mainly Continental) philosophy, and she writes about the lessons she has learnt without pretence or obfuscation - no mean feat when one considers the legendary obscurity of many of those she most reveres - Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, to name but three.

The book is not tidily written: it is at times repetitive, and occasionally van Deurzen seems so wrapped up in her ideas as to be carried away by a stream of consciousness.

But it is for the most part honestly written, and here and there she manages to touch the reader by allowing access to some of the personal experiences that shaped her approach: the description of some of her encounters with patients in a French psychiatric institution is moving as well as instructive.

As far as psychotherapy goes, there is a lot to be said for the existential variety: it neither pathologises nor trivialises people's experience, and at its best treats seriously and sympathetically the often profoundly difficult predicaments that can lead people to seek therapeutic help.

It also considers the complexity of human experience and its origin in feeling as well as, or indeed more than, cognition. It does, however, tend to abstract individuals from the world they live in: the confrontation with personal tragedy and trauma that forms the stuff of existential struggle is largely internal, and, as with so much psychotherapy of whatever denomination, the eventual triumph over adversity comes as the result of psychological, as opposed to material, adjustment. In other words, what needs changing is the self, not the world.

All that, of course, may be a matter of taste and one can scarcely be surprised if psychologists psychologise. But there is a bigger problem that seems especially acute for existential therapy: it still does not avoid the central difficulty of any therapeutic approach - it has to offer a cure for the suffering it identifies. After all, if it does not do so, where is the therapy?

While van Deurzen certainly avoids the language of "cure" and is not afraid to contemplate the typically existentialist view of life as essentially tragic, even meaningless, she still arrives at the therapeutic conclusion that it is all for the best.

Although she resolutely and rightly eschews a facile advocacy of "happiness", her language is nevertheless at times exalted, even Pollyannaish, in its reassurance that in the end the ghastly things that can happen to us are for our own good.

Whatever one's reservations, however, and unlike so much of the literature in this field, van Deurzen does manage to avoid providing simplistic answers. The reader is encouraged to think about some of the important issues for "therapy" that have no obvious solutions.

Psychotherapy and the Quest for Happiness

By Emmy van Deurzen. Sage Publications 192pp, £60.00 and £20.99. ISBN 9780761944102 and 4119. Published 1 December 2008

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