Last time we began looking at how the theory underpinning cognitive therapy – specifically thought as the mode of subjective interpretation of the world and our place in it – can be utilized as the means to achieve contentment. Today we delve deeper into the principles of this modality. Cognitive therapy deploys techniques intended to deal with anxiety, depression, and adjustment disorders, not contentment per se. The goal is behavioral modification through systematic change in the way a person thinks and feels. Techniques include disconfirmation (evidence against negative thoughts) and reconceptualization or developing an alternative belief system to explain one’s circumstances.
There are at least three recognized forms of cognitive therapy but for this post I have added four analogous humanistic therapies3:
- Rational emotive therapy seeks to eliminate absolutes in one’s thinking which distort reality (such as “I can never achieve anything worthwhile.”) Therapy is directed at developing a rational view of the world and discouraging over-control of one’s circumstances. In effect, one learns to change that which one can change and accept what one cannot.
- Paradoxical control therapy undermines the anxiety arising from anticipating unwanted thoughts or behaviors by a controlled approach to the feared thoughts and behaviors (in essence play-acting).
- Thought stopping consists of associating irritations or negative events to the emergence of undesired thoughts and then suppressing them (even shouting “STOP!”). A guru named Rajneesh wrote extensively in 1975 about thought-stopping, claiming it is a useful tool for pursuing spiritual enlightenment.
- Client-centered therapy consists of empathic listening to the struggling individual, feeding back their feelings and thoughts. Perhaps this is an under-recognized benefit of deep friendship.
- Reality therapy accentuates accepting the consequences of one’s actions and the contemplation of desirable behavior.
- Gestalt therapy emphasizes becoming aware of oneself and attaining insight through catharsis. It seeks to deal with the here and now and not focus on the past. The famous “empty chair” technique is a component of this approach.
- Existential therapy emphasizes confronting issues of the human condition such as finding a meaning in life, risking relationships, quality of life experiences, and the fear of death. Its goal is to increase awareness and choice in all areas of life and the development of direct and authentic living.
Of course, psychologists intend these therapies to be guided by a trained therapist, but the practical philosopher may extract and adopt self-guided equivalents for the alleviation of his or her own uneasiness. One advantage of the do-it-yourself approach is that one can combine features from different approaches in establishing a course to contentment. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, insight, self-knowledge, and a sound understanding of reality underlie the psychological avenue to inner serenity.
Next time we will look at the latest psychological parallel to philosophical contentment, subjective well being.
3Meyer, Robert G. and Salmon, Paul, Abnormal Psychology. Allyn and Bacon, Inc., Boston, 1988. ISBN 0-205-11177-7, pages 136-142.