Skip to content

Life, therapy and the pursuit of happiness

March 20, 2023

I’m a great believer in therapy. Not necessarily the type that Prince Harry swears by, along with just about every American who can afford it. I’ve never felt the need for that stuff. Nor do I have any desire to return to my childhood in order to examine some traumatic event that has scarred me for life.

I suppose I’m lucky, in that the only therapy I’ve ever received was from a National Health Service physiotherapist who helped me recover from two bulging spinal discs that left me barely able to walk for a few months. Today, six years after the original injury, I still do the stretching exercises he prescribed.

The physio who worked on me was deaf. (By the way, I hesitate to call him deaf in these linguistically mangled times. Too black and white. Perhaps I should call him a “person with impaired hearing” or even “person with fully functioning sight, touch, smell and taste”.) Did he ever have therapy, I wonder, to cope with realisation that he was lacking the gift of hearing, and was therefore different to the vast majority other humans? Probably not. If he was deaf from birth, his whole education was probably dedicated to helping him make the best of the senses he did possess, and realise that he could have a successful life like anyone else.

In America, it seems, it’s almost expected that if you’ve reached a reasonable level of prosperity and success, you will have a therapist helping you along the way. Which is OK, I guess, if your desire is to be happy as well as successful. I suspect, though, that the frequency with which many patients change therapists is evidence that happiness is a holy grail they never find.

My kind of therapy involved lying on my back and spending five minutes every day stretching my body in order to strengthen my core muscles. I’m sure there are equivalent mental exercises to be found in a multitude of self-help books – wherein you are encouraged to stretch your brain in an equivalent manner. Equally, though, I wonder whether lying on a couch and wallowing in your traumas is something that comes with exercises that help you deal with it and ultimately get over it. Or do you simply lie on that couch, racking up huge bills, until you finally figure out the answer for yourself?

Either way, I have a sneaking feeling that for some, therapy is simply an exercise in narcissism. An hour a week during which you bathe in the undivided attention of someone you pay to focus on you and only you.

Because I’ve never lain on that couch, I wouldn’t know. Any opinion I have is pure supposition.

But if you will indulge me for a moment, I have a few more suppositions. For example, if you ask someone how the therapy’s going, they might tell you it’s going really well. They know so much more about the reason they were so screwed up. They’re so much better now. No doubt that’s true for some people. But how often do people tell you that they’re doing well because they don’t want to seem idiots for spending outrageous amounts of money with no positive results? And how many people will have the honesty to tell you that the whole thing was a total waste of time?

Another thought: how on earth did the last nine thousand generations get by without therapy? How did Ludwig van Beethoven produce his miraculous music despite being beaten about the head by his father so badly that the physical trauma probably led to his deafness? Or did the cruelty he suffered during childhood in some way inspire him to make the most of his talent? If he’d been brought up with kindness, I wonder whether he would have settled for a quiet and anonymous life as a burgher in Bonn, the city of his birth.

And the same goes for many other people who suffered difficulties at some stage of their lives and yet emerged to achieve things that made them famous. With therapy, would the murderous Genghis Khan have built his empire?

I suppose you could argue that ad hoc remedies were always available to treat inner pain. The listening ear of a priest, for example, or a kindly parent, or even the guardians of Bedlam. But these sources of help were frequently powered by dogma or tradition. Very little of what we now consider to be science was involved.

How many people are driven to succeed in order to prove their doubters wrong? If they’d lived by the mantra “I’m OK, you’re OK”, would they have conquered the world? Would those who lived on the edge of insanity, yet created immortal music, art and literature, founded phenomenally successful companies or came up with ground-breaking inventions have achieved these things if a few years on a therapist’s couch had helped them become “happy”?

I don’t know. And yet the same cultures, including, increasingly, my own, that glory in the pursuit of happiness also tell us “no pain, no gain”. That we must be self-reliant. And that only the strong survive. (Whoops, that last one is straying into Nazi territory. But no problem. I don’t work for the BBC).

I sometimes wonder whether, if I had more demons waiting to jump out of my closet, I might have achieved more. I’m certainly aware that moments of sadness or struggle make the triumphs of life all the sweeter. So yes, I do believe that without a dose of agony, ecstasy is hard to achieve. But if the therapists are there to attenuate the agony, how will we reach those moments of perfection that are often tantamount to blissful oblivion?

I suspect that Lincoln, Churchill, Tesla, Einstein or Mozart would be amazed to know that the societies that succeeded them would have looked at their quirks and told them that “you need therapy”. And those who survived war, famine and disease, whom society at the time expected to“get on with it” might laugh if they were told that therapy would heal their wounds.

And how did nations cope with trauma? Not with therapy, I suggest. Take the Germans, whose country was pulverised during World War 2. Those who survived the destruction were expected by the victors not only to share the blame for the Holocaust, but to pick themselves up and start again. Did they do so with the aid of therapy? I doubt it. Instead, they placed the pain, suffering and guilt in a locked closet inside their heads, justified their silence by saying “we suffered too” and got on with creating the powerhouse that is Germany today. It was not until the post-war generation grew up that the survivors were forced to confront the uncomfortable memory of their embrace of National Socialism.

Therapy has its place. Of course it does. But has it become an industry – a fashion accessory for the self-obsessed? I have a sneaking feeling that if you took away all the therapists and lawyers, America’s GDP would decline by a significant chunk, and the UK’s by not much less. A jaundiced view might be that lawyers who help their clients seek redress for ills uncovered by therapists are parasites feeding on unhappiness; that some of your friendly local therapists are not much different – they just do their feeding at different stages of the process.

I don’t subscribe to that opinion, of course. Some of my best friends are lawyers and therapists. But then that’s hardly relevant – I don’t have an overabundance of friends, despite what Facebook says.

There’s another aspect of therapy that I find interesting. Most people think of it as an individual thing. But what of society-wide therapy? I’d argue that, in Britain at least, over the past twenty years we’ve been indulging in an endless process of examining abusive ancestors. We curse the slave traders, the imperialists and the East India Company for causing us a miasma of guilt. We tear down statues. We demand the fall of Rhodes, Clive and even Churchill. To what end? That we live out our days of national decline wallowing in shame? That we make ourselves feel better by pointing out the iniquities that brought us those country houses, handsome town halls and museums glistening with looted treasure?

In a way, looking at our history in a relatively objective fashion without drawing conclusions and constructing agendas also offers a pointer to a sensible approach to our individual woes. History helps us to understand. Yes, it highlights mistakes that we would be wise to avoid in the future. But it rarely points to definitive courses of action, because the circumstances that led to historical mistakes are rarely repeated.

Likewise we, as individuals, surely benefit from understanding the root causes of our sadness, our neuroses or our underachievement. But I suggest that the next step – to translate that understanding into resolution of our ills, and, ultimately, into happiness – is a process no therapist can help us achieve without our willingness to take responsibility for our future, any more than destroying the icons of imperialism without replacing them with new icons will make a nation feel at ease with itself.

I worry that we are becoming a country divided between the rich, who can afford their sessions on the couch, and the poor, who can’t. The state doesn’t do much to bridge the gap, even if it provides facilities to treat those whose mental problems have driven them over the edge. To keep us on an even keel, our doctors feed millions of us with open-ended supplies of anti-depressants.

Just as our reliance on happy pills is often cited as one of our national ills, is not the endless self-examination that results from therapy not equally dangerous? Just as those of us who can afford it hire lawyers at the drop of a hat to right wrongs done to us, so we hire others with equal alacrity to right our mental wrongs.

My inner pub landlord, while sympathising with those who clearly need help, wonders whether those with less than fundamental problems shouldn’t simply lock those demons away and make the best of life as it presents itself, just as my wonderful physiotherapist has done despite lacking one of the senses that the rest of us prize the most: the ability to hear. Which, by the way, is not the same as the ability to listen.

After all, if we turn into a nation of happy lotus eaters, where will we find our next generation of neurotic, obsessive geniuses who will bring us joy with their creativity and help us solve all our problems?

But enough of this meandering sophistry. I must get back to the important stuff – worrying about the state of my aging body, the availability of vegetables in the supermarkets and the threadbare condition of my lawn. Maybe I need therapy.

From → History, Religion, Social, UK, USA

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: