Monday, December 05, 2011

Happiness Quiz

Question #1: A study of nuns showed that happy nuns

Question #2: Optimistic Insurance Salesmen

Question #3: Happier people are in general

Question #4: The tipping point ratio of positive to negative emotions at which you start to reap the most benefits from positive emotions b is

Question #5: The percentage of happiness attributable to external things like looks, wealth and health is about

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Jules Evans on The Politics of Well-Being: A blueprint for 'Philosophical CBT'

Journalist and blogger Jules Evans has written an interesting article on The Politics of Well-Being: A blueprint for 'Philosophical CBT':

Imagine being able to practice philosophy through the NHS. The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. In fact, therapists and counselors .....

I have been developing a philosophical version of therapy for many years - drawing insights particularly from CBT and Existential Therapy. If you are interested in experiencing this sort of therapy, or if you are a fellow therapist interested in discussing it, I'd be delighted to hear from you

Monday, October 17, 2011

Love is a Fallacy

Would you prefer to be entertained or educated? Or is that a fallacy, when there is every chance of being educated and entertained simultaneously? One of my favourite pieces of entertaining education is the following comic caper by American author Max Shulman. It was written over sixty years ago, but although it may seem rather politically incorrect at first sight, stick with it and you might change your mind ...

Love is a Fallacy  by Max Shulman

Cool was I and logical. Keen, calculating, perspicacious, acute - I was all of these. My brain was as powerful as a dynamo, as a chemist's scales, as penetrating as a scalpel. And - think of it! - I was only eighteen. It is not often that one so young has such a giant intellect. Take, for example, Petey Burch my roommate at the University of Minnesota. Same age, same background, but dumb as an ox. A nice enough fellow, you understand, but nothing upstairs. Emotional type. Unstable. Impressionable. Worst of all, a faddist. Fads, I submit, are the very negation of reason. To be swept up in every new craze that comes along, to surrender oneself to idiocy just because everybody else is doing it - this to me, is the acme of mindlessness. Not, however, to Petey.

One afternoon I found Petey lying on his bed with an expression of such distress on his face that I immediately diagnosed appendicitis. "Don't move," I said, "Don't take a laxative. I'll get a doctor."

"Raccoon," he mumbled thickly.

"Raccoon?" I said, pausing in my flight.

"I want a raccon coat," he wailed.

I perceived that his trouble was not physical but mental. "Why do you want a raccoon coat?"

"I should have known it," he cried, pounding hie temples.

"I should have known it they'd come back when the Charleston came back. Like a fool I spent all my money for textbook, and now I can't get a raccoon coat."

"Can you mean," I said incredulously," that people are actually wearing raccoon coats again?"

"All the Big Men on Campus are wearing them. Where've you been?"

"In the library," I said, naming a place not frequented by Big Men on Campus.

He leaped from the bed and paced the room. "I've got to have a raccoon coat," he said passionately. "I've got to!"

"Petey, why? Look at it rationally. Raccoon coats are unsanitary. They shed. They smell bad. They weigh too much. They're unsightly. They..."

"You don't understand," he interrupted, impatiently. "It's the thing to do. Don't you want to be in the swim?"

"No," I said truthfully "Well, I do," he declared. "I'd give anything for a raccoon coat. Anything!"

My brain, that precision instrument, slipped into high gear. "Anything?" I asked, looking at him narrowly.

"Anything," he affirmed in ringing tones.

I stroked my chin thoughtfully. It so happened that I knew where to get my hands on a raccoon coat. My father had had one in his undergraduate days; it lay now in a trunk in the attic back home. It also happened that Petey had something I wanted. He didn't have it exactly, but at least he had first rights on it. I refer to his girl, Polly Espy.

I had long coveted Polly Espy. Let me emphasize that my desire for this young woman was not emotional in nature. She was, to be sure, a girl who excited the emotions, but I was not one to let my heart rule my head. I wanted Polly For a shrewdly calculated, entirely cerebral reason.

I was a freshman in law school. In a few years I would be out in practice. I was well aware of the importance of the right kind of wife in furthering a lawyer's career. The successful lawyers I had observed were, almost without exception, married to beautiful, gracious, intelligent women. With one omission, Polly fitted these specifications perfectly.

Beautiful she was. She was not yet of pin-up proportions, but I felt that time would supply the lack. She already had the makings.

Gracious she was. By gracious I mean full of graces. She had an erectness of carriage, an ease of bearing, a poise that clearly indicated the best of breeding. At table her manners were exquisite. I had seen her at the Kozy Kampus Korner eating the specialty of the house - a sandwich that contained scraps of pot roast, gravy, chopped nuts, and a dipper of sauerkraut - without even getting her fingers moist.

Intelligent she was not. In fact, she veered in the opposite direction. But I believed that under my guidance she would smarten up. At any rate, it was worth a try. It is, after all, easier to make a beautiful dumb girl smart than to make an ugly smart girl beautiful.

"Petey," I said, "are you in love with Polly Espy?"

"I think she's a keen kid," he replied, "but I don't know if you call it love. Why?"

"Do you," I asked, "have any kind of formal arrangement with her? I mean are you going steady or anything like that?"

"No. We see each other quite a bit, but we both have other dates. Why?"

"Is there," I asked, "any other man for whom she has a particular fondness?"

"Not that I know of. Why?"

I nodded with satisfaction. "In other words, if you were out of the picture, the field would be open. Is that right?"

"I guess so. What are you getting at?"

"Nothing , nothing," I said innocently, and took my suitcase out the closet.

"Where are you going?" asked Petey.

"Home for weekend." I threw a few things into the bag.

"Listen," he said, clutching my arm eagerly, "while you're home, you couldn't get some money from your old man, could you , and lend it to me so I can buy a raccoon coat?"

"I may do better than that," I said with a mysterious wink and closed my bag and left.

"Look," I said to Petey when I got back Monday morning. I threw open the suitcase and revealed the huge, hairy, gamy object that my father had worn in his Stutz Bearcat in 1925.

"Holy Toledo!" said Petey reverently. He plunged his hands into the raccoon coat and then his face. "Holy Toledo!" he repeated fifteen or twenty times.

"Would you like it?" I asked.

"Oh yes!" he cried, clutching the greasy pelt to him. Then a canny look came into his eyes. "What do you want for it?"

"Your girl" I said, mincing no words.

"Polly?" he said in a horrified whisper. "You want Polly?"

"That's right."

He shook his head.

I shrugged. "Okay. If you don't want to be in the swim, I guess it's your business.

I sat down in a chair and pretended to read a book, but out of the corner of my eye I kept watching Petey. He was a torn man. First he looked at the coat with the expression of waif at a bakery window. Then he turned away and set his jaw resolutely. Then he looked back at the coat, with even more longing in his face. Then he turned away, but with not so much resolution this time. Back and forth his head swiveled, desire waxing, resolution waning. Finally he didn't turn away at all; he just stood and stared with mad lust at the coat.

"It isn't as though I was in love with Polly," he said thickly. "Or going steady or anything like that."

"That's right," I murmured.

"What's Polly to me, or me to Polly?"

"Not a thing," said I.

"It's just been a casual kick - just a few laughs, that's all."

"Try on the coat," said I.

He compiled. The coat bunched high over his ears and dropped all the way down to his shoe tops. He looked like a mound of dead raccoons. "Fits fine," he said happily.

I rose from my chair. "Is it a deal?" I asked, extending my hand. He swallowed. "It's a deal," he said and shook my hand.

I had my first date with Polly the following evening. This was in the nature of a survey. I wanted to find out just how much work I had to get her mind up to the standard I required. I took her first to dinner.

"Gee, that was a delish dinner," she said as we left the restaurant.

And then I took her home. "Gee, I had a sensaysh time," she said as she bade me good night.

I went back to my room with a heavy heart. I had gravely underestimated the size of my task. This girl's lack of information was terrifying. Nor would it be enough merely to supply her with information. First she had to be taught to "think". This loomed as a project of no small dimensions, and at first I was tempted to give her back to Petey.

But then I got to thinking about her abundant physical charms and about the way she entered a room and the way she handled a knife and fork, and I decided to make an effort.

I went about it, as in all things, systematically. I gave her a course in logic. It happened that I, as a law student, was taking a course in logic myself, so I had all the facts at my fingertips. "Polly,: I said in to Her when I picked her up on our next date, tonight we are going over to the Knoll and talk.

"Oo, terrif," she replied. One thing I will say for this girl: you would go far to find another so agreeable.

We went to the Knoll, the campus trysting place, and we sat down under an old oak, and she looked at me expectantly. "What are we going to talk about?" she asked.


She thought this over for a minute and decided she liked it. "Magnif," she said.

Logic," I said, clearing my throat, "is the science of thinking. Before we can think correctly, we must first learn to recognize the common fallacies of logic. These we will take up tonight."

"Wow-dow!" she cried, clapping her hands delightedly.

I winced, but went bravely on. "First let us examine the fallacy called Dicto Simpliciter."

"By all means," she urged, batting her lashes eagerly.

"Dicto Simpliciter means an argument based on an unqualified generalization. For example: Exercise is good. Therefore everybody should exercise."

"Polly," I said gently, "the argument is a fallacy. Exercise is good is an unqualified generalization. For instance, if you have heart disease, exercise is bad, not good. Therefore exercise is bad, not good. Many people are ordered by their doctors not to exercise. You must qualify the generalization. You must say exercise is usually good, or exercise is good for most people. Otherwise you have committed a Dicto Simpliciter. Do you see?"

"No," she confessed. "But this is marvy. Do more! Do more!"

"It will be better if you stop tugging at my sleeve," I told her, and when she desisted, I continued. "Next we take up a fallacy called Hasty Generalization. Listen carefully: You can't speak French. Petey Burch can't speak French. I must therefore conclude that nobody at the University of Minnesota can speak French."

"Really?" said Polly, amazed. "Nobody?"

I hid my exasperation. "Polly, it's a fallacy. The generalization is reached too hastily. There are too few instance to support such a conclusion."

Know any more fallacies?" she asked breathlessly. "This is more fun than dancing, even."

I fought off a wave of despair. I was getting no where with this girl, absolutely no where. Still, I am nothing, if not persistent. I continued. "Next comes Post Hoc. Listen to this: Let's not take Bill on our picnic. Every time we take it out with us, it rains."

"I know somebody just like that," she exclaimed. "A girl back home - Eula Becker, her name is. It never fails. Every single time we take her on a picnic..."

"Polly," I said sharply, "it's a fallacy. Eula Becker doesn't cause the rain. She has no connection with the rain. You are guilty of Post Hoc if you blame Eula Becker."

"I'll never do it again," she promised contritely. "Are you mad at me?"

I sighed deeply. "No, Polly, I'm not mad."

"Then tell me some more fallacies."

"All right. Let's try Contradictory Premises."

"Yes, let's," she chirped, blinking her eyes happily.

I frowned, but plunged ahead. "Here's an example of Contradictory Premises: If God can do anything, can He make a stone so heavy that He won't be able to lift it?"

"Of course," she replied promptly.

"But if He can do anything, He can lift the stone," I pointed out.

"Yeah," she said thoughtfully. "Well, then I guess He can't make the stone."

"But He can do anything," I reminded her.

She scratched her pretty, empty head. "I'm all confused," she admitted.

"Of course you are. Because when the premises of an argument contradict each other, there can be no argument. If there is an irresistible force, there can be no immovable object. If there is an immovable object, there can be no irresistible force. Get it?"

"Tell me more of this keen stuff," she said eagerly.

I consulted my watch. "I think we'd better call it a night. I'll take you home now, and you go over all the things you've learned. We'll have another session tomorrow night."

I deposited her at the girls' dormitory, where she assured me that she had had a "perfectly" evening, and I went glumly home to my room. Petey lay snoring in his bed, the raccoon coat huddled like a great hairy beast at his feet. For a moment I considered waking him and telling him that he could have his girl back. It seemed clear that my project was doomed to failure. The girl simply had a logic-proof head.

But then I reconsidered. I had wasted one evening; I might as well waste another. Who knew? Maybe somewhere in the extinct crater of her mind, a few members still smoldered. Maybe somehow I could fan them into flame. Admittedly it was not a prospect fraught with hope, but I decided to give it one more try.

Seated under the oak the next evening I said, "Our first fallacy tonight is called Ad Misericordiam."

She quivered with delight.

"Listen closely," I said. "A man applies for a job. When the boss asks him what his qualifications are, he has a wife and six children at home, the wife is a helpless cripple, the children have nothing to eat, no clothes to wear, no shoes on their feet, there are no beds in the house, no coal in the cellar, and winter is coming."

A tear rolled down each of Polly's pink cheeks. "Oh, this is awful, awful," she sobbed.

"Yes, it's awful," I agreed, "but it's no argument. The man never answered the boss's question about his qualifications. Instead he appealed to the boss's sympathy. He committed the fallacy of Ad Misericordiam. Do you understand?"

"Have you got a handkerchief?" she blubbered.

I handed her a handkerchief and tried to keep from screaming while she wiped her eyes. "Next," I said in a carefully controlled tone, "we will discuss False Analogy. Here is an example: Students should be allowed to look at their textbooks during examination. After all, surgeons have X rays to guide them during a trial, carpenters have blueprints to guide them when they are building a house. Why, then, shouldn't students be allowed to look at their textbooks during examination?"

"There now," she said enthusiastically, "is the most marvy idea I've heard in years."

"Polly," I said testily, "the argument is all wrong. Doctors, lawyers, and carpenters aren't taking a test to see how much they have learned, but students are. The situations are altogether different, and you can't make an analogy between them."

"I still think it's a good idea," said Polly.

"Nuts," I muttered. Doggedly I pressed on. "Next we'll try Hypothesis Contrary to Fact."

"Sounds yummy," was Polly's reaction.

"Listen: If Madame Curie had not happened to leave a photographic plate in a drawer with a chunk of pitchblende, the world today would not know about radium."

"True, true," said Polly, nodding her head "Did you see the movie? Oh, it just knocked me out. That Walter Pidgeon is so dreamy. I mean he fractures me."

"If you can forget Mr. Pidgeon for a moment," I said coldly, "I would like to point out that statement is a fallacy. Maybe Madame Curie would have discovered radium at some later date. Maybe somebody else would have discovered it. Maybe any number of things would have happened. You can't start with a hypothesis that is not true and then draw any supportable conclusions from it."

"They ought to put Walter Pidgeon in more pictures," said Polly, "I hardly ever see him any more."

One more chance, I decided. But just one more. There is a limit to what flesh and blood can bear. "The next fallacy is called Poisioning the Well."

"How cute!" she gurgled.

"Two men are having a debate. The first one gets up and says, 'My opponent is a notorious liar. You can't believe a word that he is going to say.' ... Now, Polly, think hard. What's wrong?"

I watched her closely as she knit her creamy brow in concentration. Suddenly a glimmer of intelligence - the first I had seen - came into her eyes. "It's not fair," she said with indignation. "It's not a bit fair. What chance has the second man got if the first man calls him a liar before he even begins talking?"

"Right!" I cried exultantly. "One hundred per cent right. It's not fair. The first man has poisoned the well before anybody could drink from it. He has hamstrung his opponent before he could even start ... Polly, I'm proud of you."

"Pshaws," she murmured, blushing with pleasure.

"You see, my dear, these things aren't so hard. All you have to do is concentrate. Think-examine-evaluate. Come now, let's review everything we have learned."

"Fire away," she said with an airy wave of her hand.

Heartened by the knowledge that Polly was not altogether a cretin, began a long, patient review of all I had told her. Over and over and over again I cited instances, pointed out flaws, kept hammering away without letup. It was like digging a tunnel. At first, everything was work, sweat, and darkness. I had no idea when I would reach the light, or even if I would. But I persisted. I pounded and clawed and scraped, and finally I was rewarded. I saw a chink of light. And then the chink got bigger and the sun came pouring in and all was bright.

Five grueling nights with this book was worth it. I had made a logician out of Polly; I had taught her to think. My job was done. She was worthy of me, at last. She was a fit wife for me, a proper hostess for many mansions, a suitable mother for my well-heeled children.

It must not be thought that I was without love for this girl. Quite the contrary. Just as Pygmalion loved mine. I determined to acquaint her with feelings at our very next meeting. The time had come to change our relationship from academic to romantic.

"Polly," I said when next we sat beneath our oak, "tonight we will not discuss fallacies."

"Aw, gee," she said, disappointed.

"My dear," I said, favoring her with a smile, "we have now spent five evenings together. We have gotten along splendidly. It is clear that we are well matched."

"Hasty Generalization," said Polly brightly.

"I beg your pardon," said I.

"Hasty Generalization," she repeated. "How can you say that we are well matched on the basis of only five dates?"

I chuckled with amusement. The dear child had learned her lessons well. "My dear," I said, patting her hand in a tolerant manner, "five dates is plenty. After all, you don't have to eat a whole cake to know that it's good."

"False Analogy," said Polly promptly. "I'm not a cake. I'm a girl."

I chuckled with somewhat less amusement. The dear child had learned her lessons perhaps too well. I decided to change tactics. Obviously the best approach was a simple, strong, direct declaration of love. I paused for a moment while my massive brain chose the proper word. Then I began:

"Polly, I love you. You are the whole world to me, and the moon and the stars and the constellations of outer space. Please, my darling, say that you will go steady with me, for if you will not, life will be meaningless. I will languish. I will refuse my meals. I will wander the face of the earth, a shambling, hollow-eyed hulk."

There, I thought, folding my arms, that ought to do it.

"Ad Misericordiam," said Polly.

I ground my teeth. I was not Pygmalion; I was Frankenstein, and my monster had me by the throat. Frantically I fought back the tide of panic surging through me,. at all costs I had to keep cool.

"Well, Polly," I said, forcing a smile, "you certainly have learned your fallacies."

"You're darn right," she said with a vigorous nod.

"And who taught them to you, Polly?"

"You did."

"That's right. So you do owe me something, don't you, my dear? If I hadn't come along you never would have learned about fallacies."

"Hypothesis Contrary to Fact," she said instantly.

I dashed perspiration from my brow. "Polly," I croaked, "you mustn't take all these things so literally. I mean this is just classroom stuff. You know that the things you learn in school don't have anything to do with life."

"Dicto Simpliciter," she said, wagging her finger at me playfully.

That did it. I leaped to my feet, bellowing like a bull. "Will you or will you not go steady with me?"

"I will not," she replied.

"Why not?" I demanded.

"Because this afternoon I promised Petey Burch that I would go steady with him."

I reeled back, overcome with the infamy of it. After he promised, after he made a deal, after he shook my hand! "The rat!" I shrieked, kicking up great chunks of turf. "You can't go with him, Polly. He's a liar. He's a cheat. He's a rat."

"Poisoning the Well ," said Polly, "and stop shouting. I think shouting must be a fallacy too."

With an immense effort of will, I modulated my voice. "All right," I said. "You're a logician. Let's look at this thing logically. How could you choose Petey Burch over me? Look at me - a brilliant student, a tremendous intellectual, a man with an assured future. Look at Petey - a knothead, a jitterbug, a guy who'll never know where his next meal is coming from. Can you give me one logical reason why you should go steady with Petey Burch?"

"I certainly can," declared Polly. "He's got a raccoon coat."

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Self-help: The Classics: No 1 Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness

For a number of years I've been producing an annual top ten of personal development and self-help books that I've found most useful in my work as a psychotherapist, philosophical counsellor and life coach and indeed in my personal and family life.  I hope this has inspired some people to read some of these books, and that reading them has helped them. The most common response I get is people saying "I'd love to read them all - but I haven't got time!" - can't I have a potted version of the best bits? Other people are a but sniffy about self-help books and would like a critical appraisal of them - "Which bits work in practice? Are there any holes in their ideas?".

Listening to both these requests, I've  written articles on some of the best personal development books which include both a summary of key points and a critique.  I'd like to share some of them with you, starting with my summary and critique of Bertrand Russell's Conquest of Happiness.  The first part of the article, below, introduces the book and summarises the great English philosopher's ideas about how to conquer unhappiness.

Self-Help: The Classics:  No 1: Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness (1930)

Advice on how to be happy, from one of the great thinkers of our time.
Who would not welcome advice about how to live well from a really wise person? Someone with a deep understanding of the great thinkers, who has lived as well as thought, and is willing to share their insights.  More than all the self-proclaimed self-help gurus, Bertrand Russell stands out as such a man. Undoubtedly one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, he was also a Nobel Prize winner, campaigner, journalist, teacher, political prisoner, husband and parent. We no longer have personal access to Russell; he died in 1970, aged 98. But he bequeathed to us all a little book, written when he was 58, which sums up much of his wisdom and experience. Called The Conquest of Happiness, it is the first self-help book I read and, appropriately, the first book I will write about in this series of articles about self-help classics.

Bertrand Russell is probably the best-known English philosopher of the twentieth century. Russell was born into the aristocracy in 1867 but by the time he was three, both his parents were dead, and he was brought up by formidable, puritan "Victorian" grandparents - his grandfather had actually served as Prime Minister of England in his time.  Russell showed an early interest in philosophy and mathematics and graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1894. He soon became a Fellow there and produced possibly his most famous works Principia Mathematica in 1910 (with Alfred North Whitehead). The First World War shattered Russell’s world, when he found himself in jail for 6 months as a result of his pacifist views. He lost his fellowship, and at the time of writing The Conquest of Happiness, he was earning his living mainly from writing and lecturing. Russell had also started an experimental school. Later he was to lecture in the United States, where he wrote The History Of Western Philosophy (1945) for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1950). Russell married four times and wrote many more books, spanning popular philosophy, academic philosophy and social criticism. In the 1960s, the nonagenarian Russell was an active member of the peace movement.

Russell’s Project: to Conquer Happiness


Make no mistake, this is no abstract philosophical treatise – it is a recipe for good living, written for the likes of you and me. Russell’s work is based on two assumptions. First, happiness needs to be conquered. You can’t expect to waltz through life reaping happiness without putting in some thought and effort. But – and this is why The Conquest of Happiness is essentially an optimistic book– if you do make this effort, you can, given average fortune, attain happiness. 

The conquest of happiness comes in three stages: first you need to learn about the principles that lead to happiness, next internalise them and, finally, put them into practice.  Unless you had unusually wise parents, you must forget what you learnt on your parents’ knee; you must also put aside what teachers, friends and, especially, priests have told us. You must replace these ideas with ones that really will make you happy. One way to do this is to read The Conquest of Happiness, for what Russell has done here is describe fourteen characteristics of happy and unhappy people. This is the essential first stage, but it’s important to realise that Russell does not think that it is sufficient. Next, you have to really internalise these principles – it’s not enough to repeat them parrot fashion, you have to really feel them as you do your feeling of wanting to protect your own children. A superficial reading of the book might not pick up the point, yet Russell emphasises it several times.  

“Let your conscious beliefs be so vivid and emphatic that they make an impression upon your unconscious and be strong enough to cope with the impressions made by your nurse or your mother when you were an infant.”.

The third stage – the transformation of your life - will happen automatically if the first two steps are carried out. For example, take a theme close to Russell’s heart – that you shouldn’t feel shameful about sex. The first step involves realising at a conscious level that, whatever the priest said, consensual sex is part of a happy life, not a sin. The second step is to fully internalise this belief, to feel it, not just to recite it; if you’ve really done this, then the pay-off will be that a sense of shame will no longer stop you leading a sexually fulfilling life.

If you can follow these three steps for each of the fourteen characteristics described by Russell you will give yourself the best chance of achieving not just happiness but also freedom from what the Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza called  ‘human bondage’. You will no longer be flotsam and jetsam, acted on by the forces of society and the commands of your parents, but a self-determining human being. You will be happy and free.

This framework is given flesh by Russell’s analysis of the fourteen characteristics of happy and unhappy people. Each chapter consists of a justification of why the chosen characteristic is good or bad, nice distinctions between its various senses and a discussion of other writers’ views and Russell’s practical advice for attaining happiness.  Sometimes Russell digresses to make some rather tangential remarks about society and education and other personal concerns. Since our concern is with how to be happy, rather than Russell’s other preoccupations – such as the difficulty of obtaining good housemaids in the 1920s – this will be our focus. 

Russell divides the conquest of happiness into two separate tasks:  first conquering unhappiness, which will give you peace of mind, and then attaining happiness, actually living a joyful, zestful life. Russell begins with the characteristics of unhappy people, before going on to look at happy people, and so shall we.

Part 1: How to Conquer Unhappiness
1)    Dealing with a sense of meaninglessness
“The wise man will be as happy as circumstances permit and if he finds the contemplation of the universe painful beyond a point, he will contemplate something else as well.”  

Some people are made more unhappy by the thought that life is meaningless and that unhappiness is mankind’s natural condition. Russell thinks that such people are  projecting. They draw false conclusions about the human situation from their own temporary malaise. He calls this sort of unhappiness ‘Byronic Unhappiness’, bringing to mind the self-indulgent, self-pitying melancholy of the poet.   For when you come to actually examine the arguments these melancholics put forward, they aren’t actually very strong. Consider the famous passage from one such famous melancholic, the anonymous writer of Ecclesiastes, a book of the Old Testament.  It includes the lines:-
            There is no new thing under the sun.
            There is no remembrance of former things.

No new thing under the sun? What about skyscrapers and aeroplanes? asks Russell, and, we might add, what about space travel and computers?  No remembrance of former things? We, thousands of years later, remember and are still influenced by these very words.

No, the happy person will not find these or similar arguments convincing. There is plenty to enjoy in life, and this enjoyment makes life worthwhile.  Yet it is true that many people -including Russell himself- sometimes find themselves in a mood when the words of Ecclesiastes ring true. Russell suggests that deep moods of melancholy are best tackled not by argument but by ‘the imperative for action’. If your sick child urgently needs medicine, you won’t be thinking ‘everything is vanity’.

If you went to Russell complaining of melancholy, his advice, I think would be this. Don’t be ensnared by romantically gloomy pronouncements about the vanity of human existence. Examine the arguments behind them, and you will usually find them false. If your mood is such that you do see some truth in them, take the pragmatic line of contemplating something else and in time the call for action will pull you out of your mood.

2) Don’t get caught in the competitive treadmill
“Success is too dearly purchased if all the other ingredients have been sacrificed to obtain it”.

Those for whom life is one long struggle for success are unlikely to be happy.  If success necessitates getting up at the crack of dawn, having a long and stressful journey to work, working long hours and returning home too tired to enjoy leisure or one’s family – then wouldn’t you be better off being  a bit less “successful”?

Russell’s remedy is to recognise “the part of sane and quiet enjoyment in a balanced ideal of life."  Think about how much effort you put in to being one up on other people and compare this with the effort you put into fun and enjoyment. Direct your efforts to attain a variety of all the ingredients of happiness, not just   success.

3) Develop the right attitude towards boredom and excitement 
“A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper. A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life."
An unhealthy attitude to boredom and excitement is a recipe for unhappiness. Demanding a life of total excitement is both unrealistic and unhealthy.   Here Russell is thinking mainly of the disastrous long-term consequences of drugs, drink and gambling.  Craving excitement all the time is unhealthy, so you need to learn to tolerate some boredom. But that’s not the whole story, because boredom can be a sign that you are choosing too passive, indoor pastimes. You may need to take stock of the type of activities most frequently engage in, and ask ourselves whether you are sufficiently active and in contact with nature.
"I have seen a boy of 2”, says Russell, “who had been kept in London, taken out for the first time to walk in green country. The season was winter and everything was wet and muddy. To the adult eye there was nothing to cause delight, but in the boy there sprang up a strange ecstasy; he kneeled in the wet ground and put his face in the grass, and gave utterance to half-articulate cries of delight. The joy he was experiencing was primitive, simple and massive."
You should learn to tolerate boredom, but if this boredom is a signal that you are too passive, or in too little contact with nature, then you should become change accordingly – the best sort of ‘trips’, Russell might have said (but, as far as I know, didn’t), are those to the countryside.

4) Make your worries concrete, don’t suppress them
“At first [my public speaking] terrified me... I dreaded the ordeal so much that I always hoped that I might break my leg before I had to make a speech... Gradually I taught myself to feel that it did not matter whether I spoke well or ill, the universe would remain much the same in either case. I found that the less I cared whether I spoke well or badly, the less badly I spoke.”

Anxiety and worry[ is a cause of great unhappiness. People often try to avoid thinking about things that worry them. Russell’s advice is to do precisely the opposite. You need to face worries head on, and ask yourself the question:- ‘What is the worst thing that can happen?’  Vagueness is the enemy of serenity. When you think of concrete events, they are not usually as impossible to deal with as your demons would have you believe. What if you did miss that plane? You’d end up on the next one, which wouldn’t be such a terrible disaster. Occasionally  the worst may appear pretty bad. Then, according to Russell, you should remind yourself of your global insignificance. From the point of view of the universe, says Russell, your troubles are nought.

5) Avoid envy, and if you have to make comparisons turn envy into admiration
"“Envy ... consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations. ... If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon, but Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.”

 The trick is to stop thinking in terms of comparisons. “When anything pleasant occurs it should be enjoyed to the full.” Don’t play the game of thinking about even more pleasant things, as then you’ll never enjoy the present.  If you find the habit of making comparisons too hard to break, then turn your envy into admiration, its more constructive cousin. “Whoever wishes to increase human happiness must wish to increase admiration and to diminish envy.”

6)   Don’t let your early influences make you feel unjustified guilt or shame

“Whenever you begin to feel remorse for an act which your reason tells you is not wicked, examine the causes of your feeling of remorse, and convince yourself in detail of their absurdity.”

Russell’s own term for the sixth habit of highly unhappy people, ‘a sense of sin’, has a rather Victorian ring to it.  The moral teaching  -especially about sexuality- received from a twenty-first century parent is far removed from the Victorian era.  But once one makes the imaginative leap from purely sexual and religious matters to guilt and shame originating in rules learnt in early childhood, his advice still holds good. A ‘sense of sin’ can apply, for example, to  sexual orientation or  not living up to your parents’ standards. Russell’s solution, as quoted above, is to compel the unconscious to take note of the rational beliefs that govern your conscious thoughts. You must make up your mind about what you rationally believe, and be vigilant about not allowing irrational beliefs to pass unchallenged.

7) Don’t feel a misplaced sense of injustice

“We are all familiar with the type of person ... who, according to his own account, is perpetually the victim of ingratitude, unkindness and treachery. “

I expect you know people who habitually cast themselves in the role of victim, and suffer from what Russell nicely terms “an inflated sense of injustice”.  People who have a rather high opinion of their own merits, and expect everyone else to share their view. But human nature is such that this expectation sets one up for a fall, a point Russell makes rather amusingly. “Very few people can resist saying malicious things about their acquaintances, and even on occasions about their friends; yet when people hear that anything has been said against themselves they are filled with indignant amazement.”
Since it’s quite impossible to be happy if you feel that everybody is ill-treating you, Russell’s four rules  to prevent ‘persecution mania’ are worth thinking about:-
1) Remember that your motives are not always as altruistic as they seem to yourself.
2) Do not over-estimate your own merits.
3) Do not expect others to take as much interest in you as you do yourself.
4) Don't imagine that most people give enough thought to you to have any special desire to persecute you.

8)   Don’t care too much about what other people think
“There is too much respect paid to the opinion of others, both in great matters and in small ones. One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny”

Taking too much notice of what other people think can obviously make you unhappy. Russell informs us, rather liberatingly I think, that, as long as your acts are not positively anti-social, there  really is no good reason to take any notice at all of what other people think. Pursuing your own personal tastes makes you happy, so to deny them because of societies’ dictates will clearly reduce your happiness.

“We should be natural, and should follow [our] spontaneous tastes in so far as these are not definitely anti-social.”

Such is Bertrand Russell’s advice about how to avoid unhappiness. Russell would say that for them to be most helpful to you, you have to really internalise them, which means not only knowing them intellectually but also feeling them and knowing how they apply to your own case. To help achieve this, for Russell’s advice and that of the other self-help classics, I have devised a number of personal development activities which will follow in the next article.

Personal development activities devised by Tim LeBon based on Russell's Conquest of Happiness and an analysis of Part 2 of the book  - How to be happy-and a critique of Russell's Conquest of Happiness will follow in future blog entries at

Monday, May 02, 2011

Guilt – a useful or useless emotion?

 Is guilt a useful or a useless emotion? There seems to be a strong case for both sides of the argument. On the one hand, guilt, it could be argued, is a useless emotion, to be challenged and alleviated. One thinks of fictional characters portrayed by Woody Allen who are racked with guilt but spend their whole time navel-gazing rather than doing anything to make amends. Or someone who has been in a car accident where they injured or even killed someone, and even though the accident wasn’t their fault they cannot get over the incident and may even suffer from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) as a result.  Such cases make one wonder whether guilt is indeed a useless emotion, turning one bad thing (the event one is guilty about) into two bad things(the original one plus feeling bad about it). As therapists or coaches we are tempted to turn to CBT(cognitive-behavioural) methods such as challenging whether the offence was as serious as we imagined (are our negative automatic thoughts supported by the evidence? are we jumping to conclusions?). The responsibility pie is a useful technique, whereby we examine all the people and factors responsible and thereby often realise that we were not as blameworthy as we imagined. In these ways useless guilt can be challenged and alleviated.

On the other hand, it could be argued that guilt is a vital emotion, one that makes  separates us from psychopaths and non-human animals. Imagine a society where we avoided thinking about the damage we had done to others, or rationalised it away. We would neither make amends for past harm or resolve to change ourselves. We would, in fact, all be rather like fictional gangster Tony Soprano, who commits murder, adultery and breaks most of the other 10 commandments but sees it all as part of his job and putting bread on the table.  Existential therapists  argue that existential guilt, the feeling that our whole life is not living up to our standards, can serve as a very useful emotion, one to remind us to take steps to change ourselves and our lives. According to existential therapists, then, the main work to be done when someone complains of feeling guilty is not so much to alleviate the guilt as to find out what the guilt is telling us and to take heed of the guilt. Guilt, according to this view, is a most useful emotion.

These two apparently contradictory views can be reconciled by realising that context is key. The trick is to examine the ideas behind your feelings of guilt, and then to assess whether they are telling you existential messages or are inappropriate feelings which need to be challenged.
For example, consider a woman who feels guilty that she working rather than looking after her young child. The first step is to ask  (as CBT asks us to do) – what are the thoughts or images behind this guilt? Suppose it is the notion that a woman’s first duty is to be a mother, an idea she got from her own mother. Then she needs to ask herself – is this a view she actually subscribes to , or is this a prejudice she is parroting to herself from her mother? There is no simple answer to this question. Though the CBT therapist might urge  her to lessen her guilt by arguing that such notions are old-fashioned, the existential therapist would ask her to decide the issue  for heself based on her own values and on the facts. For example, is it the case that children flourish best when looked after by  their mother? Or does it depend on the age of the child and the quality of care, whoever is giving it?  To determine the answers to this question would resolve research – the guilt tells us that something of value is at stake, but it doesn’t tell us whether our suspicions are correct. Then again even if if it was proven that children were in general somewhat happier when they were looked after by their mother, it would not necessarily follow that she should take heed of her guilt. She needs to make a value judgement about whether this statistical finding carries more weight than the certainty that she would jeopardise her career for a number of years.

On balance, it would seem that these arguments suggest that the existence of guilt is more useful than useless. Guilt always gives us useful information about our values, and it often points us in a valued direction. However, as with other emotions, guilt can go wrong in terms of its degree or its its appropriateness. The answer is always to look at the context of the guilt, to identify and then assess the ideas which are fuelling the guilt, and then to take appropriate action – which will either be making amends or changing our life in the direction implied by the guilt, or else using the responsibility pie or other CBT techniques to remove it.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Guest Article - The Power of Goal Setting by James Shipperlee

Goal-setting - when done the right way - can be an enormously empowering and helpful exercise, which is probably why it's part of so many coaching processes as well as some therapies (such as CBT). When I first started setting goals, I used a back of an envelope, which actually wasn't such a bad way to start. These days, though, technology has moved on, and there exist some more sophisticated - and free - tools on the web that can help you achieve your goals. The web isn't just about tools though, it's about people and communities - and that inspired James Shipperlee, author of today's guest article, to create a web tool that is definitely worth checking out.

The Power of Goal Setting

'Cheshire Puss,' she began, rather timidly,as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. `Come, it's pleased so far,' thought Alice, and she went on. `Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
`I don't much care where--' said Alice.
`Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.
`--so long as I get SOMEWHERE,' Alice added as an explanation.
`Oh, you're sure to do that,' said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.'
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventurers in Wonderland

Goal setting is used by top achievers in all fields, from elite athletes to successful business people. Formal studies have shown, time and time again, that people who set goals are happier, more motivated and more successful than people who do not set goals. But still, it is estimated that as few as 12% of people make a habit of setting goals in their life.

If you want to live a successful and inspired life, goal setting could be one of the most important tools available to you. Listed below are a few of the benefits:

1. Life will begin to move in the direction you choose. Consider taking a major car journey - would you do it with no destination in mind? Probably not. Yet it is remarkable how few people set any kind of destination for the greatest journey of all - their life. It is of little wonder that people without goals feel lost, or adrift in life. Goal setting is about thinking about your ideal life, and putting in place the goals and plans to make this happen.

2. Your confidence will grow. As you set goals and move towards them, you will begin to realise that you are the creator of your reality, and that you can achieve practically anything you want in life.

3. You will be more motivated, more inspired. Your life may not be as you want it yet, but knowing that you are working towards a worthwhile goal or vision will inspire and motivate you.

4. In a relatively short space of time, you will accomplish more than many people will achieve in a lifetime.

Over the past few years, we have worked with many people to create the life they want through goal setting. We have found that although many people already understand the importance of setting goals, few people set them - and even fewer follow them through. In our experience, this is for a number of reasons, primarily: not having a clear idea of what they want; not knowing how to set effective goals; and not having the right support.

In order to address these issues, we have created, a free online goal setting community which is helping people to create the life of their dreams. The site links people together who are working towards the same goals, where they can share their progress, hints, tips, useful videos and success stories. Members can create plans of how they are going to achieve their goal, and share these with others.

We know for a fact that as soon as you start setting effective goals and start moving towards them, your life will change for the better. We highly recommend that you start goal setting today and discover these benefits for yourself.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Top Ten Personal Development Books , January 1st 2011

  1. The Seven Habits of Highly effective People Stephen Covey (last year- 1)
  2. Man's Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl (2) 
  3. Overcoming Low Self-Esteem Melanie Fennell (4)
  4. The How of Happiness Sonja Lyubomirsky (-)
  5. The Feeling Good Handbook David Burns (3) 
  6.  The Conquest of Happiness Bertrand Russell (5)
  7.  How to Win Friends and Influence People Dale Carnegie (9)
  8. . The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work   John M. Gottman & Nan Silver (8)
  9. The Happiness Trap  Russ Harris (-) 
  10. Positivity  Barbara Fredrickson (-)

Bubbling Under 

The Mindful Way Through Depression Mark Williams et al
Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman (-)
The Consolations of Philosophy Alain de Botton (-)

 The Art of Happiness Howard Cutler and the Dalai Lama (-)
Happiness - Mathieu Ricard (-)