Why Talk Therapy Isn’t Solving America’s Happiness Crisis

Talk therapy has been the dominant form of mental health and wellness treatment in the US for generations.  

How’s that working for us? As the Washington Post put it, “Life in America keeps getting more miserable, according to the latest data from the General Social Survey, one of the longest-running and most highly regarded public opinion research projects in the nation.” In 2018, the US hit a near-50-year low in happiness --before COVID.

Freud’s Most Shocking Statement

Dr. Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis (think five days a week on the couch for years) said this about his brainchild:

“The best that psychoanalysis can do is return the patient to the normal level of human misery.”

Freudian psychoanalysis is dying. Two of its descendants, psychodynamic therapy and psychoanalytic therapy, are improvements. They might help you better understand the sources of negative emotions and behaviors.

But as Freud’s “human misery” statement suggests, understanding the past will only do so much for you in the present.  

Affirmations: Should You Fake It Till You Make It?

At the risk of oversimplifying, in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you try to replace irrational thoughts with rational thoughts, or negative thoughts with positive or neutral thoughts.

Some forms of CBT use affirmations to try to transform your self-perception. Some are more constructive than others.

While CBT can be an effective treatment for depression and anxiety disorders, I’m not a fan of what I call Fake-It-Till-You-Make-It Affirmations.  

In this article, a cognitive therapist recommends repeatedly thinking “I am happy and healthy” if you’re experiencing depression, anxiety or low self-esteem.   

Slapping a “happy” label on yourself (which raises the question, “Who is labeling whom?”) when you’re feeling miserable can make you a) very quickly lose confidence in the affirmation approach and your therapist, and b) create a standard that you aren’t meeting but think you should be. “I’m depressed, but I’m supposed to be happy.” In other words, take misery and add hopelessness and guilt.  

Self-Love Therapy: Who Loves Who Exactly?

Self-love therapy is very popular. It encourages us to “treat ourselves” and “speak to ourselves” more compassionately, to “forgive ourselves,” and of course, to “love ourselves.”  

It’s better than hating ourselves. It works for some people. But it perpetuates an illusion that psychologically fragments us and sets us up to feel eternally  “incomplete” – like something in us is lacking.

You know that you are not two people, that you can’t make a salad and swim in the ocean simultaneously.

But Self-Love Therapy and similar approaches to negative self-talk split us into false two entities.  

Consider, “I am angry at myself.”

Who is the “I” that is “angry with myself,” and who is the “myself” whom “I” is angry with?

They can’t be the same entity. 1+1≠1.

Then, let's say you decide “to forgive yourself." Are you the one who is forgiving, or being forgiven?

It creates an artificial psychological hierarchy. Let’s call the forgiver "Self 2" and the forgiven "Self 1.”

As Self 1 acts in the world, it is judged by Self 2. Self 1 either aims to please, doesn’t care or acts rebelliously. Self 2 judges harshly, lovingly or in between.

It’s like parent/child or boss/subordinate relationships.  They’re unequal and usually conflict-ridden.

Who Are You Really?

You which Self do you pick?

The answer is, you don't pick. You are neither the “I” nor the “myself" in "I forgive myself."

Did it ever occur to you that when the voice in your head is talking, someone or something else is listening?

Here’s the secret:

You are not the voice in your head.

You are the one who hears it.

The voice in your head is often in turmoil

The one who hears it is always in peace.

The voice in your head is a stream of thoughts that are rational and irrational, negative and positive, and forgiving and unforgiving. It’s just a stream of thoughts.

The one who hears it is awareness.

(The case for why “you are awareness” vs. “you are the voice in your head” is overwhelming, and I will write that up soon.)

When you realize that you are awareness, you cease to psychologically fragment into Self 1 and Self 2. You cease to try to embody a label you’ve been repeating in your head.

You are one. You are whole. And you are at peace, even in the most chaotic situation.  Here’s how to put this to work:

Exercise:

Close your eyes. Think a negative thought. Repeat it in your head a few times, and after the final time, just listen for what happens. Where does the voice go?

If you’re like most people, it just disappears into a peaceful void. The thought doesn’t bother or upset what hears it. It’s just a harmless passing thought. You can do this with eyes open, too, just like everything else in Reverse Mindfulness for Lasting Happiness.

The peaceful void scratches the surface of the essence of who you are, your true nature, which is peaceful, happy and unconditionally fulfilled.

As much as you can, pay attention to what is listening, your inherent peace.  And when the voice in your head gets unruly, remember, it isn’t the real you, so don’t take it too seriously.  

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