Category Archives: Philosophical Therapy

Harvard Business Review Lauds Philosophical Counseling for CEOs

It’s been called “Therapy for the Sane.” It’s definitely therapeutic. But you don’t have to be suffering from any mental illness to benefit. Consider the kinds of questions the following philosophers would counsel you to ask of yourself:

Socrates: What is the most challenging question someone could ask me about my current approach?

Aristotle: What character virtues are most important to me and how will I express them?

Nietzsche: How will I direct my “will to power,” manage my self-interest, and act in accordance with my chosen values?

Existentialists (e.g., Sartre): How will I take full responsibility for my choices and the outcomes to which they lead?

David Brendel, writing at the Harvard Business Review, lauds his professional services as a Philosophical Counselor.

This is no academic exercise, but should have “cash value” in the real world… Like “mindfulness” activities, self-reflection requires time and effort… It requires the leader to think rigorously about profound philosophical issues like value and purpose. The reward of self-reflection is what Aristotle called phronesis (“practical wisdom”). Contemplating timeless philosophical values can fuel timely behavior changes in the service of growth and lasting success.

Doctors Are Prescribing Books

Leah Price has written a piece in the Boston Globe about how some doctors in Britain are prescribing books for their mental health patients. The National Health Service set up a program called Books on Prescription, which is just the latest example of a new wave of “bibliotherapy.”

The School of Life, founded by Alain de Botton and Sophie Horwarth, employees philosophers, artists, writers, literary critics and others who offer workshops and classes, focussing on how books can help all of us address basic problems of life.

Indeed, some studies have been conducted which suggest that the written word may promise mental health benefits. Price:

As early as 1997, a randomized trial found bibliotherapy supervised by therapists no less effective in treating unipolar depression than individual or group therapy. More surprisingly, a 2007 literature review by the same researcher found that books treated anxiety just as effectively without a therapist’s guidance as with it. A 2004 meta-analysis comparing bibliotherapy for anxiety and depression to short-term talk therapy found books “as effective as professional treatment of relatively short duration.”

In the last analysis, however, Price concludes that books are only this good: they are better than nothing. And nothing is what lots of people are getting with respect to treatment for their mental health issues, for instance, say, depression.

Whence Shyness?

Some in the blogosphere are wondering about the evolutionary origin of shyness. Why are some people shy and others not? Is there an evolutionary benefit? Maybe it’s a “spandrel” (that is, a by-product of another fitness-making trait).

One study I read somewhere said that shy people as kids have over-active pre-frontal cortexes, which caused them to find it difficult to get out of their own heads. This is a sort of flattering explanation of shyness — shy people are just smarter!

Another explanation is that as social morays came to be more complex there came to be some people who would wonder when they were acting acceptably and this might trip them up from acting at all. Joe Moran writes:

Until a few hundred years ago, life was lived far more in public. For example, it was quite normal for people to urinate or defecate in public places. Even in private houses, whole families would eat, sleep and socialise together in the same room. Then, gradually, bodily functions and aggressive language and behaviour were rendered increasingly invisible in polite society, thanks to what the late sociologist Norbert Elias called the ‘civilising process’ that took place in the Western world from the 16th century onwards. As greater physical and psychological boundaries grew up around individuals, particularly among relative strangers in public, there were more opportunities for awkwardness and embarrassment about when these boundaries should be crossed.

Is that it? That would suggest that at one time there were fewer shy people than there are now. That’s an empirical question but I’m not sure how well it lends itself to scientific research methods.

Another explanation is due to Dr. Zimbardo, author of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Zimbardo began thinking of shy people as incarcerating themselves in a silent prison, in which they also acted as their own guards, setting severe constraints on their speech and behaviour that were self-imposed although they felt involuntary.

That seems undermotivated. He is just arguing from analogy. It’s a hypothesis without yet any reason to believe it other than it would explain the phenomenon.

Here’s another question. Are we correct to treat shyness as a pathology?

Extreme shyness was redefined as ‘social anxiety disorder’, and drugs such as Seroxat (also known as Paxil), which works like Prozac by increasing the brain’s levels of serotonin, were developed to treat it. As Christopher Lane argues forcefully in his book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness (2007), this was part of a more general biomedical turn in psychiatry, with its ‘growing consensus that traits once attributed to mavericks, sceptics, or mere introverts are psychiatric disorders that drugs should eliminate’

Another more philosophical issue would be the careful definition of shyness, so we can know what we are talking about. To this end, some are careful to say that introversion is not the same as shyness. Introversion means you get tired out by social stimulation. This is apparently not regarded as pathological. Shyness on the other hand is “a longing for connection with other people which is foiled by fear and awkwardness,” Moran writes.

Moran consider whether or not he believes,

that lots of voluble people do not really listen to each other, that they simply exchange words as though they were pinging them over a tennis net — conducting their social life entirely on its surface. A small, self-regarding part of me thinks there is something glib about easy articulacy and social skill.

If you are shy, it’s worth thinking about just what that means, its origins, and whether or not it’s such a bad thing.

Happiness May Be Bad For You

Emily Esfahani Smith at writes about the philosophical distinction that most psychologists make between happiness and well-being. Happiness comes from the satisfaction of desires, wants and goals, while well-being comes from possessing meaning in life, which the psychologists equate to living for a purpose higher than the self.

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors of a new study write. The new study concludes that happiness might even be bad for you.

Happiness may not be as good for the body as [previous] researchers thought. It might even be bad.

Most significantly the study showed a correlation between self-reported happiness and the kind of gene expression that occurs in cases of adversity, loneliness, and stress.

When people feel lonely, are grieving the loss of a loved one, or are struggling to make ends meet, their bodies go into threat mode. This triggers the activation of a stress-related gene pattern that has two features: an increase in the activity of proinflammatory genes and a decrease in the activity of genes involved in anti-viral responses.


“Empty positive emotions” — like the kind people experience during manic episodes or artificially induced euphoria from alcohol and drugs — “are about as good for you for as adversity,” says [one of the authors] Barbara Fredrickson.


Steven Cole and Fredrickson found that people who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives — proverbially, simply here for the party — have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity.

For a lucky few, happiness and meaning are both in their possession.

But for many, there is a dissonance — they feel that they are low on happiness and high on meaning or that their lives are very high in happiness, but low in meaning. This last group, which has the gene expression pattern associated with adversity, formed a whopping 75 percent of study participants.

It’s an age old philosophical question and a part of any philosophical approach to therapy: can you be happy and hedonistic or is there something more?