In a New Yorker article, writer Jill Lepore debunks marriage counselling and explores the philosophy behind Paul Popenoe’s American History of Family Relations (it turns out that Popenoe’s anti-divorce stance had less to do with love than eugenics, which is pretty unromantic!) The message is clear: Therapy doesn’t work.
As an American who has been living in the UK for the past few years, I was amazed by how the Brits expect life (and weather!) to be crap a lot of the time. I find the British attitude very reassuring. I’m not a miserable person, and I like smiling at strangers! But I have come to believe that the constant quest for happiness makes us miserable.
I’m in sunny Los Angeles now, and when I have a bad day sometimes the only half-full glass I want to see is the Jack Daniels in the palm of my hand. I don’t want to smile and read relationship psycho-babble, I want to hide behind my dark sunglasses.
It wasn’t always this way. At one point, I was so worried about negatively influencing my surrounding that I became addicted to self-help. At various points in my quest, I’ve taken mind-altering prescription drugs, drunk endless cups of free coffee at Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, had countless hours of therapy, tried every self-help technique from Alcoholics Anonymous (for the 12 step method, I don’t have a drinking problem) to Zen Buddhism.
Sometimes, life sucks. And trying to convince myself that it doesn’t just makes me feel like crap. Maybe the reasons that our grandparents’ generation was happier than we are despite fighting in wars and toiling in fields was the fact that they didn’t follow Deepak Chopra on Twitter, get dragged by their girlfriends into Kaballah lectures on miracles, or have the constant pressure to be ‘happy’.
It seems that science may finally be catching up with me. Research shows that trying to think happy thoughts when depressed can actually make our unhappiness worse. Author Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and The World that the belief that everything will turn out all right if we remain upbeat in the end is ‘delusional’, and that this ‘quack theory’ affects everything from cancer patients to people buying homes they couldn’t afford. Positive thinking may make you feel better, but it probably doesn’t shrink tumours.
Self-affirmation doesn’t seem to work either. If you don’t really believe it, when you look at yourself in the mirror you end up feeling like a deceptive department store assistant with the too-wide grin who tells you that you look just great in those white pants.
Sometimes, as I stumble bleary-eyed through a sunny West Hollywood morning in search of coffee, I want to be free of the worry that I’m not living my best possible, Dr. Phil endorsed, ‘authentic’ life.
Who knows? Maybe then I really would have a nice day.