The Feeling Good HandbookThe Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unlike with previous Burns books, I read this one while I was feeling relatively normal and untroubled. I did this because I sensed myself relapsing. Cognitive therapy, as you might know, is based on the premise that your thoughts control your moods and emotions. Thus it works by changing your beliefs and even your values in order to alleviate depression, anxiety, and problems with relationships. In my own experience, this can have a remarkably liberating effect. The problem is that, when the relief passes and you once more get sucked into the humdrum world of daily troubles, the original beliefs and values come creeping back.

But why is this? Why are we so prone to adopting irrational and self-defeating patterns of thought? Why do we embrace unrealistic standards, make unjustified assumptions, jump to unwarranted conclusions—only to wallow in misery and fear and loneliness—when a few pen-and-paper exercises is sometimes all we need to feel better? It is peculiar. Robert Wright argues that our cognitive imperfections stem from our evolutionary heritage. A competitive and materialistic culture might also contribute. Burns, for his part, does not offer much in the way of explanation; his aim is therapy, not theory. Yet answering this question seems vital if we are to fight an offensive battle rather than a defensive one.

It seems to me that the most proactive strategy would be to intervene on the social rather than the psychological realm (if that were possible). To pick a simple example, if an obsession with being the best is really self-defeating—at least as far as happiness is concerned—then why the opposite message so passionately embraced in the culture at large?

Perhaps it is because these value systems, which equate happiness with accomplishment, do benefit the group even if they are not psychologically desirable. An office full of perfectionistic over-achievers might out-compete an office full of contented workers with nothing to prove. Advertisements may not have much effect in a world of high self-esteem. And political parties will have trouble getting elected in a world without anxiety. In these and a thousand other ways, society depends on the very thoughts and attitudes that books like this try to combat. No wonder that relapse is common once therapy ceases.

It is also true that there are hidden, and sometimes ugly, benefits to our bad habits. It feels satisfying to think oneself superior to others. Insulting and controlling other people brings a rush. Anxiety helps us to avoid discomfort. Intimacy requires painful vulnerability. And who wants to accept imperfections in oneself? Burns’ methods require that we see ourselves as flawed, that we acknowledge that other people have a point, that our anger is often unjustified, that we face our fears—and who wants to do that? Indeed, sometimes the beliefs that are most precious to us, the beliefs that form our identity and reality, are just what cognitive therapy encourages us to give up—the belief that, for example, your money makes you superior, or that life is rotten, or that your wife is crazy—and these beliefs can seem more important than happiness itself.

Well, I’m not sure I have a solution to this, other than meditating and occasionally dipping into some cognitive therapy books when I feel particularly troubled. For that purpose The Feeling Good Handbook is well suited, since it is a sort of omnibus of Burns’ general approach, with sections on depression, anxiety, and communication. Even though I was not looking for any special relief, I still found the book useful (specifically the section on procrastination, which prompted me to finally begin submitting my novel to agents). As usual, Burns is a heartening voice—compassionate, intelligent, and motivating—who is accessible without descending into tackiness. And it is always a relief to read his anecdotes, since they remind me that these problems, far from hopeless or strange, are part of the human condition.

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