Apr 27

Barbara Ehrenreich: Positive Versus Rational Thinking

If you’ve never read something by social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, it might be time.

Her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (2009), takes on subject matter that potentially divides many in the mental health field. There are those therapists who regularly advocate affirmations and the type of positive thinking that Ehrenreich calls “delusional” thinking; and there are those (of us) who prefer helping clients learn how to develop more rational thinking.

First, let’s look at how Ehrenreich got involved with this topic. As described by New York Magazine writer Kera Bolonik, this book “…was initially inspired by her resistance to the cancer-gives-my-life-meaning trope, which was inflicted on her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000. She found that insistent, blind optimism is deeply ingrained in our nation’s psyche, especially in the realms of finance and national security.”

The review from author Nora Ephron:

It’s Ehrenreich’s belief that almost everything that’s wrong in this country comes from an addiction to positive thinking. She takes on all the hucksters who travel the country insisting that optimism will cure you, change your life and/or make you rich. She then proceeds to the economy and devastates all the people who were unable to conceive a crash might be possible. Ehrenreich convinced me so completely that I hesitate to say anything so positive as that this book will change the way you see absolutely everything; but it just might.

Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (1998):

The self-esteem/positive thinking/self-help movement has turned out to be one grand failed experiment in psychology. You can’t just tell people (or yourself) that they/you are esteemed, accomplished, and happy. You actually have to do something to earn the respect of others and yourself, and in the real world the doing also involves failure. In this hard-hitting but honest appraisal, America’s cultural skeptic Barbara Ehrenreich turns her focus on the muddled American phenomenon of positive thinking. She exposes the pseudoscience and pseudointellectual foundation of the positive-thinking movement for what it is: a house of cards. This is a mind-opening read.

The following video presents an interesting visualization of Ehrenreich’s spoken thoughts and beliefs on this topic, including how former U.S. President George W. Bush’s “cheerleading” style has harmed our nation’s well-being:

And if the above isn’t your cup of tea, here’s more than just a voice and visuals—it’s Ehrenreich showing us a more personal side on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:

Apr 26

A.J. Jacobs: Is It Time To Outsource Your Worries?

A 2005 article in Esquire entitled “My Outsourced Life” by writer/editor A.J. Jacobs humorously details an interesting experiment he’d conducted about outsourcing to India his usual day-to-day life tasks, both personal and professional. He winds up with a couple female helpers named Asha and Honey.

Ultimately, after a few weeks, A.J. Jacobs realizes that although he’s benefited from this type of remote assistance, he still feels too stressed. So now he turns his attention to his “inner life,” including his therapy.

The following article excerpt describes the ensuing process:

First, I try to delegate my therapy. My plan is to give Asha a list of my neuroses and a childhood anecdote or two, have her talk to my shrink for 50 minutes, then relay the advice. Smart, right? My shrink refused. Ethics or something. Fine. Instead, I have Asha send me a meticulously researched memo on stress relief. It had a nice Indian flavor to it, with a couple of yogic postures and some visualization.

This was okay, but it didn’t seem quite enough. I decided I needed to outsource my worry. For the last few weeks I’ve been tearing my hair out because a business deal is taking far too long to close. I asked Honey if she would be interested in tearing her hair out in my stead. Just for a few minutes a day. She thought it was a wonderful idea. ‘I will worry about this every day,’ she wrote. ‘Do not worry.’

The outsourcing of my neuroses was one of the most successful experiments of the month. Every time I started to ruminate, I’d remind myself that Honey was already on the case, and I’d relax. No joke—this alone was worth it.

No joke at all—I totally believe this could work. If anyone out there has found a “Honey” of your own, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Apr 25

Long-Term Therapy: The Current Debate About Its Effectiveness

I’ve skimmed through the loads of written responses to therapist Jonathan Alpert’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times entitled “In Therapy Forever? Enough Already” and have found the vast majority to fall into the “enough-already” camp—enough already with his opinion, that is. Apparently many people feel just fine about theirs and others’ experiences with long-term therapy, no matter what Alpert has to say about liking shorter-term therapy.

In addition, more than one responder points to Bob Newhart’s (satiric) “stop it!” therapy as being perhaps preferable to Alpert’s own self-promoted brand of brief therapy.

What I think is that although Alpert makes a valid point about the possible ineffectiveness of long-term therapy for some, he fails to give much weight to such possibilities as the ineffectiveness of short-term therapy for others and the effectiveness of long-term therapy for many.

He cites all kinds of research—but leaves out the research that neither promotes his opinion nor the ideas in his new book.

Furthermore, if he’s so research-driven, where’s the research showing that the 28-day-plan-as-outlined-in-his-new-book has been proven to change people’s lives in the way that he suggests it will?

Below, a summary of my above thoughts on this topic and additional ones:

  • One size (of therapy) does not fit all.
  • Both short-term and long-term therapy have their merits.
  • Most clients can determine and/or have the right to determine what works better for them at any given time.
  • Anyone can find research that backs one’s own position.
  • Anyone can ignore research that doesn’t.
  • No valid research is usually available, though, for brand new self-help approaches.
  • The relationship between each particular therapist and client is what often matters the most.
  • There are good therapists, bad therapists, and everything in between.
  • There are dedicated clients, involuntary and/or unmotivated clients, and everything in between.
  • In short, there’s a lot of between.
Apr 24

“We Bought a Zoo”: Zoo Therapy For a Grieving Widower

Did I think “schmaltzy” at least once or twice while watching We Bought a Zoo on the plane ride home from my vacation? Yup.

Did I also feel things that mattered even more times than that? Yup again.

Whereas Richard Corliss at Time calls Zoo “pure cornography,” Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune differs. He points out that Matt Damon, as lead character Benjamin Mee, is largely responsible for keeping that very same element in check. “Damon, thank the family-friendly-movie gods, really knows how to hold his head above the corn,” Phillips says.

The film is based on a true story about a grieving widower with two kids to raise. Fourteen-year-old angry, sullen Dylan is acting out at school, while seven-year-old adorable Rosie shows signs of becoming overly self-sufficient and parentified in the wake of her mom’s loss.

Benjamin yearns so much to get to a better space emotionally for himself and his kids that he abruptly quits his job and makes a questionable move to a different physical space—a house with a zoo that happens to be in just as much need of repair as each of their hearts.

Along with the purchase of the zoo grounds comes its motley crew—not the least important of which is zookeeper Kelly, played by Scarlett Johansson. Like many who choose work that involves caring for animals, she comes across as being more concerned with their well-being than with people’s—or even her own.

Time for the trailer:

Can you can immediately see where it’s all going? Most assuredly. As James Berardinelli, ReelViews, notes, however: “The general sense of blandness and predictability that marks the story’s progression does not damage its emotional strengths. We feel for these characters and, because we care about them, we yearn for the highs the film ultimately delivers.”

Amy Biancolli, San Francisco Chronicle: “The film is sweet. Its observations of life in the aftermath of death ring true, especially for anyone who’s traveled the contours of mourning.”

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “There’s a lot of fun waiting at We Bought a Zoo, but it’s the feelings that run through every scene that’ll make you glad you came.”

Richard Roeper: “This is a sweet, funny, unapologetically sentimental film.”

Apr 23

Piscatorial Therapy: Fishing Clinically Supported (Plus, a Charming Film)

Many recognize the activity of fishing to be relaxing, but few seem to have written about it from a clinical point of view: piscatorial therapy.

Dr. Scott E. Moser‘s 2001 article on “piscatorial therapy” in The Journal of Family Practice is one exception. He reports “…that fishing is a tremendous anxiolytic. This is presumed to be because the activity integrates low-impact physical exercise (as long as you’re not catching marlin) with mental relaxation and social camaraderie.”

Elsewhere online are other testaments to the ability of fishing to aid in the treatment of such conditions as PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder.

An article from 2011, in fact, indicates that two different mental hospitals in Scotland have employed fishing as a regular form of therapy. A spokesperson said that it “gives the patients a new skill, challenges them, and gives them a sense of personal achievement.”

On a tangential note, the recent and charming film Salmon Fishing in the Yemenwhich, let me be clear, is not about piscatorial therapy per se—just happens to pull some of the above-mentioned elements together. Scotland is involved, for example, as is the concept of fishing for relaxation.

Additionally, a main character routinely communes with fish as a way of finding aid for his troubled soul.

Dr. Jones (Ewan McGregor), socially awkward scientist: “When things get tricky in my life, I talk to my fish.”

Besides McGregor, actors Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas have major roles. A brief synopsis from IMDB: “A fisheries expert is approached by a consultant to help realize a sheik’s vision of bringing the sport of fly-fishing to the desert and embarks on an upstream journey of faith and fish to prove the impossible possible.”

Here’s the trailer:

Amy Biancolli, San Francisco Chronicle: “Makes use of pink-fleshed vertebrates as the inspiration for sweet romantic musings on love and life, faith and patience – and the courage to go against the flow.”

A couple of other fishing-focused films for those viewers who also like interesting family issues are A River Runs Through It (1992) and On Golden Pond (1981).