How ancient philosophy saved my life

Here’s a piece I have in The Times today. It’s behind a pay-wall – I hope Rupert Murdoch doesn’t mind me posting it here too – for the greater good Rupert!

How ancient philosophy saved my life

It was around this time of year, just over a decade ago, that I had a breakdown. During my three years at university, my mental health had got worse and worse. It started with panic attacks, that arose out of nowhere like tornadoes. Then came the mood swings, depression, and a general feeling that I was no longer in control of myself.

What terrified me was the prospect I’d permanently upset up my neuro-chemical balance with drugs. My friends and I had messed around with LSD and Ecstasy, and had some good times, but I’d seen friends get badly hurt and sent to mental homes. If my own depression and panic attacks were neuro-chemically determined, then perhaps there was nothing I could do about it, other than take different drugs for the rest of my life.

My literature degree couldn’t help me get a handle on what was going on inside me. It meant I could analyse the feelings of Hamlet or Madame Bovary, but my own emotions were beyond my comprehension or control. Hamlet may have been another youth ‘blasted with ecstasy’, but I think Shakespeare had something else in mind.

I didn’t discuss my problems with my friends or parents, out of a masochistic sense of shame. But finally I was forced to ask for help. The therapist I saw after graduation wasn’t much use, so I did my own research on a new invention dubbed ‘the internet’, and discovered that depression and anxiety were treatable either with anti-depressants, or with a talking therapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

I still clung to the old-fashioned idea that I might be able to reason my way out of my problems, so one evening, I went along to a CBT support group that met in the Royal Festival Hall in London every Thursday.  There was no therapist present, just a group of people coming together to help each other. We followed a CBT audio course someone had bootlegged from the Net, practiced its exercises, and encouraged each other on.

It worked. After a few weeks, I stopped having panic attacks, and haven’t had one since. My depression also cleared up, although more slowly. The road back to mental health took many years and I’m still on it (we all are). Others, of course, find anti-depressants more helpful, but in my case I’d say CBT saved my life.

By that time, I was a trainee journalist, so, while reporting on the German mortgage-bond market (as thrilling as it sounds), I quietly started to research CBT. One day, I got on a plane to New York to interview the pioneer of CBT, Albert Ellis, on his death-bed. I did the last ever interview with him before he died, and got the chance to thank him for his work.

Ellis told me he had been directly inspired by ancient Greek philosophy. He’d trained as a psychoanalyst, but hadn’t seen much progress in his patients, despite seeing them sometimes every day for years. Then, in the early 1950s, he’d read a line from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: ‘Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinions about them’

That inspired his new cognitive approach to emotional problems, which is based on the Greeks’ theory that our emotions follow our beliefs about the world. ‘The soul’, as the philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, ‘becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts’. If you change your thoughts, you change your whole experience of the world.

Almost all the philosophers of ancient Greece shared this cognitive approach to the emotions. Socrates, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Sceptics, the Cynics and even the great Plato and Aristotle, all believed that philosophy is a form of therapy that can make people happier and more fulfilled, by teaching them how to examine and change their beliefs.

First of all, we need to become conscious of our habitual thoughts, and how they create our reality. We can do this by engaging in a Socratic dialogue with a therapist or friend, or by tracking our beliefs in a journal.

For example, I realised my emotional problems came in part from my values. I put too much emphasis on winning others’ approval, and this made me alienated (which comes from the Latin alienus, meaning ‘to make a slave of yourself’). Socrates and his followers taught that we can take back possession of ourselves, by choosing intrinsic values like wisdom rather than extrinsic ones like status or power.

Once you’ve examined your beliefs and tried to make them more wise, you need to turn your new insights into new habits. The word ‘ethics’ actually comes from the Greek word for habit.

The Greeks had many techniques for creating new habits. They made maxims, for example, catchphrases to be repeated over and over until they stick in our memories, like Marcus Aurelius’ phrase: ‘life itself is but what you deem it’. They’d also carry little handbooks around with them, so that the teachings were always with them. CBT uses these same techniques.

And the Greeks understood, perhaps better than CBT, that it also helps if you find a group or community that shares your new way of thinking, so that your ideas become a shared culture. The Epicureans, for example, left Athens to live in a philosophical commune called the Garden. Their commune was like a lifeboat of wisdom bobbing on the sea of a toxic culture.

The best modern self-help groups understand the importance of group dynamics to self-transformation – think of Alcoholics Anonymous, or Weight Watchers, or the support group I went to in London.

There was also a political aspect to ancient philosophy. Some philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle, believed that, to heal ourselves, it is not sufficient to change our own individual beliefs. We also need to change our whole society, and infuse its culture with wiser values. Though of course this can be risky – our society might not want to be changed. Ancient philosophers were often getting exiled, or even executed, for criticising the ruling powers.

CBT is very careful to drop any mention of politics or culture, because such matters are controversial and hard to prove scientifically (you can’t do a randomised controlled trial for an entire society).

But today, governments are coming round to Aristotle’s idea that citizens should be taught the art of living well. Politicians’ new willingness to teach well-being to the masses partly comes from CBT, which has provided an evidence base for the ancient Greeks’ insistence that some ways of living are better, wiser and healthier than others.

Governments have started to use public policy to disseminate CBT and its younger sister, Positive Psychology, in schools, in the NHS, in job-centres, armies and beyond. Many countries, including the UK, have also started to measure ‘national well-being’. The welfare state is turning into the ‘well-being state’, with governments aiming to raise our well-being from a 7 to a 10.

This is exciting, but also risky. The well-being state could conceivably turn into an illiberal monster, where citizens must wear forced smiles or risk being diagnosed as sick. There is this dangerous idea that empirical science can ‘prove’ one model of well-being, and because it’s proven, governments can impose it on their citizens without their consent.

In fact, there’s not one path to the good life, but several. The ‘science of happiness’ is still quite crude, and its evidence mainly consists of simplistic questionnaires. And Socrates insisted that thinking about the good life for ourselves is is an important part of the good life. We shouldn’t give too much authority to scientific experts, but rather decide for ourselves what the good life, alone or in philosophy groups.

Despite these concerns, I’m excited by the new fusion of ancient philosophy and modern psychology. If I hadn’t come across it, I’d still be stuck in misery.  Socrates showed us that we all have the power to heal ourselves and change our characters, at any stage of our lives. We might not become perfect sages like him, but I believe we can all become a little wiser and happier.

Ancient philosophy for modern lives

Focus on what you can control, accept what you can’t

Rhonda Cornum was a US Army medic when her helicopter was shot down in the first Gulf War. She was captured, assaulted, and held as a POW. She came through that situation without being traumatised, she says, because she focused on what she could control – her thoughts and beliefs – without freaking out over what she couldn’t control. That attitude is at the heart of Stoic philosophy. Cornum went on to teach resilience to the entire US Army.

Choose your role models wisely

Louis Ferrante grew up in a bad neighbourhood in Brooklyn, and imitated its leading role models, who happened to be gangsters. He joined the Mob, and was in prison by the age of 22. In prison, he came across Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and was inspired by Plutarch’s idea that we can choose better role models by reading the biographies of great figures from history. Louis turned his life around, and became a campaigner for prison literacy programmes.

Keep track of yourself

The Greeks warned that we often sleepwalk through life, blindly assuming our intuitions are correct. So they urged their students to keep an account of themselves, by tracking their thoughts and behaviour in a journal, like Marcus Aurelius used to do. His Meditations, one of the most famous works of western philosophy, is really his personal thought journal. We can keep track of ourselves today by using self-tracking apps on our smart-phones, to track our moods, diet, exercise, spending and so on.

Jules Evans is the author of Philosophy for Life, and Other Dangerous Situations, published by Rider Books. He blogs at www.philosophyforlife.org

Comments:

  • BacktoBodrum says:

    I enjoyed your piece in The Times today and will delve into your blog. I’ve increased my well-being by “removing” myself from work and concentrating on doing things that I enjoy. It is now a pleasure to wake up in the morning.

  • Joe Gammie says:

    Really liked your piece. As someone who used to go from the very highs to the very lows until I studied philosophy at university, I completely agree with all your points.

    Philosophy is a wonderfully understated force for good in our lives, mainly because we usually separate it from psychology and try and use them exclusively. It’s great to hear more people uniting the two disciplines again.

    Will keep an eye on your blog for more truth nuggets.

    • Jules Evans says:

      thanks Joe – would love to hear your story of how philosophy helped u. if you felt like writing something for your blog or whatevs, would love to republish here.

      all best

      Jules

  • Matthew Bishop says:

    Thanks Jules for sharing this article.

    I’ve been subscribed to your PoW email for a while and you have been re-igniting my old love of Stoicism. A decade ago in my early twenties I started reading Epictetus and Aurelius, but Iater put them aside due to certain inherent problems with Stoicism that I perceive. However, I’ve never found a philosophy that I could assert was ‘the answer’ (and I spent my 20s searching), and I have been coming back to Stoicism recently in my private and professional life and am enjoying the effects on my inner world. Thank you for your part in that.

    I studied philosophy at university, and my drive was not so much academic as spiritual (i.e. big picture, meaning) and therapeutic. So I dropped my post-graduate thesis to study counselling, and now enjoy working as a therapist from a distinctly philosophical perspective, especially an existential perspective (regarding which you have some of the best stuff happening in your own city – has it interested you to explore and write about that? Say, Emmy van Deurzen and the like?), but I am becoming very interested in integrating Stoic therapy into my work due to my recent growing interest.

    As I say, I have long had some serious concerns about Stoicism from my (what could be called) tragic humanist perspective, but I think it’s time to explore it once again – I mentioned that one lesson I have learnt is there is no particular philosophy that I can subscribe to as sufficient, but at the same time the task of doing real philosophy is a hard and creative one that often invites re-invention of what has been handed down. Also, like a lot of reflective therapists (the many non-’technicians’ among us) I recognise serious limitations to CBT both in its common practices and ideologies, gained from my own reflection and my clients experiences, but again no therapy is sufficient in a broad world and it is exciting to see – as you spend your time showing – the interesting ways in which CBT invites a revival of something as potentially rich as Stoicism in modern therapy.

    So keep up the interesting work. If you ever come to Melbourne, Australia, give me a hoy. And tell me, have you thought of looking at one of the other innovative philosophical therapy movements that is happening in London – the likes of van Deurzen?

    Regards,
    Matt

    • Jules Evans says:

      Thank you Matt, very interesting story and Im glad you have enjoy the blog.

      I also dont consider myself a 100% stoic – i make some criticisms of it in the book: its too individualist, it puts too much emphasis on the perfectly self-sufficient rational individual, it doesnt admit that we need others, it is culture blind and supposes the individual can exist as a citadel of rationality amid a toxic culture, its politically and culturally pessimistic (society will always be screwed so concentrate on your own inner freedom) etc. I do the same for the other Socratic philosophies, none of which seem perfect to me. But i write 3 chapters on the Stoics, and only 1 on all the others, so I guess Stoicism is still particularly interesting and useful for me. I also love Plato’s books, particularly the Republic, which just blows me away.

      Anyway, I have heard of Emmy Van Deuzen and Im sure will meet her one of these days. I think certainly the UK and London in particular is an exciting place for this fusion of CBT, philosophy and public policy.

      My book is coming out in Australia in two weeks – im not sure the publishers have done much in the way of publicity so spread the word!

      all the best

      Jules

  • in praise of sloppiness says:

    we have males and females and a few mixed people. including the latter, to me, the great challenge of human life is to form an inclusive society, and it seems that the most obvious first challenge is to think of a way to bring together the genders in order to be able to live harmoniously together.

    cbt, to me, is depressing cos it is unisex, thus not recognising the sanctity and wonder of our different make-ups, which could be a reason to celebrate that is lost, but which we greatly need.

    however, it and stoicism is useful in an eclectic approach, i think.

  • Karen says:

    Chicken or egg?
    I really enjoyed Philosophy for Life. I was slightly surprised by the ending. Your message in the book seemed to be that by changing our thinking we change our unconscious and that this is what CBT helped you to do. And yet. Your ski accident bliss/love experience came first. I wonder if your core beliefs were changed by the accident and the CBT allowed you to then align your conscious mind to this new understanding. Maybe that’s the topic for the next book?

    • Jules Evans says:

      Thank you for reading it Karen!

      Thats a damn good question. I think my unconscious and conscious worked together – there was this strange life-shock experience, but then the insights from that had to be systematised, and thats what CBT / ancient philosophy did. But I left that experience to the end of the book because im not sure what it was, and am trying to write for theists and atheists, skeptics and stoics etc – so didn’t want to put people off. but anyway, i think you’re right – my core beliefs were changed by that experience, and that helped me a lot to put the work in on CBT, because a bit of me already believed that if i stopped caring so much about other people’s opinions i would be happier.

      but the thing is – we can control our conscious thoughts and beliefs. im not sure what we can do about the unconscious, or about the Atman / daimonic self (as it were). it sort of does its own thing and occasionally gives us pushes in the right direction. so thats why i emphasise doing work in the conscious world with things like philosophy and CBT – its what we can do practically now rather than waiting for our unconscious to do all the work. i think there’s an alignment there. but yes, to answer your point, i dont think the unconscious is merely the dumb, primitive and irrational part of us – i agree with Plato, there’s some weird and wonderful stuff there, and some wisdom which the conscious mind cant always access.

      all best

      Jules

  • Rachel says:

    Jules a great answer that makes so much sense!
    My perception on depression.. Hinesight of having a relapse was the obvious, your negative thoughts were outweighing the positive.. Spinning your mood into a severe low. Some of these negative thoughts may not have answers I.e why are we here and what’s the point? No1 has any idea why were here (its out of our control). What makes sense to me is that we have been born with the ability of emotions, things that tend to make us sad/frightened/angry and these linkn with thoughts and events; likewise with happiness and we have been embedded with the knowledge that happiness and contentment is good and depreasion is a bad emotion, in between is a state of mind that’s neutual.

    The above isn’t even some made up belief, its fact anyone would choose happiness over depression, its been programmed into us, its our nature.
    These irrational thoughts were having become habbit so the cycle of depression continues, even when were having happy thoughts we can’t feel them because our mood is low. Its when the cycle of bad thoughts is broken, good thoughts take hahbit and become more constant that we’ll find ourselves back to normal. I would Luke to look at it as instead of the blue and red pill from the matrix as… You have a choice to think thoughts that are alternative, rational and optimistic or you have the choice to believe the irrational thoughts and be miserable in this sense I know good = correct and bad = incorrect. We have been blessed with anxious and negative thoughts to make us conscious and escape death risks (I.e fight or flight) not to abuse them emotions and make our lives misrable.

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