Updated: Dec 26, 2019
Two basic ideas treated almost but not fully as a single idea are the subject of this book: living well and having a good life. It is my most central operative belief that the goal of life is to have a good life. This book is about all the related and interlocking ideas in play when thinking in a useful way about how to live well and how to have a good life. We shall not stray to far from this our central purpose no matter how abstract we get.
How to live well was the central topic of philosophy in the ancient world. It was the most important question of Socrates and therefore Plato. It was the project of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophical schools. Yet for the most part modern philosophy no longer concerns itself with such things.
This is too bad in general. But it also presents a problem for the practice of modern clinical psychology and psychotherapy. This fact puzzled me in graduate school and has continues to as a practicing professional.
Modern clinical psychologists, like the other professions that practice psychotherapy such as social work and counseling, probably spend more time treating depression and anxiety than any other disorders. And yet clinicians are generally not able to say why a person should not be anxious or not be depressed, except to say so that they would then suffer less. Should you ask, When should a person be depressed, sad, down? When is it right to be depressed or down? And when should a person be anxious, worried, fearful? And when should they not be? you should notice that these questions are not medical nor are they psychological questions. They are not answerable by science. To answers to these questions we must draw upon what used to be called practical philosophy or wisdom. This is the basis of psychotherapy regarding the treatment of depression and anxiety.
No doubt the philosophical thinking needed to serve as the underpinnings of psychotherapy is broad, complex, and uncertain. But this does not mean it should go unconsidered.
The question How does one live well? while homey and familiar is exceedingly complicated and difficult to think about. It is broad, expansive, and amorphous. Rigor is difficult. To build our understanding we need to begin with foundational ideas that rest on assumptions that resist adequate justification.
Our approach requires threading a needle. If you go too deep and abstract it gets ponderous, detached, or academic. But if you stay shallow all you get are familiar platitudes.
My method is to go back and forth between taking an overview and being intimate. On the intimacy side of things, I have the benefit of the many hours I spend in psychotherapy with clients in my work as a clinical psychologist helping people to live well and to have a good life.
I think about living well as an art or a craft. It is definitely not a science even though scientific research informs some of what I have to say (the sections on evolutionary theory or thinking / cognition for example). I think what makes living well an art is that there are too many parts to it to even begin to delineate it thoroughly, something you would need to do in order to make it a subject of science. That there is an aesthetic aspect to it also makes it an art. And that it is so subjectively determined. All of us human beings share a great deal we are also unique individuals living within unique life conditions. Therefore, it can never be fully prescriptive like a technology based upon scientific research. Better to think of living well as a craft or art built upon right understanding. In this way it is more like the making of a violin or the raising of a child. It requires a type of knowledge that depends upon careful attention, skillful behavior, and practical good judgment.
This book has four parts: Part 1 Background Ideas, Part 2 Subjective Life, Part 3 Difficulties in Living, and Part 4 How to Live Well.
In Part 1 I offer ideas to build what I think is a correct and helpful understanding of ourselves, our human natures, and how we live our lives. These background ideas are meant to put me and you on the same page, figuratively as well as literally and include topics like thinking, understanding, evolutionary theory, and causation.
Part 2 are further background ideas but specifically those that have to do with the subjective experience of living, things like thinking, feelings, agency, and choice.
People have difficulties in living for many reasons and that’s the topic of Part 3. The cause of the difficulties fall under two main categories: misunderstandings and misbehaviors. In a general sense, attending to these difficulties is what much of my work as a psychologist is about. And in Part 4 I identify general understandings, attitudes, and skills that support living well.