Book Review: Psychotherapy and the Quest for Happiness

Psychotherapy and the Quest for Happiness

By Emmy van Deurzen

(2009) London: Sage


‘Our lives feel like an insignificant blip in the universe, an afterthought, a redundancy, a random variation on a predictable theme’. (Van Deurzen, 2008, p.42)


The most remarkable thing about this book is its effortless clarity. Van Deurzen plunders the oceans of psychology, philosophy, popular culture and world religion to raise from the seabed nuggets of shining wisdom blended by her own prodigious alchemy. It’s with easy fluidity that a critical eye is cast over the deeper questions of life and how we as human beings cope in the ongoing struggle of daily existence. A superficial treatment on the subject of happiness is not the purpose of this book. Van Deurzen renders meaning to some of the more hackneyed whinges of modern living, squarely facing the paradox of our time: While never before in the history of humanity have we had at our fingertips so many contingencies for dealing with the dangers of the natural world, never before have we been so effective in controlling material challenges; never before has life been easier, safer and smarter, yet it feels as though life is still very tough. 


With steadily accumulating navigation of practical realities, shouldn’t we as human beings experience a correlational reduction in anxiety and stress, spiralling an increase in our happiness quotient? This is seldom the case.  Matters of global distraction and pervasive addiction lay testimony to an engagement with daily living that rarely strays beyond the cosmetic. In seeming defiance of the convenience conferred by ready-made and easily accessible material advantage, many people are living in an emotional wilderness as life becomes ever more complex and we feel estranged from a sense of universal value. She outlines the role philosophy plays in redefining psychotherapy and puts forward a case designed to expose the limitations of scientific enquiry in this domain and  the relevance of  its presumption of ‘solution’ to the human condition. While not entirely dismissed , Positive Psychology, it’s tools and prescriptive methods are  held in similar esteem to psychopharmacology; mood enhancing - seldom life changing.  In the tradition of Szasz (1961) and Foucoult (1965), mental illness is de-pathologised, and deemed a natural consequence of ongoing struggles with daily living; the role of therapist is posited as that of existential guide in the quest to deconstruct messy humanity and the necessary limitations to mortal existence.  Far from the gloom and doom often associated with contemplation of life beyond the superficial layer, Van Deurzan successfully suggests a set of criteria to aid us in our thinking about in what philosophers term ‘ the good life’, framing workable parameters for people in a post-modern and virtual society. One of its essential strengths is the open questioning of the single minded pursuit of positives.


‘Post modern society is positioned in a stance of disbelief, where passion is suspended and the suspicion of potential error is rife’. (Van Deurzen, 2008, p.41)


Crisis is welcomed as a new beginning, key to which is the observation that the life transitions which are not of our own choosing are the most difficult and distressing to deal with. Somewhat whimsically, she lends an entire chapter entitled ‘Predictable Difficulties’ to various forms of anxiety provoked by distress all beginning with the letter ‘D’.  Initially this can leave a reader awestruck, wondering if this is not a faint parody of some of the more loosely formulated bestsellers that claim to light the path to a state of persistent euphoria?  The legitimacy of this venture is counterbalanced by the assertion of the Latin root ‘de’ a prefix used to indicate privation, withdrawal and separation.


‘Emotions are only active as long as they keep changing in response to our position in the world, doing their job of letting us know where they stand.(Van Deurzen, 2008, p.150)


The fundamental question posed by van Deurzan is whether or not happiness is a suitable goal for psychotherapy. Is it our role as psychotherapists to dissuade our clients from their natural feelings of bitterness, anxiety and dissatisfaction with life, or help them to adjust to a universe where their sense of control is often an illusion? Clearly, she asserts, the former will obtain short term satisfaction and very likely fulfil outcome measures and rating scales, but do these prescriptive formulae really benefit our clients beyond the short term and provide them with resources to live a full and satisfying life filled with vitality and capacity for joy as well as sorrow? Existential psychotherapy is conspicuous in its somewhat obstinate tradition of celebrating of life’s labyrinths in both light and shade. There is not always a comfortable reconciliation zone for either client or therapist. She speaks instead, of a radical happiness that comes from embracing the full range of human emotion and the stories they tell; a happiness, she suggests, that is born of truth.


Van Deurzen, E. (2009). Psychotherapy and the quest for happiness. SAGE.

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