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May 2016 by PCI College

Bite-Sized Book Review: Psychotherapy and the Quest for Happiness. By Emmy Van Deurzen

Colm Early reviews Emmy Van Deurzen's notable book Psychotherapy and the Quest for Happiness. Emmy was the keynote speaker at the 2015 National Counselling & psychotherapy Conference

Happiness and Unhappiness are twins that grow up together.
Nietzsche (I882/1974:20)

In this book by the well-known psychologist, philosopher and existential psychotherapist Emmy Van Deurzen, she addresses the taboo subject of the moral role of psychotherapists and counsellors and she poses searching questions about the meaning of life and what it means to be happy.  Here the author seeks to define what a good life consists of and how the therapist might help their clients to live well rather than just live in search of happiness.

In her work as a therapist, this author has a firm footing in seeing philosophy as a tool in the work with clients.  Emmy Van Deurzen believes that psychologists, therapists and counsellors have stepped into the breach of the vacuum of meaning and they have become cast in the role of spiritual and moral mentors.  She believes that therapists work with psychological theories and apply these to their clients’ dilemmas without acknowledging that it is moral, spiritual and philosophical problems that people struggle with.  She believes that it is time that therapists ask themselves how to take seriously their new role as existential guides.

In this book the author is prepared to ask new philosophical questions: what is the meaning and purpose of life and what is the task of human existence?  Should we consider happiness to be a desirable goal in life and therefore for therapy as well or is there a better path to follow?  Is the mission of therapists to overcome the symptoms of depression and anxiety in clients?  Should we try to eliminate unhappiness at all costs? This book is a philosophical exploration of what therapy and counselling can offer clients who seek to understand their own life better and she is aware of the trap that therapists fall into of making their clients ‘more happy’.  

The writer is aware of the need for a new wisdom and philosophical clarity in the equation of human living.  According to her there are those who go along with the cognitive revolution and those that are determined to maintain the status quo of longer term dynamic or humanistic therapies based on insight and catharsis.  This book promotes a third option that rethinks therapy in a more radical fashion.  The need for discipline in our understanding and look at what we are trying to achieve and this includes a reflection on life itself.

If you have been wondering how to live your live more fully and more truly then this book is for you.  These chapters deal with beliefs and values and the book clarifies the human difficulties in the quest for happiness.  This book does not provide easy answers. It will lead you back to your human roots and from there to your personal and professional aspirations and the desire to recalibrate your life and your work on a more robust, more real foundation.
Happiness is dealt with as a potential goal and contrasted and compared with other objectives such as that of wellbeing, meaning, understanding, purpose, transcendence. In this book we discover why happiness is and why in spite of our knowledge insight and technology there is still no magic fix for life.


In this accessible, thought provoking and hopeful book, Emmy Van Deurzen states that the path we are on is not one that leads to a happy life somewhere over the horizon, but rather one that will allow us get a sense of the map of human living, enabling us to find our own direction towards a right way to live. She believes that the way to avoid this existential angst in the therapeutic encounter is to stop looking for happiness and to learn to live instead and this means facing up to both happiness and unhappiness.

Colm Early, MIACP, MAPPI

PCI College Faculty Lecturer

(May 2016)

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