Most people assume mental health is a matter of either medicine, or moral weakness. The medicine side assumes that medical treatment will eradicate mental illness symptoms, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. The moral weakness side assumes that troubling emotions have no causes other than weakness of character, and that’s pretty much all there is to it.
The truth? Troubling emotions have causes, but their origins are neither medical nor moral. They’re based on faulty reasoning, faulty thinking, and — first and foremost — deeply mistaken assumptions. One of the most destructive faulty premises is what’s called the “Heaven’s Reward” fallacy. In plain English, this
assumption refers to the false belief that doing good will lead to personal gain. Most cognitive psychotherapists will tell you, “Doing good does not necessarily lead to personal gain and fulfillment. For example, being a martyr and sacrificing for others will not lead to rewards for you in your life.”
The typical cognitive therapist, like the troubled patient, assumes that “good” is defined as being self-sacrificial. “Don’t be a martyr,” the practical cognitive therapist will tell you. But at the same time, the therapist assumes, “Morality does consist of self-sacrifice.” This underlying premise is never questioned. The failure to question this is what gets unhappy people into trouble, and it’s an error which no amount of medication will ever resolve.
The healthy approach is to assume two things: One, that the purpose of life is to be happy. Two, that one must take rational and sensible steps to achieve any measure of happiness, and then keep taking those steps over time in order to maintain happiness. The bulk of life can be devoted to determining what those steps are, and how they apply to you personally.
If you go through life giving in to others, doing what you think they want you to do — or maybe that they openly insist you must do — then there’s no reward at the end of that phony rainbow. The moment you betray yourself even one time, you have taken a major chunk out of your capacity to be happy. Frankly, you have no business wondering, “Why am I so depressed?” when you routinely go through life concerning yourself more with the happiness of others than yourself.
To those who say, “Isn’t concern with your own happiness selfish, and therefore bad?” I can only reply with, “Is going to the doctor and treating a medical ailment selfish and therefore bad? Is refusing to go to the doctor, standing on the street and making sure other people go to the doctor but never treating yourself, selfless and therefore moral and good?”
The problem with people is that they think they’re supposed to give up their happiness in order to be good. This sets morality and personal happiness at war with one another. People differ in how much or what kind of happiness they feel they should give up. But it’s nearly universally assumed that some form and degree of happiness must be given up. The more you give up, the better you are. Politicians and clergy, and other moochers of body and spirit, stand at the ready to collect those sacrifices from you, any day and at any time.
If aliens came in from another planet and observed human beings at work, they’d make the following discovery: “These humans want to be happy. Everything they do centers on the quest for first, survival, and then — once the society is highly advanced — the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. Yet oddly, they all subscribe to a moral belief that self-sacrifice — the lessening or elimination of happiness — is the central purpose of life. They idolize people who (in reality or not) embody this ideal. This seems to be such a massive contradiction: A near-obsession with personal happiness and fulfillment, yet a spiritual/moral/political belief system based on exactly the opposite. What a strange race!”
What a strange race indeed. There is no reason human beings have to be this way. But it’s the way human beings have been, almost without exception, throughout their history. It’s a remarkable tribute to the race that they have achieved so much happiness in the face of so much ethical and psychological opposition. People have spent most of their history under some form of political dictatorship or authoritarianism. Even the brightest free spot in history, the original American republic, has suffered the same authoritarian fate.
It’s a fate of people’s own making. It’s a fate determined and programmed not by any external agent, but by the thinking, premises and resulting emotional states of billions of people. It never had to be, and it doesn’t have to be going forward. But it’s still the dominant trend. I can see it in the psychotherapist’s office, and I can see it any time I turn on the news or read any editorial or commentary of just about any kind, anywhere, about why people should live more according to the alleged ideal of self-sacrifice.
For all my sadness and anger over the condition of the human race that need not be so, it makes me optimistic that people can survive so much damage that they do to themselves, and still emerge (at least occasionally) triumphant.
Human beings, I maintain, are meant to be free and happy. But to be this way, they must first mean it themselves.