- "Optimization" or "productivity" goals can often obstruct therapeutic progress.
- Negative symptoms need to be explored and understood, not simply overcome.
- The psyche is an imperfect system whose symptoms we often have to learn to live with, manage, and accept.
I finished teaching a class this term that looked at the origins of science and science communication. In class, we looked at historical reasons why people engage in scientific research and inquiry, such as providing benefits to society as a whole, moral or aesthetic benefits, or intellectual or individual gains.
When I polled my class, nearly every student believed that the purpose of scientific research was to provide individual benefits. A lot of the examples people thought about were health-related—how to learn about proteins and muscles to maximize our workout gains, for instance, or identifying the best foods for better sleep and concentration.
Many of these examples could fall into the “optimization” framework—how to study and integrate scientific data to help “optimize” our individual lives. The internet is filled with health and psychological videos framed in this manner: "3 Techniques to Get Better Sleep" or "How to Alleviate Anxiety Most Effectively." As a whole, this approach to science and psychology can be summed up as trying to make us as individuals more successful, productive, or efficient in our biological, psychological, and interpersonal realms with the overarching aim of more satisfying lives.
This framework frequently trickles into clinical practice, as I often meet with potential clients who use terms like "optimization," "maximizing output," or being more "efficient" when discussing their broader therapeutic goals. For instance, a client may see anxiety or depression as an obstacle that gets in the way of their progress and productivity at work, or issues of rage or jealousy as an obstacle in a relationship. Therapy would be a place to identify and snuff out that symptom and free up room for better work or communication habits.
The philosopher Hans Moeller sees this focus on optimization as an effect or feature of late modern society and attributes some of its origins to the adoption of technological language and thinking—of seeing ourselves (bodies and brains) as units similar to machines and computers that can be tinkered with and fixed to ensure smooth running. Moeller sees this in how we often look at our lives in terms of optimization and productivity: “Naps are ‘powered through,’ time with family must be ‘quality’ and child play is scheduled as a ‘date’. Even the mere relaxing pleasures of exercise, yoga, meditation or just ‘downtime’ are often self-inflicted ploys to ‘recharge’ for a more functional tomorrow.”
As a clinician, I often adopt approaches like this when working with clients on managing panic, anxiety or trauma-related ruminations. Try yoga or running so that you can regulate your nervous system and better manage at work or at home. Take an exercise "time-out" when in an overheated argument with your spouse.
But there is a difference, I believe, between tuning into our body’s physiology and working on emotional or nervous system regulation vs. trying to "maximize" or "optimize" our capacities as human beings, i.e. being able to put in more hours at work, or even super-charging our leisure time by increasing motivation and drive.
The biggest issue I see with this model is that sometimes it can bypass necessary and difficult explorations of our symptoms that might yield important insights into our lives and changes we may need to make. For instance, panic, anxiety, or depressive feelings that seem to be getting in the way of our work productivity might tell us about a changing relationship to work. Perhaps I'm becoming bored and limited in my current role? Maybe I'm working too much? Maybe my expectations about work have changed as I have aged?
Rather than just overcoming these negative symptoms, often we need to sit with and explore them in order to understand what they may be telling us about needed changes either in attitude or behaviour. The optimization framework can often see symptoms as mere obstacles to productivity and functionality. They are obstacles, of course. However, learning just how to manage or "cope" with the negative feelings through increased exercise and diet regimes usually won’t alone address some of the larger psychological or existential questions at hand.
What’s Wrong with Being Optimal and Productive?
Certainly, psychology and psychotherapy can lead to better functioning and even productivity—less illness, fewer missed days at work, and less maladaptive coping. A great medical survey of this can be found in Susan Lazar’s edited collection Psychotherapy Is Worth It.
The problem I see with the optimization model is that it can get caught in the trap of perfectionism and a belief in what philosopher Hannah Arendt called the “ideology of unlimited progress.” Sure, we can make great gains in psychotherapy and free up mental space to recover our drive and motivation or manage anxiety in a way that doesn’t interfere with long or short-term goals and experiences. But the body and the psyche are also imperfect organic systems whose symptoms we often have to learn to live with, manage, and accept, rather than overcome and master.
Learning to live with a partner who is anxiously attached means not just waiting for them to overcome or finally cure their anxiety, but also accepting that their anxiety is part of the package they come in. The same is true of ourselves.
We can practice mindful meditation every day in hopes of reducing existential dread or depressive feelings—and it might help! But thinking we can overcome once-and-for-all negative symptoms by treating our bodies and minds the way we treat inorganic matter like a computer is not a great metaphor when looking at our more complex and dynamic psychologies.
Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind. (1981). Mariner Books.
Lazar, S.G. (Ed.) (2010) Psychotherapy is Worth it. American Psychiatric Publishing.
Moeller, H.G., D'Ambrosio, P. J. (2019). Sincerely, authenticity, profilicity: Notes on the problem, a vocabulary, and a history of identity. Philosophy and Social Criticism. 45(5)