Matthew Hutson


CBT = Existentialism?

How can happiness result from appreciating the pointlessness of existence?

Posted Nov 17, 2009

I've recently come to the conclusion that cognitive behavioral therapy, the empirically-demonstrated gold standard for treating depression and a host of other problems, necessitates a belief in existentialism, a philosophy holding that we live in a meaningless universe. 

How can happiness derive from appreciating the fundamental pointlessness of existence?

Existentialism (at least atheistic existentialism) does not argue that meaning does not exist, only that it does not exist out there in the real world. All meaning is human-constructed. You have complete freedom to interpret events however you like (a freedom that some find nauseating.)

CBT similarly places interpretive control in the hands of the individual. The premise is that thoughts lead to emotions (which lead to behaviors), and we can learn to control our thoughts--even if they've become habit. We're not at the mercy of an emotional system automatically placing valuation on experiences. 

I suppose my connection between CBT and existentialism comes from a conversation I had several years ago with a girlfriend who was studying philosophy. I'd said that because of my depression I was an existentialist--I had trouble finding meaning in things. On the contrary, she said, I was *too* depressed to be an existentialist. I was fatalistic. I instinctively saw everything as bad. 

In high school I gave a talk to my school about my battle with depression. Toward the end I said:

"One of the most important tactics I have learned in my fight for control over my life is the power of optimism. Yes, this sounds trite, and even I flinch when I hear the O word, but it's not as much of a joke as I thought. Basically, I've learned that nothing in the world -- nothing that happens around us, no piece of news, no event -- is inherently bad or good. They just are. I have an incredible amount of control over my reactions to the world.  As a result of depression, I'm used to judging nearly everything as bad, and it's gonna take a lot of work to change thinking habits that I've been using for my entire life. But now, instead of letting myself become a victim, I fight these habits, and I try to let myself believe that things can go my way."

Looking back, I had stumbled across the grounding for CBT. I was not quite adept at following through, however, judging by my later conversation with my ex. And I'm still not there. I have a hard enough time putting a positive spin on burning my toast. I don't know how I would deal with something much more absurd and tragic like the sudden death of someone close.

But at least I'm past the point of repeating the mantra "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all."

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