Think Your Way to Happiness

A great way to fulfill a life

Posted Aug 06, 2012

University of California adjunct professor and rational emotive psychotherapist, Dr. John Minor, shares his ideas about how to live a good life free from needless cognitive stresses, and for teaching children to think clearly, prevent needless miseries, and to lead happy and productive lives. He draws from the work of Albert Ellis and Alfred Korzybski.

After millions of years of evolution, we have become the most complex thinking and inventive species on earth. Our penchant for invention has given us a great advantage. However, despite the time our species has resided on earth, we remain ill-prepared for some of the rapid changes that we ourselves have created. Our level of despair appears on the rise. An increased prevalence for depression is one of many warnings.

Comedian and social critic Robert Klein noted that society seems to be getting dumber. If by dumber he means (relatively) more ignorant as to how we view ourselves, others, and life, what might be done to change this trend?

I'll start this discussion with general principles for avoiding self-sabotaging. Then, I'll get into how we can use our knowledge of clear thinking to educate children to lead healthy and happy lives. The future of our planet may depend on this intervention.

 A Cognitive Platform for Positive Change

Rational emotive behavior therapist (REBT), Albert Ellis, thinks that unrecognized but harmful irrational thinking is at the heart of many conflicts and forms of emotional distress. Indeed, the empirical research shows a strong relationship between harmful irrational thinking and human disturbance. This relationship seems to directly or indirectly touch the lives of practically everyone.

Our tendencies to think crookedly appear hard-wired, but we are not all equally affected. While humans better not blame themselves for these failings, Ellis has cogently stressed that they had, at the same time, better accept accountability for their own excess distresses, and to preferably learn how to overcome their biological limitations that contribute to these distresses. Is this possible?

Much could be done if we thought with precision.  Indeed, Albert Ellis and Alfred Korzybski, the founder of General Semantics (GS), both viewed the language we used as capable of creating reality distortions and needless disturbances. For example, the verb to be is a catalyst for overgeneralizations. Tell yourself "I am unlovable,” and you’ve created a distressful false attribution from an overgeneralization. What does unlovable mean? Can this be universally true for all time? Asking and factually answering questions of this kind, can lead to clarity and relief from needless cognitive tensions that come from reality distortions.  (This free downloadable book was written without the use of the verb to be: How to Conquer Your Frustrations.)

In many ways, we are categorical thinkers. This way of putting things into labeled boxes, sometimes fogs reality. Calling a child worthless is one example of overgeneralizing through categorical thinking. (When a child grows up being told that he or she is worthless, this labeling can become internalized and create a self-fulfilling prophesy.) By refusing to engage in this form or harmful categorizing, can we spare countless milllions both a distracting and needless form of misery?

Both Ellis and Korzybski posited that we'd better try, to the best of our abilities, to use our intelligence and knowledge to help ourselves and others to think clearly. Our capacity for thinking our way to happiness opens major opportunities for millions to lead exciting, purposeful, lives.

 What We Can Learn from Other’s Struggles?

Alfred Korzybski's war experiences and injuries drove him to examine why humans can build extraordinary physical structures but can't get along without almost constant conflict(s). In developing GS, Korzybski studied patients in mental institutions as part of his efforts to understand cognition in human disturbance.

Korzybski was a mathematician and engineer who applied this background to his examination of the ancient Aristotelian language system that pervades western thinking. He found the Aristotelian system to be an inexact and often confusing map of “reality”, often leading to misidentification, confusion, distortions, needless conflicts and human misery. Korzybski showed how Aristotelian static language formulations would better be replaced by a non-Aristotelian process language. For example, in the world of human discourse, when we think in absolute categories about human character and human worth, we’d best learn to think more conditionally, dimensionally, and in degrees. That is the difference between static and process views.

Albert Ellis' lengthy life-threatening childhood hospitalizations and parental absences drove him to devote his life to developing a more scientific, saner, more effective approach to human problems. In his earliest work, Ellis focused on the relationship between perceptions, beliefs, emotions, and actions which other theorists had ignored. He incorporated some of Korzybski's work into his own theories to help people make their lives better, specifically through the precise use of language to describe reality.

 Cognitive Training for Early Education

About half of Americans will meet the criteria for a DSM-IV disorder sometime in their life, with first onset usually in childhood or adolescence. Interventions aimed at prevention or early treatment need to focus on youth.” (For more information click on the source for this quote:  National Comorbidity Study Replication)

Korzybski and Ellis both emphasized the need to educate people in the use of saner language and rational thinking. We remain far from that goal. Nevertheless, this goal is strongly worth pursuing if we are to see a reversal in trends from emotional disturbances that start early in life, toward a life of reason, reasonableness, happiness, and healthy lifestyles.

Korzybski and Ellis believed in the importance of teaching clear thinking principles starting with early education. Each contributed a piece to the puzzle about how this could be done. Korzybski investigated in depth the central role of language structure and content in human problems. Ellis focused on defining and treating specific belief systems that created emotional dysfunction, developing this into REBT.

Ellis went so far as to create The Living School where he added the ABCs of REBT to the school curriculum. His colleague, Dr. Bill Knaus, developed a positive, preventive, school mental health program that was later used at the school. This evidence-based program is now free to the public. (Click on Children's positive mental health program for information on the program.)

Someone compared getting agreement among individuals as the equivalent to herding fifty cats. With that caveat, will we (will society) get agreement to commit the necessary resources to our educational settings to promote enlightened populaces that think clearly? Will we apply these principles to ourselves? The tools for saner living are within reach and may be necessary to insure our survival.

This blog is part of the Pioneer of the Mind series to celebrate the contributions of Albert Ellis, the founder of rational emotive behavioral therapy and the grandfather of cognitive-behavior therapy.

Albert Ellis Revisited (Carlson & Knaus 2013) is the Albert Ellis Tribute Book Series centennial book.  The publisher, Routledge, offers a 20% discount on the book. Control click on this link: Albert Ellis Revisited. Type the code Ellis for the discount. The book qualifies for free shipping and handling. Bill Knaus’ royalties from this book go directly to the Denan Project  charity. When you buy the book, you are helping yourself by learning ways to live life fully, and you are helping bring irrigation, crops, and health care to destitute areas of the world.

For more information on rational emotive behavior therapy, click on Albert Ellis’ official website: Albert Ellis Network:  http://rebtnetwork.org/

Special to this blog is Reflections in the Dark PhotoArt thumbnail image by Dale Jarvis, AreaOne Art & Design, Fayetteville, NC.

© John Minor, Ph.D., Associate fellow and training faculty, REBT; Adjunct professor, University of California.