Jules Evans [ Habit Formation ] I’m going to tell you how ancient Greek philosophy inspired modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. And how through CBT millions of people have got access to the therapeutic wisdom of the ancient Greeks.
We are realizing that philosophy can help us, as Socrates put it: “To take care of our souls.”
So I’m going to begin by telling you my story of how philosophy helped me through the most difficult phase of my life.
When I was a teenager, in the mid 1990s, my friends and I were – I guess you could describe us as amateur neuroscientists. We liked to experiment on our own brains with various different chemicals every weekend. So we began our experiments with marijuana and we had some interesting results, and then we moved on to experimenting with LSD, also quite interesting, and eventually we were experimenting with MDMA, amphetamines, ketamine, magic mushrooms, all thrown into our neural chemistry like ingredients into a druid’s cauldron.
I mean, we had some great times and hilarious visionary and even spiritual experiences.
But then I noticed some of my raver friends were beginning to wipe out.
My best friend had a psychotic breakdown when he was tripping. He was just 16 and locked up and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Other friends developed bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, paranoia. And then in my first term at university I started to get panic attacks.
I didn’t know what a panic attack was, I just knew I’d be in a quite unthreatening situation and I’d suddenly feel this full-bodied existential terror.
And that undermined my confidence because I didn’t know who I’d be from one day to the next, and it also made me more socially anxious because I was never sure when panic was going to jump out and humiliate me.
And my real terror was that I had done some permanent damage to the chemical balance in my brain, in which case maybe there was nothing I could do about it.
Maybe I’d ruin my life before the age of 21.
So all the way through university I’d became more and more miserable and then I graduated and I hit rock bottom.
I became a financial journalist.
I got a job reporting on the German mortgage bond market. This is what happens if you mess around with drugs.
My kind parents sent me to see quite an expensive therapist trying to help me, and they diagnosed me as suffering from social anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. I think they were being paid per diagnosis.
They weren’t able to help me, so I went away and researched those conditions for myself and found they could apparently be treated by something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT.
I also discovered there was a CBT support group for people who suffered from social anxiety that met near me every Thursday evening in London.
So one Thursday I went along. I found ten people sitting in a circle and there wasn’t actually a therapist present, but someone in that group had illegally downloaded a CBT course for social anxiety from the Internet.
So we listened to that course and practiced the exercises and did the homework and encouraged each other on, and for me, at least, it worked. I stopped having panic attacks after a few weeks and I began to understand how to transform my emotions.
So I became fascinated by CBT and I wondered where it had come from.
I discovered it had been invented by an American psychologist named Albert Ellis, who lived in New York. So one day in 2007, I got on a plane to New York and I went to interview him. By that stage he was 92, old, frail and sick, and it turned out to be, sadly, the last interview he ever gave. He died a few months later.
But I got to thank him in person for inventing this therapy that had saved my life.
And I asked him where it had come from. Ellis told me he had trained as a Freudian psychoanalyst in the 1950s, but he’d become frustrated with how little progress his patients seemed to make. So he looked around for other ways to understand the emotions and he turned back to his first great love: ancient Greek philosophy.
He’d been particularly inspired by a line from a stoic philosopher called Epictetus.
Epictetus said: “Men are disturbed not by events, but by their opinion about events.”
That inspired Ellis’ famous ABC theory of the emotions .
- A stands for the Activating events, something that happens to us.
- B stands for our Beliefs, how we interpret that event, and
- C stands for the Consequent emotion that we feel through our interpretation.
It often feels that our emotions just happen to us automatically and involuntarily in response to an event, that it’s just an action and a reaction.
Let’s say we’re walking down the street and we pass someone frowning, we immediately feel offended and angry. It feels that we’re going straight from A to C. But if you look at that event closely, what happened was you interpreted it a certain way. You thought: “That person is frowning at me. They’re looking down on me in some way. They shouldn’t! How rude! How offensive!”
And that interpretation left you feeling offended and angry.
Once we realize how our interpretations lead to our emotions , we can hold our interpretations up to the light and ask if they’re definitely accurate or wise.
We could ask ourselves, for example: “Was that person definitely frowning at me? Maybe they were just frowning. And if they were frowning at me, so what? Does that mean that I have to take their bad mood with me through the rest of the day?”
We can start to choose our perceptions, our interpretations more wisely and this will affect how we feel.
So that might sound quite simple, quite easy.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy because most of the time our interpretations are unconscious and automatic.
We have a kind of running commentary, an inner voice that’s going through our head all through the day, making judgments about the things that are happening to us.
Usually we don’t question that inner voice, we don’t even notice it. That inner voice would be made out with all the beliefs and opinions we’ve heard since we were children and we’d internalized it.
We assume that running commentary, that inner voice, is always completely accurate and true. But, unfortunately, it isn’t; it often gets things wrong.
You can think of that inner voice, that running commentary, as like a sort of 24-hour news channel, constantly commenting on your life, but in a very distorted and biased way, it never really checks its facts .
Now if you have emotional problems like depression, that would be because, probably, your inner commentary is jumping to very negative conclusions.
You might assume, for example, that everyone dislikes you or that everything you turn your hand to will fail.
So according to the Greeks, then, what often causes suffering is our own beliefs. We are our own imprisoners, our own torturers. We cling to our negative or toxic beliefs even when they hurt us or even kill us.
So how do we free ourselves from our self-made prisons?
Well, according to Socrates, the father of Greek philosophy, what we need to do is learn how to ask yourself questions , not just assume that that inner voice is always telling the truth, learn how to engage it in a rational dialogue.
So that’s what Socrates tried to teach to his fellow Athenians. He engaged them in a dialogue in Athens, getting them to think, perhaps for the first time, about their unexamined beliefs and values and life philosophy.
And likewise, if you go to see a cognitive therapist, they’ll also engage you in a rational dialogue asking you questions, getting you to examine your beliefs.
You can do that for yourself as well.
Asking yourself questions and learning to perceive, perhaps for the first time, the bars of your prison cell, your own beliefs. Do we really have control over ourselves? Can we really choose how we react to things? Aren’t we the slave of circumstances, the slave of our DNA, of our childhood, of our social-economic situation?
So let me help you to explore that question a little bit more about this philosopher Epictetus.
He lived in the first century AD and he was actually a slave, his name meant “acquired. ” To be a slave in the Roman Empire meant you had very little control over your external life and your situation. And yet Epictetus developed a philosophy of inner freedom and resilience which is still very powerful today.
The secret of his philosophy of resilience was to divide all of life into two spheres: those things that we don’t have complete control over and those things that we do. And he said the secret of resilience is to know the difference between those two spheres. So what we don’t have complete control over in life?
According to Epictetus we don’t control
- the weather,
- the government,
- the economy; we don’t control
- other people. We have some influence over them, but they remain to some extent out of our control. We don’t control
- our own bodies. We can try and remain healthy and we should, but we all get injured sometimes, we all get sick, we’re all getting older, and we all eventually die. And we don’t have control over
- our reputations either, we can put a lot of effort into trying to manage our online reputations, but to some extent they are beyond our control.
So what then we control, according to Epictetus? Well the only thing that we control according to him is our beliefs.
And he thought that emotional problems come from two mistakes that humans often make. Firstly, we try to exert complete control over something in that first area, something external. We insist that something in our external life must be a certain way. And then when it proves beyond our control, we feel frustrated and helpless and angry.
Or we fail to take control over zone 1, over our own beliefs and thoughts.
Instead, we use something in the external world as an excuse or an alibi. We say: “I had no choice because this happened to me or because of that.”
For example, when I had social anxiety, I was very fixated on what other people thought of me. I thought: “They must approve of me and if they don’t, it’s a disaster.” Well, that was a classic recipe for feeling very anxious and alienated and out of my control. I’d made myself a slave of something external, a slave of other people’s opinions.
And the antidote to that was always in my control.
At any moment I could say: “I’d prefer for other people to like me, but that’s somewhat out of my control, I can still accept myself and like myself and do the right thing regardless.”
As soon as I thought like that, I felt less anxious and out of control and more calm and in control.
So let’s say you’re here at a TED Talk today and you have a light bulb moment. You think: “Now I understand how to live my life.” The problem is that that might change you for a few days or a few weeks, but then you’ll probably go back to the person you were before because we’re very forgetful creatures, we tend to sleepwalk through the day, as Socrates put it.
And that’s a problem for philosophy.
Can we really change ourselves?
The Greeks actually understood to what extent we are habit-based creatures, and they understood that if philosophy is going to change us, it can’t be just beautiful ideas, it has to be changed into ingrained habits.
So the word “ethics” in Greek is very closely connected to the word “ ethos,” which means “habits. “
I’m going to end by telling you a few of their techniques for creating habits.
One technique they used, for example, was the maxim. They would try to make their philosophy easily memorizable by turning it into maxims, catch phrases like proverbs or mantras. Things like, “Know thyself” or “Everything in moderation” which students would repeat out loud to themselves over and over until they became ingrained habits.
They’d also write it down in little handbooks which they’d carried with them through the day called “enchiridions.”
CBT uses a very similar technique; you repeat ideas over and over until they become ingrained in your habits.
They’d also keep journals; at the end of the day the trainee philosopher would write down in their journal what they’d done well, what they’d done badly. The idea of that is that we sleepwalk through the day, we don’t realize what we’ve done or even who we are. So the journal is a way of keeping track of what you’re actually doing and also keeping track of your progress.
Are you really making progress in weakening bad habits and strengthening good habits?
Epictetus said: “If you have a bad temper and you’re trying to improve it, count the number of days in which you’ve managed not to lose your temper and if you get to 30 days, you can consider you’re making progress.
So CBT uses a very similar technique of the journal.
The third technique that the Greeks used was fieldwork. It’s not enough just for your philosophy to be purely theoretical, you have to go out and practice it in real life situations. Epictetus said to his students: “You may be very good in the lecture room, but drag yourself out into practice and you’re miserably shipwrecked. So you need to practice in all of different situations of your life.
Likewise, in CBT, there’s a big emphasis on changing not just your thoughts but your behavior.
It’s called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
So when I was trying to overcome social anxiety, it wasn’t enough to challenge my anxious beliefs in the safety of the therapy room. I had to go out and practice in real life situations, to go to parties, for example, or practice public speaking, so eventually one day I might be able to do things like this.
So there are some other ways then that CBT has rediscovered the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and CBT put it on a firm evidence base which persuaded governments to put a lot of money into making CBT more available. In my own country they put half a billion of pounds into making CBT free on the National Health Service .
So if we have this new evidence-based version of the ideas of the Greeks, do we then still need ancient philosophy?
Perhaps now we have CBT we don’t need the Greeks anymore.
I think, finally, it is worth going back to ancient philosophy for two reasons.
First of all, the ancient Greeks and Romans wrote beautifully.
The works of Plato, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus are some of the most beautiful works we have in Western literature and that beauty makes it very persuasive.
And secondly, CBT, though it created a wonderful short-term therapy for emotional problems, it left some things out.
It left out any ideas of virtue.
What does it mean to have a good character, a good life, a good career, a good company or a good society?
And it also left out higher questions.
What’s the meaning of life? What does it mean to flourish?
Now the ancient Greeks and Romans they answered those big questions about what a good life looks like, what a good society looks like, but they had various different answers, they didn’t just have one answer.
- Plato thought a good life is a life that’s close to God.
- Epicurus thought a good life was a life full of happiness here on Earth.
- Aristotle thought a good life was a life very much engaged with your society.
So I don’t think psychology is ever going to prove one answer to that question of “What is a good life?” We’ll never find one scientific formula. And that’s why I think we need philosophy, that’s why I’d like to see more practical philosophy in our schools, universities and companies as well. So we learn not just techniques for changing ourselves but also we learn how to ask questions about what it means to live a good life so we can make up our own minds.