The ancient philosophical term eudaimonia is often casually interpreted as happiness, but its literal meaning is actually something closer to well-character'ed. We in late consumer-industrialized societies miss the deeper meaning of happiness because focused on material wealth, we generally mistake happiness for prosperity and material abundance. We have forgotten what the ancient roots of Western civilization insisted upon: genuine happiness is bound up with the quality of a person's character. The good life is grounded upon a foundation of the good; the good life belongs to the good person, the one who lives up to her own virtues.
The forgetting of the ancient alignment of virtue with happiness in modern Western societies helps to explain the epidemic rates of unhappy people across the continent of the richest nation on earth: in November of 2015, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that from 1999 to 2012 the percentage of Americans on antidepressants increased from 6.8% to 13%. This is to say, more than one in every ten Americans is medicated for their unhappiness. The percentage of unhappy people then skyrockets even further when we consider the numbers of those unhappy people who go unmedicated, those who are self-medicated (substance and alcohol abusers) and those who take their unhappiness out on others around them--in domestic violence, shootings of hated others, and many other forms of violence and abuse. Indeed part of the broad tragedy of an unhappy society is that the only answers that unhappy people are offered are medications--proven to do little good and often to do much harm--and therapy--often not extended to those who most need it. It is generally the victims of abusers who are given the therapy, though the abusers are the least happy of all. Hurt people hurt people.
So it is with great joy that this philosopher and counselor finds Canadian psychologist Duff Waring finally approaching the problem of unhappiness with the philosophical answer--attention to the virtues. In The Healing Virtues, Waring argues that a patient's psychologically "working through" a problem has much to do with identifying the unique set of virtues she most values and plotting a course to realize those virtues in her life, so that she may begin to feel good about herself. What is sound about this approach to therapy is that the unhappy person, led by the therapist, takes power back into her own hands. Another benefit is that the plan for healing would always be as unique as the individual human being, a plan for healing the self that is designed by the patient to match the patient's needs and values. Moreover, this kind of therapy can apply as readily to the victim, often left with low self-esteem and self-loathing after a loved one has treated him/her badly, as it can work for the abusive character, the unhappy perpetrator.
Waring shows that therapy already implicitly does much of the work he advocates in this book. What he brings to the argument is the need to make explicit the virtues aspect of the counseling. The therapist acts as a virtue guide to the sickened character, establishing a supportive interpersonal relationship with the patient, and then coaching him/her through spoken conversation to develop insights into the problematic patterns of thoughts and actions that frustrate their chances for happiness. Waring's brilliance resides in the recognition that the therapeutic aim of changing the patient's thinking and behaving to overcome maladaptive coping patterns is best served by encouraging a program of personal growth explicitly focused on the patient's value system--their chosen virtues. Like the learner of any practical skill, the patient must hone her skillfulness and learn to be virtuous--on her own terms. She thus needs first to understand what those terms are, to identify what she values most in virtuous character traits, find what positive and valued behaviors she can develop for herself, and to train herself at improving her skill and manifesting her values as she meets life challenges in a whole new self-empowered way.
In this very detailed account of the new therapy, Waring writes in a rigorous way that will pose a hearty intellectual challenge to any educated reader. He defines his terms up front, answers many challenges from the skeptic, and then charts a therapeutic course for a "Reparative Ethics" that constitutes a nexus between mental health and moral virtue. This book will be of interest to psychologists and philosophers alike, rigorously written and well argued. In a way that would make the ancients proud, Waring shows that happiness is the art of living well and that living well amounts to nothing more complex than developing a practical skill: cultivating virtues. With dedicated practice, the unhappy human being can become the good human being and ultimately, the happy human being.
© 2016 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D. (Philosophy), Professor, North Carolina A&T State University.