The Origins of Unhappiness: A New Understanding of Personal Distress

Author(s) : David Smail

The Origins of Unhappiness: A New Understanding of Personal Distress

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It is the main argument of this book that emotional and psychological distress is often brought about through the operation of social-environmental powers which have their origin at a considerable distance from those ultimately subjected to them.

On the whole, psychology has concerned itself very little with the field of power which stretches beyond our immediate relations with each other, and this has led to serious limitations on the explanatory power of the theories it has produced. To illustrate this, typical cases of patient distress in the 1980s are examined. The decade when the right-wing of politics proclaimed there was no such thing as society gave rise to psychological distress across social classes, as long-standing societal institutions were dismantled.

This is as much a work of sociology, politics, and philosophy, as it is of psychology. Fundamentals of an environmental understanding of distress are outlined. A person is the interaction of a body with the environment. The environment is structured by material power. Power may be coercive, economic, or ideological. Power operates at a varying distance from the person. It is always experienced proximally, but may well originate distally.

The operation of power also means the ability of therapy to deal with distress is limited. Therapy essentially consists of three potentially effective elements: provision of comfort; clarification; and encouragement in the use of available powers and resources.

Reviews and Endorsements

‘David Smail keenly recognised how many of us think and feel, and showed how attempts to reduce distress are so often limited by targeting the wrong thing: that is, the people in pain, not the more distal causes that underpin the suffering. All of David’s books beautifully but tragically describe the paradox that those offering therapy often find themselves in: wanting to help but often making things worse by mis-perceiving the meaning of distress. His work deserves to be read anew by all those in the helping professions who are prepared to question their own work, to think seriously about the meaning of the current tsunami of personal unhappiness, and to learn from this wise and perceptive author.’
— Susan Llewelyn, Professor of Clinical Psychology, Harris Manchester College, Oxford University

‘David Smail was a constructive critic. With finely tuned precision, he cut deeply into what is wrong with psychotherapy and, with wisdom, he pointed to another way to deal with the feelings of despair, anxiety, and depression we experience in contemporary life. He was a genuine psychologist who applied the craft skillfully. Reading what he has written is, for want of a better term, "therapeutic." His books always leave me thoughtful and hopeful, comforted by the sense that here was a man who actually understood something of life and had a grasp of what happiness really means.’
— Dr Tana Dineen, author of Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry is Doing to People

‘David developed clinical psychological ideas that offered a radical and humane approach to understanding and helping people in difficulty. He broadened the scope of the practice of clinical psychology from assessment to reflective therapeutic interventions, and then on to community psychology and locating preventative work and the facilitation of collective activity in communities of interest. His introduction of community psychology roles to mainstream clinical psychology services was innovative and ahead of its time. He endorsed community psychology, and was vigorously pioneering, while also sceptical about aspirations for psychology securing significant social change.

David argued that a rigorous understanding of individuals necessarily incorporates an appreciation of their access to power. He analysed people's proximal powers in the context of distal forces. He described a reflexive approach that means that there are questions that are always pertinent to psychological interventions: What resources are available to this person/family/community? What material, social and economic power is accessible to them? What possibilities for change are afforded by their situations and environments? In whose interests is this intervention? Thus we are always challenged to consider whether services are truly in the interests of the people they purport to help.

David showed us the importance of the quality of relationships, of being humane and modest, and, most importantly, to go beyond individualistic and voluntaristic concepts for understanding and working with people who are distressed. Apart from the thoughtful and practical ways of working that he inspired, he also generated invaluable and creative networks of support and encouragement between people who are committed to the ethical concern that "our common humanity enjoins us to mitigate suffering in others as in ourselves". I shall continue to appreciate David's wisdom and integrity and to remember him very fondly.’
— Jan Bostock, Psychological Services Professional Lead, Planned Care, Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust.

About the Author(s)

David Smail was a consultant clinical psychologist in the NHS and Special Professor in Clinical Psychology at the University of Nottingham.

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