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Healing and Well-being in the Fathers and Contemporary Psychological Research

June 21, 2012

Therapy and psychological counseling have been concerned for years with pathology-oriented models, essentially borrowed from medicine. Today, however, there is a turning towards Seligman’s  “positive psychology” movement and an examining of notions of well-being in order to promote positive psychological functioning with resiliency to stressors. In trying to understand well-being, psychologists define well-being either hedonistically in terms of pleasure or happiness or eudaimonically in terms of self-actualization, meaning, and purpose. These are good attempts, but they fail to offer a consistent and conundrum-free account of well-being. Can someone in a manic delusional state be said to have well-being, because he or she feels quite happy on a hedonistic scale? Can suicide bombers be said to have well-being, because they would score high on eudaimonic scales of meaning and purpose? (Lent, 2004). The answer to both questions is, of course, no. Another scale or point of reference is desperately needed.

Of course for the fathers, pleasure and pain is already a problematic dialectic for the faithful to get beyond through asceticism. The eudaimonic construct of meaning and purpose is ultimately the better measure, but its formulation in terms of self-determination theory (as consisting of autonomy, personal growth, self-acceptance, purpose in life, environmental mastery, and positive relations with others) would by no means fit hand-in-glove with a patristic approach. What is sorely needed is an account of virtue and a reference beyond this life to something that is greater and what is greater than the only thing new under the sun, the Incarnation of God the Word (Saint John of Damascus, Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Bk. 3, ch. 1).

In the Orthodox Church, the positive aspect of the spiritual life has always been emphasized and the main source of inspiration for leading the life in Christ. There is, of course, a theory of passions, but it is always intertwined with a theory of virtues, which is also always stressed. And while training in clinical psychology involves studying and analyzing case studies of those diagnosed with mental disorders. Training in the Church involves studying the lives of the Saints, those who have shown forth with spiritual health in every sort of circumstance. Once again in the Second Millennium, psychologists are now discovering what the Church Fathers have long known: the best models for encouraging health are to be found in the healthy. May they also discover that the best model for well-being be found in virtue, holiness, and the teachings of Christ.

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