The Pursuit of Happiness: A Philosophical Approach to Treatment Beyond an Eating Disorder
By Brooke Farrington, MSW, LCSW, CEDS-S and Josh Farrington, MPhil
As a clinician, I am frequently asked existential questions. Does providing quality care include a moral responsibility to guide each person beyond recovery to be the best version of themselves? As we began working on this article, it was ironic that a client specifically raised the topic of happiness and wholeness during a session.
“After spending the better part of a year trying a multitude of various combinations of balancing life with the eating disorder and life in recovery, I realized that if I decided to partake in this balancing act for the remainder of my life, happiness would not be a part of that balance. In other words, no matter what part of my life I was catering to (eating disorder or recovery), the other part would inevitably be disappointed and unhappy. I knew I wanted to be wholly happy and this realization genuinely challenged me to further progress into full recovery.” (Anonymous, quote used with written permission)
As therapists specializing in the treatment of eating disorders, our first goal is typically recovery from the eating disorder via medical and nutritional stabilization, cessation of maladaptive patterns of behavior, and treatment of comorbidities and the underlying issues. However, is it enough to simply recover from the eating disorder? Or do we as a field have a responsibility to promote further growth, to encourage clients to find wholeness and happiness? And if so, how?
The question of where a client in recovery could find happiness and wholeness from a philosophical perspective immediately brings to mind the ancient wisdom of the Greeks some 2400 years ago, specifically Plato. Plato was the first philosopher to ask the question, “How do we become happy?” And before we can be happy, Plato argued we must know what happiness is, thus we must define happiness.
This is why reading and talking about Plato is so important to us today, because his ideas on happiness and the good life may not only help us be happy in our personal lives, but Plato thinks we also find happiness in finding that “thing” (be it our passions or our purpose) we were all meant to do with our lives, and do those things well. The Greek word for the “happy life” or the “good life” is termed εὐδαιμονία (Eudaimonia), which means flourishing as a human being in all aspects of our lives. For the sake of brevity, we will codify Plato’s dialogues into three important ideas that Plato thought would help us find happiness in all areas of our lives.
Happiness is more than just an emotion; it is a state of being. As we work with clients, it is important to guide them in this differentiation. This means being able to have a sense of self beyond the eating disorder and beyond feelings to be able to embrace the ups and downs that is life. Not just merely feeling happy, but being happy.
BIG IDEA ONE: THINK MORE!
One of the things Plato thinks is important to living a happy life is that we need to think about things before we do things. We so rarely give ourselves the time to think critically about how we live our lives. For those suffering from an eating disorder and in the recovery process, many find safety in acquiescing with what the Greeks called δόξα (doxa) or popular opinion about societal notions of health, wellness, and beauty. Why would acquiescing be problematic? Well, this not only stifles critical thinking, but Plato thinks common sense opinions coming from our health, media, and aesthetic culture are often laden with logical errors, prejudice, and superstitions that can lead to very bad outcomes in our lives. We hear things like “gluten is bad for you,” “fit is the new healthy,” and “this is something that you will struggle with the rest of your life.”
After being recovered from her own eating disorder, Brooke was told by an expert in the field “Once an eating disorder, always an eating disorder.” This was very disheartening to realize that as a future clinician in the field she was being identified as an eating disorder despite freedom from the disease. What would this message mean for those in treatment still fighting for healing? Would her identity always be defined in proximity to the eating disorder?
If left unexamined, these popular opinions and sentiments may lead towards dangerously misguided values, bad decisions, and unhealthy relationships. For example, Brooke may have abandoned her art, missing her life’s calling. So, how can this be avoided? Plato’s answer is that we have to think for ourselves! Which also means you have to “know thyself”.
So how do we know ourselves, and how do we think for ourselves? Most importantly– how do we guide our clients towards “knowing thyself?” According to Plato, it is difficult to do because it means we have to get our soul in order. We must get our soul healthy if we want to be happy. Plato thinks the medicine for a happy and healthy soul is a special kind of ongoing “therapy” throughout our odyssey in life called Philosophy. So the million-dollar question is: how do we get our souls healthy and happy so that we can become the best version of ourselves?
Plato argues in The Republic that the soul is made up of three parts: the appetitive, the spirited, and the rational. Each part of the soul needs a specific virtue to function and function well. The rational part of the soul needs wisdom. The spirited part of the soul needs courage. The appetitive part of the soul needs moderation. The idea then, is that if you strengthen the rational part of your soul with wisdom and fortify the spirited part of your soul with courage, you won’t have to live your life being dragged around by excessive or restrictive appetites that can destroy the soul.
BIG IDEA 2: LET LOVE CHANGE YOU
If you are of the mindset that love means finding someone or something who wants you just as you are then this idea that you should let love change you is going to sound very strange to you, because it kind of goes against popular opinion that we should love someone, or something just as they are. However, we would also ask if love should change us for the better of worse? Plato thinks that love should change us for the better! In Plato’s Symposium, there is a dinner party where friends drink too much, and begin talking about beauty, love, sex, and relationships. Plato’s Socrates says true love is admiration of the other. What does he mean by this? He seems to be saying that we should connect with someone or something, which holds the qualities we ourselves may lack. Why does he suggest this? By getting close to this “other,” perhaps our missing half, we become a little bit like them or it. In turn, this helps complete that which is missing in our soul, and further helps us grow to our full potential.
For our clients, this could mean building healthy connections with others and with themselves. Love of self means to see and connect with all the parts of ourselves. To find admiration for the parts of us that have served an important purpose in our lives, like the eating disorder. Ultimately, to integrate these parts is to become a whole soul.
Love is healing. When our 4-year-old daughter falls down, she runs to one of us and asks us to kiss it and “make it all better.” Love is powerful. As clinicians, we have the honor to love our clients through this process of becoming who they were meant to be.
BIG IDEA 3: FIND BEAUTY IN ALL AREAS OF LIFE
Plato was also the first to ask, “Why do we like beauty?” And he found a fascinating reason. In the dialogue, Phaedrus, Plato’s Socrates argues that truly beautiful things in this world are so meaningful to us because they whisper timeless truths. We find things beautiful when we sense in them the qualities we need but are missing in our lives. So, beauty, like love, is really important, because beauty helps educate and improve our souls towards excellence in our lives.
Beauty is another trigger word in the eating disorder community. When our clients talk about a pursuit of beauty, we need to ask them one question. “What are you seeking that you are missing in your life?”
There are 3 distinct destinations in treatment: recovering, recovered, and finding happiness – becoming whole. The final destination is one that will continue to evolve throughout our lives as we learn more and grow. Wholeness is having a sense of who you are and who you were meant to be, finding passion and purpose in life, and flourishing.
As therapists, most of us are not trained in philosophy. There is a point in the journey with clients we should take a backseat role, allowing the client to take the lead. Everyone has the capacity to know themselves. Our role becomes more observational and encouraging to find their own life and cultivate their passions, strengths, and gifts. For some this may mean connecting them with other resources for further soul work, be it a pastor, spiritual counselor, or philosopher.
Everyone has the capacity to live a full life and truly live as a soul complete with happiness. In order to do this, to be happy, we must know who we are and who we were meant to be. We must understand and seek beauty and love in our lives. In Plato’s Protagoras, it was asked, “And what, Socrates, is the food of the soul? Surely, I said, knowledge is the food of the soul.”
About the authors:
Brooke Farrington MSW, LCSW, CEDS-S is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her practice, Farrington Specialty Counseling Inc. specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, compulsive exercise, and body image issues for males and females of all ages. Farrington Specialty Counseling offers outpatient, group, and intensive outpatient (IOP) levels of care. Prior to opening her practice, Brooke worked at a Residential/Inpatient facility where she directed the outpatient and intensive outpatient programs and led dance and movement groups in the residential program. She speaks frequently in Northeast Indiana as an eating disorder expert and has spoken on the national level. As well as being a therapist, Brooke also teaches dance. She is a professional member of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (iaedp) and the Academy of Eating Disorders (AED). She is chair of iaedp’s Connection, Outreach, and Mentoring Committee and an iaedp Approved Supervisor. She was awarded Iaedp’s Member of the Year in 2016.
Josh Farrington, MPhil is Professor of Philosophy at Ivy Tech Community College in Marion, Indiana and Muncie, Indiana where he teaches philosophy, ethics, logic, and humanities courses. He has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and Political Science from Indiana University and a Masters of Arts in Bioethics and Philosophy from Indiana University Center for Bioethics. He has additional training and interest in neuroscience and neuroethics. Professor Farrington is also the Clinical Bioethicist at Farrington Specialty Counseling in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he provides ethical consultations for individuals, families, and professionals. Josh is dedicated to insuring that individuals and families are treated with dignity in the treatment setting.
Plato. (n.d.). The Republic. Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html
Plato. (n.d.). Symposium. Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html
Plato. (n.d.). Protagoras. Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/protagoras.html