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Review of "Rationality and the Pursuit of Happiness"

By Michael E. Bernard
Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
Review by Duncan Double on Nov 15th 2011
Rationality and the Pursuit of Happiness

This book is not a critical evaluation of the work of Albert Ellis. Nor does it try to provide a historical interpretation of Ellis' work using biographical details. This may not be surprising, as it was written by an acolyte of Ellis. Michael Bernard was editor‑in‑chief of the Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy for eight years and is the author of several other books on Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). He begins the preface to this book by saying "Albert Ellis is a genius". He elected to write about Ellis' views mostly in the present rather than the past tense, even though Ellis died in 2007.

The book focuses on what Ellis had to say about happiness, by using quotes from his published writings, public lectures and transcripts of his counseling sessions. The essential message is that it's not rational to be too unhappy in life. REBT is based on the "ABC" theory of psychopathology. Beliefs (B) about activating events (A) are the critical causes of emotional and behavioral consequences (C), rather than them being caused directly by A. Of course there are upsets in life but happiness is a state of mind over which one has control. The problem arises from not accepting reality because of absolutistic premises or what Ellis called musturbatory thinking. Therapy reveals and disputes these underlying irrational premises.

There does seem to be a conceptual question about the nature of rationality. For Ellis, irrational beliefs are dysfunctional by definition. However, delusional and other beliefs to avoid reality do serve a defensive function. Ellis is particularly concerned about self-defeating 'shoulds and musts' and such self-downing is seen as mainly biological and innate.

The place of REBT in the historical forefront of the cognitive approach needs to be acknowledged. Aaron Beck seems to have developed CBT partly independently of Ellis. Both Ellis and Beck became disillusioned with psychoanalysis. Ellis in interviews with Bernard reprinted in a chapter in the book says that he got in touch with Beck after the publication of a paper entitled 'Thinking and depression' in 1963 and "found a kindred soul".

Rational therapy was first developed in the 1950s. It was re-named rational emotive therapy before finally being changed to REBT. Ellis received the American Humanist of the Year award in 1971. He was a pioneer sex therapist and marriage counselor for many years, and was the first president of the Society for Scientific Study of Sex and recipient in 1971 of its award for distinguished contributions to research in sex. He was a populist and the appeal of REBT may be to its commonsense and intuitive nature. This book provides a useful summary of what Ellis had to say on happiness.


© 2011 Duncan Double


Duncan Double, Consultant Psychiatrist and Honorary Senior Lecturer, Norfolk Mental Health Care Trust and University of East Anglia, UK; Website Editor, Critical Psychiatry Network.