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Presidential Blog

Don’t curse the darkness, light a candle

04 January 2017 | by Peter Kinderman

2016 may well have been a year full of sadness and frustration, but there is every reason to enter 2017 with energy and commitment.

Many commentators, from the left and right have started 2017 with expressions of commitment for the future.

And, to be honest, 2017 will probably be a year dominated by international politics rather than psychological science. But we have our part to play.

2017 will be a challenging year, and psychological science can help, both on the individual and societal level.

All of us occasionally feel overwhelmed by the challenges in our lives. Indeed, some of the most telling criticisms of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT: the most well known of the psychological therapies) centre on the fact that, while it may well be the case that our interpretation of events is important, not everything in life can be changed by wishing that it were so.

CBT can rightly be criticised for adhering to an out-dated and unscientific model of mental ‘illness’, for continuing to locate the blame for our distress inside our heads (rather than looking to social or even political root causes), and for sometimes implying both that people are responsible for “thinking errors” and that “positive thinking” can solve our problems.

We constantly make sense of the world around us, and how we make sense of the world has profound implications for how we feel and how we behave.

The variant of CBT known as ‘acceptance and commitment therapy’ acknowledges this, and recognises the power of psychological therapy, but takes a slightly different approach. If someone has experienced a terrible loss, the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a limb, for example, distress should not be seen as a ‘disorder’ or the product of ‘thinking errors’, the cause of the problem shouldn’t be located in the person’s head, and no amount of positive thinking can reverse time.

But it is sensible to think about – to talk about – how best to make sense of events, and how best to prepare for the future. To accept the realities of the world, and to commit to a positive course of action..

This means continuing to promote the impact of high-quality psychological science; combatting the worrying idea that we "no longer need experts".

It means reminding our politicians that we live in complex networks of social relationships, and that the politics of materialist atomism is fundamentally inconsistent with human wellbeing and flourishing.

It means using the evidence we gather as professionals and academics to contextualise (and occasionally oppose) policies that threaten the wellbeing of the most vulnerable.

And it means protecting and promoting both the discipline and profession of psychology, and our sister professions in academia and health and social care.

It’s perfectly reasonable to look back on 2016 with a sense of “good riddance”. And 2017 will certainly be challenging for those of us who believe in democracy, science, human rights, and social equity. But we should accept the reality of the situation, and commit ourselves to a continued effort to, in the words of the Royal Charter of the British Psychological Society, “promote the advancement and diffusion of a knowledge of psychology pure and applied”.

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