From self-esteem talk on Oprah to self-help books like Negaholics and Your Sacred Self, from magazine quizzes that test your "happiness quotient" to headlines blaring the supposed deepest emotions of public figures―we live in an age fixated on emotional well-being. Rich or poor, black or white, male or female, straight or gay, Americans share a belief in the therapeutic gospel. Feelings reveal inner truth; salvation lies in self-esteem. We measure success with a psychological yardstick.
As Eva Moskowitz argues, Americans today turn to psychological cures as confidently as they once petitioned the Lord with prayer. How did the land of the free become obsessed with self-fulfillment? Has America gained or lost by placing so much emphasis on personal well-being? Taking a historical approach, Moskowitz explores the country's tendency to find psychological explanations―and excuses―for nearly everything.
Beginning with the example of a "Mind Cure" developed by mid-nineteenth-century clockmaker Phineas P. Quimby, Moskowitz explains how Americans' growing fascination with therapy led them to adopt new kinds of reform―including, at the turn of the twentieth century, provisions for psychological services in prisons, courts, hospitals, and schools. Depression-era divorce rates prompted colleges and high schools to offer courses on marital happiness and produced a new marriage-counseling industry. During World War II, Moskowitz shows, the army devoted unprecedented energy to a soldier's "psychological readiness for combat." Moskowitz also explores more recent developments, including Cold War-era psychological assumptions of magazine campaigns that targeted unhappy housewives. She confronts the social protest movements in the 60s and the explosion of 70s self-help fads that continue to the present.
In a study that encompasses all aspects of American society―from television talk shows to the criminal justice system, from office politics to world politics―Moskowitz identifies a debilitating "sense of self" that is intimately bound up with the major developments of the twentieth century.
From Publishers Weekly
I may be OK, and you may be OK, but what about the culture at large? Are Americans obsessed with self-fulfillment? Has illusory self-esteem become a highly lucrative commodity? In this entertaining, informative and provocative cultural analysis, Moskowitz, sometime college history teacher and New York City Council member, explores how the desire for personal happiness became supreme, and how success in every arena from sports to geopolitics has come to be measured "with a psychological yardstick." Moskowitz's lengthy historical view encompasses the mid-19th-century New Thought movement (epitomized by Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Science), which sought physical happiness through mental will, as well as the impact of various forms of therapy on education movements. She also analyzes how the therapeutic community helped shape postwar social reforms such as desegregation by arguing that legalized racism was psychologically harmful to African-Americans, and how second-wave feminists in the 1960s and '70s "blamed psychological experts for women's false consciousness," while simultaneously citing "the psychological nature of women's oppression." While Moskowitz charts what she sees as the excesses of this culture Oprah and Sally Jesse Raphael's confessional televised therapy fests, and the glut of 12-step programs for everyone from nail-biters to "dataholics" and information addicts her criticism is as judicious as her careful praise of an encompassing therapy culture.
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Historian Moskowitz explores the U.S. history of a "therapeutic gospel" with three central tenets: "happiness should be our supreme goal," "our problems stem from psychological causes," and "the psychological problems that underlie our failures and unhappiness are in fact treatable and . . . we can, indeed should, address these problems both individually and as a society." She traces this changing "gospel" from Phineas Quimby's "mental therapeutics" through early-twentieth-century New Thought, the Progressives' therapeutic agenda, marriage counseling, the armed forces' use of psychology during and after World War II, and 1950s women's magazines. National fascination with the psyche continued to develop through the social movements of the 1960s, the "me generation" of the 1970s, and the intimate TV talk shows and recovery movements of the 1980s and 1990s. Moskowitz's objections to this long-running obsession are that "our emphasis on the individual psyche has blinded us to underlying social realities," and "the emphasis on individuals and mental healing often comes at the expense of considerations of the larger public good." Mary Carroll
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