“The great revolution of our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives”. William James

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James was a pioneering psychologist who lived in the latter part of the 19th century and died in 1910 (his brother was the well-known novelist, Henry James).  He was famous as a philosopher and wrote wonderful prose.  I loved reading his books while I was studying for my graduate degree in “philosophy of the mind”.

From the quote you will see that James believed that by altering one’s thoughts and related attitudes one could change behaviour.  He was obviously an admirer of Freud and Jung – the two major proponents of the “talking cure”.  It was at the cutting edge of psychological theories that postulated that a person might fix their life’s problems, erratic or negative actions and feelings, by discovering their inner psychological causes, including past events in their life.  The theory saw a clear causal link between inner thoughts and public behaviour – which, on the face of it, does not seem particularly ground-breaking.  What was novel was the belief that it was possible to work through thoughts and feelings, talk about them, and eventually find a way to change overall attitudes in such a way that they would alter behaviour, in a good way.  As a pragmatist, James must have seen this happen, probably in personal examples and by observing other people’s positive transformative experiences, both of which proved its efficacy.  The new science of the mind, psychology, radically changed the way mental illness was perceived and treated.

In earlier times various forms of neuroses, delusions and anti-social behaviour, including criminal actions, were routinely accepted and no effort was given to curing or correcting the condition in question – of course, sometimes people resorted to prayer or brought in a priest or witch doctor for exorcisms, without much success.  Jail was commonly the solution for these folks.  The lucky ones went off to mental asylums, some to a convalescent home...but no cure was possible.

The importance of this new science lies in the notion that people could find the root causes of their behavioural problems and, with time, therapeutic help and some subsequent mental adjustments, overcome those same problems.  They changed their behaviour… often for a lifetime.  As mentioned, this was a radical discovery.  Personality disorders were now looked upon as treatable.  Psychology brought hope to many.  However, today the efficacy of the talking cure has been questioned and its use diminished.  The strategy for treating mental illness and behavioural problems focusses on the world of chemistry – real ‘drugs’.  Chemical-based therapies are producing some very positive outcomes.  James would likely be a big supporter of this approach due to its verifiable usefulness – the ‘acid test’ for all pragmatists.  However, the tendency to rely solely on pharmacology has greatly expanded… too many prescriptions are being written for too many people who have little or no need of treatment. I think that it has become very easy for doctors to resort to prescribing drugs.  Maybe it’s because the talking cure takes too long?  I personally feel that if one can solve their psychological problems, through this verbal therapy, the results may prove to be more permanent and importantly, there is no danger of debilitating addiction.

We live in a world that tends to expect instant gratification.  Drugs do that.  Their use, therefore, is quite understandable.  Obviously, drug therapy cannot stop as it does work and it saves lives. Unfortunately, this approach to psychological illness will ever be greatly reduced to more moderate amounts for one major reason:  Big Pharma. There is big money and profits at stake in this industry. These large multi-national corporations have the “ear” of government – they prove that persistent lobbying and money talk. 

It’s interesting to note James’ assertion that this ‘discovery’ (of changing outer behaviour by mental adjustments) was not completely revolutionary – it had antecedents! Over 2500 years ago a man taught that your thoughts affect external behaviour, and profoundly.  It is a forgotten wisdom, and here are the words of the Buddha on the subject:

“Thoughts become words.

Words become actions.

Actions become habits.

Habits become character.

Watch your character,

It becomes your destiny”.

This is the work we all need to engage in…through meditation, conversations late into the night, study and discipline.  Controlling our thoughts is the beginning to changing our (own) world!