I’ll cut to the chase.  My sense is that most therapists and counselors accept without question their clients’ particular goals, whether they be to heal from trauma, overcome depression, improve a relationship, become more productive, or work through a loss.  (Of course, some clients mistake the source of their problems and good therapists will gradually help them see that.)  The long-range point of achieving these goals is usually to reduce suffering and to increase happiness and personal wellbeing.  Occasionally, clients work to move beyond these goals toward processes that might be called self-actualization, creativity, and joy.

Something that has dawned on me gradually as I witnessed the rising interest in ‘positive psychology’ is that happiness, rather than being an end-state, is best seen as a side effect of meaningful living and deep, healthy, and generative connections to others.

The aims of therapy and counseling would look much different if this perspective on happiness were amplified to encompass that fact that we not only want to experience positive feelings but are also embedded in communities and societies that are reproduced or transformed by our choices and actions.  Consider how we might work with clients differently if we reframed the goals of our practice as the fostering of engagement in communities and participation in social transformation.

There is a continuum of participation along which people can increasingly show up, to engage in and transform the contexts in which their lives unfold.  Therapists and counselors, whether they know it or not, help people move along this continuum, at least to a certain point.  And that is the issue.

At one end of the continuum, therapists work with people who are barely able to participate in the construction of their own lives.  A depressed or anxious person hangs back from participation in the scenes of his or her life.  A woman might not get off the couch, or speak up for herself at work.  A man might passively accept abuse or neglect in a relationship.  At another point on the continuum, we work with people who are doing fairly well, but realize they could be more effective in their roles as parents or partners, or with peers at work.  We support them as they find their voices, develop healthy habits, maintain work/life balance, and explore self-expression and sensual embodiment in various ways.  Further along the continuum, we occasionally work with those who have become leaders in communities, non-profit organizations, businesses, universities, and the arts.  These individuals struggle to shape their own modes of engagement with others to contribute more effectively to social transformation and general wellbeing.  (Unfortunately, many in such positions of power do not realize that their interaction styles are problematic for those they supervise, manage, or collaborate with – and therefore they do not seek awareness through counseling or therapy.)

We can probably blame the individualistic culture of advanced consumer capitalism for the fact that few individuals seek therapy in order to become more effective in their work for social justice, peace, and environmental sanity.  But it is worth asking what it would take to shift the perspectives of counselors and therapist even slightly to include such goals as possible aims of their practice, and, perhaps more importantly, to reflect on their own position on the continuum of participation.  Imagine where we would be if the last fifty years of counseling and psychotherapy around the word had deviated from the aim of securing everyday happiness and instead directly fostered capacities to act for social justice, speak truth to power, and disrupt oppression.