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Show 1350: Why Psychotherapy Matters: Lessons from a Harvard Zen Master and Psychiatrist

Understanding our relationships is key to living a meaningful, happy life. Psychotherapy matters because it can help us see why we stumble.
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Why Psychotherapy Matters

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If you tell your healthcare provider that you’re feeling anxious or depressed, chances are they will prescribe you a medication. Millions of people take anti-anxiety pills or antidepressants, and many find that the medicine makes life more bearable. But can you understand what makes your life meaningful? For that, you might need to tell your story to a compassionate listener who can reflect it back to you and help you make sense of it. That’s why psychotherapy matters.

Talking with Dr. Robert Waldinger About Why Psychotherapy Matters:

A few months ago, we spoke with Dr. Robert Waldinger about his book, The Good Life. In it he described a long-running study about the factors that contribute to happiness and a meaningful life. For more than eight decades, Harvard researchers have studied two groups of people as they proceed through life: Harvard undergraduates and kids from struggling families in the Boston area. The scientists wanted to learn what helps people thrive, and they found that relationships are key. We were so intrigued by Dr. Waldinger’s background as a Zen master, meditation expert and psychiatrist that we wanted to know more about how the study affected him and how he uses psychodynamic therapy in his practice. In this conversation, we discuss why psychotherapy matters.

Psychotherapy Matters, and So Do Medications:

In treating people with mental illness, psychiatrists often use some psychoactive medicines, including antipsychotics like Zyprexa or Geodon as well as antidepressants like Paxil or anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax. Insurance companies rarely balk at covering these medications. However, insurance doesn’t always cover talk therapy. Why don’t they embrace it as enthusiastically as pharmacotherapy? It may take concerted lobbying to get them to acknowledge that psychotherapy matters too.

How does psychodynamic therapy, which is what Dr. Waldinger practices, differ from classic psychoanalysis? We find out how he prepares psychiatry residents for this kind of healing. Talk therapy can be used as part of the treatment for serious mental illness as well as to help people with less acute suffering gain some perspective on their situations.

We also discuss why the unconscious mind is so powerful. It is what seems to drive us to make similar mistakes in relationships over and over again. When we start to understand what we are doing, we can adopt a different approach that may be more successful. We were intrigued to learn how Dr. Waldinger’s experience with Zen has shaped his approach to psychotherapy.

Finding a Listener:

Telling your story is crucial, and so is a compassionate listener. Dr. Waldinger suggests that finding a person who “gets” you is more important than that the therapist have a certain type of credential. In some cases, clergy may be able to fill this role. A nurse practitioner or a social worker may also be skilled in listening and helping a person reframe their own story. Compassion and understanding are why psychotherapy matters.

This Week’s Guest:

Robert Waldinger, MD is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital, and cofounder of the Lifespan Research Foundation. Along with being a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Dr. Waldinger is also a Zen master (Roshi) and teaches meditation in New England and around the world. Dr. Waldinger, with co-author Marc Schulz, PhD, is the author of The Good Life: Lessons From the World’s Longest Scientific Study on Happiness.

Dr. Robert Waldinger discusses the findings on happiness from the Harvard Study of Adult Development

Robert Waldinger, MD, author of The Good Life

Listen to the Podcast:

The podcast of this program will be available Monday, August 7, 2023, after broadcast on August 5. You can stream the show from this site and download the podcast for free.

Download the mp3.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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