Pub Date2001
Link to Publisher

In Therapy We Trust: America’s Obsession with Self-Fulfillment

Eva S Moskowitz
Johns Hopkins University Press

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.