How philosophy can save your life | Jules Evans | TEDxBreda

Translator: Laura Palma Montañez
Reviewer: Maricene Crus So I’m going to tell you
how ancient Greek philosophy inspired modern
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. And how through CBT millions of people have got access to the therapeutic wisdom
of the ancient Greeks. We are realizing that philosophy
can help us as Socrates put it: “To take care of our souls.” So I’m going to begin
by telling you my story of how philosophy helped me through
the most difficult phase of my life. So when I was a teenager
in the mid 1990s, my friends and I were – I guess you could describe us
as amateur neuroscientists. We liked to experiment on our own brains with various different chemicals
every weekend. So we began our experiments with marijuana
and we had some interesting results, and then we moved on to experimenting
with LSD, also quite interesting, and eventually we were
experimenting with MDMA, amphetamines,
ketamine, magic mushrooms, all thrown into our neural chemistry
like ingredients into a druid’s cauldron. I mean, we had some great times and hilarious visionary and even
spiritual experiences. But then I noticed
some of my raver friends were beginning to wipe out. My best friend had a psychotic breakdown
when he was tripping. He was just 16 and locked up and
diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Other friends developed bipolar disorder,
depression, anxiety, paranoia. And then in my
first term at university I started to get panic attacks. I didn’t know what a panic attack was, I just knew I’d be
in a quite unthreatening situation and I’d suddenly feel
this full-bodied existential terror. And that undermined my confidence because I didn’t know who I’d be
from one day to the next, and it also made me more socially anxious because I was never sure when panic
was going to jump out and humiliate me. And my real terror was that I had done some permanent damage
to the chemical balance in my brain, in which case maybe there was nothing
I could do about it. Maybe I’d ruin my life
before the age of 21. So all the way through university
I’d became more and more miserable and then I graduated
and I hit rock bottom. I became a financial journalist.
(Laughter) I got a job reporting
on the German mortgage bond market. This is what happens if you mess around
with drugs. (Laughter) My kind parents sent me to see quite
an expensive therapist trying to help me, and he diagnosed me as suffering
from social anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. I think he was being paid per diagnosis.
(Laughter) He wasn’t able to help me, so I went away and researched
those conditions for myself and found they could apparently
be treated by something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. I also discovered
there was a CBT support group for people who suffered
from social anxiety that met near me every
Thursday evening in London. So one Thursday I went along. I found ten people sitting in a circle and there wasn’t actually
a therapist present, but someone in that group
had illegally downloaded a CBT course for social anxiety from the Internet. So we listened to that course
and practiced the exercises and did the homework
and encouraged each other on, and for me, at least, it worked. I stopped having panic attacks
after a few weeks and I began to understand
how to transform my emotions. So I became fascinated by CBT
and I wondered where it had come from. I discovered it had been invented
by an American psychologist named Albert Ellis,
who lived in New York. So one day in 2007,
I got on a plane to New York and I went to interview him. By that stage he was 92,
old, frail and sick, and it turned out to be, sadly,
the last interview he ever gave. He died a few months later. But I got to thank him in person for inventing this therapy
that had saved my life. And I asked him where it had come from. Ellis told me he had trained
as a Freudian psychoanalyst in the 1950s, but he’d become frustrated with how little
progress his patients seemed to make. So he looked around for other ways
to understand the emotions and he turned back
to his first great love: ancient Greek philosophy. He’d been particularly inspired by a line
from a stoic philosopher called Epictetus. Epictetus said: “Men are disturbed not by events,
but by their opinion about events.” That inspired Ellis’ famous
ABC theory of the emotions. A stands for the Activating events,
something that happens to us. B stands for our Beliefs,
how we interpret that event, and C stands for the Consequent emotion
that we feel through our interpretation. It often feels that our emotions
just happen to us automatically and involuntarily
in response to an event, that it’s just an action and a reaction. Let’s say we’re walking
down the street and we pass someone frowning, we immediately feel offended and angry. It feels that we’re going
straight from A to C. But if you look at that event closely, what happened was
you interpreted it a certain way. You thought:
“That person is frowning at me. They’re looking down on me
in some way. They shouldn’t!
How rude! How offensive!” And that interpretation let you
feeling offended and angry. Once we realize how our interpretations
lead to our emotions, we can hold our interpretations
up to the light and ask if they’re definitely
accurate or wise. We could ask ourselves,
for example: “Was that person definitely
frowning at me? Maybe they were just frowning. And if they were frowning at me,
so what? Does that mean that I have to take
their bad mood with me through the rest of the day?” We can start to choose our perceptions,
our interpretations more wisely and this will affect how we feel. So that might sound
quite simple, quite easy. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy
because all of the time our interpretations
are unconscious and automatic. We have a kind of running commentary, an inner voice that’s going through
our head all through the day, making judgments about
the things that are happening to us. Usually we don’t question
that inner voice, we don’t even notice it. That inner voice would be made out
with all the beliefs and opinions we’ve heard since we were children
and we’d internalized it. We assume that running commentary,
that inner voice, is always completely accurate and true. But, unfortunately, it isn’t;
it often gets things wrong. You can think of that inner voice,
that running commentary, as like a sort of 24-hour news channel,
constantly commenting on your life, but in a very distorted
and biased way, it never really checks its facts. Now if you have emotional problems
like depression, that would be because, probably, your inner commentary
is jumping to very negative conclusions. You might assume, for example,
that everyone dislikes you or that everything you turn
your hand to will fail. So according to the Greeks, then, what often causes suffering
is our own beliefs. We are our own imprisoners, our own torturers. We cling to our negative
or toxic beliefs even when they hurt us
or even kill us. So how do we free ourselves
from our self-made prisons? Well, according to Socrates,
the father of Greek philosophy, what we need to do
is learn how to ask yourself questions, not just assume that that inner voice
is always telling the truth, learn how to engage it
in a rational dialogue. So that’s what Socrates tried to teach
to his fellow Athenians. He engaged them in a dialogue
in Athens, getting them to think,
perhaps for the first time, about their unexamined beliefs
and values and life philosophy. And likewise,
if you go to see a cognitive therapist, they’ll also engage you
in a rational dialogue asking you questions,
getting you to examine your beliefs. You can do that for yourself as well. Asking yourself questions and learning
to perceive, perhaps for the first time, the bars of your prison cell,
your own beliefs. Do we really have control over ourselves? Can we really choose
how we react to things? Aren’t we the slave of circumstances, the slave of our DNA, of our childhood,
of our social-economic situation? So let me tell you
to explore that question a little bit more about
this philosopher Epictetus. He lived in the first century AD
and he was actually a slave, his name meant “acquired.” To be a slave in the Roman Empire meant you had very little control over
your external life and your situation. And yet Epictetus developed a philosophy
of inner freedom and resilience which is still very powerful today. The secret of his philosophy of resilience was to divide all of life
into two spheres: those things that we don’t have
complete control over and those things that we do. And he said the secret of resilience
is to know the difference between those two spheres. So what we don’t have
complete control over in life? According to Epictetus
we don’t control the weather, the government, the economy; we don’t control other people. We have some influence over them, but they remain to some extent
out of our control. We don’t control our own bodies. We can try and remain healthy
and we should, but we all get injured sometimes,
we all get sick, we’re all getting older,
and we all eventually die. And we don’t have control
over our reputations either, we can put a lot of effort into trying
to manage our online reputations, but to some extent
they are beyond our control. So what then we control,
according to Epictetus? Well the only thing that we control
according to him is our beliefs. And he thought that emotional problems
come from two mistakes that humans often make. Firstly, they try to exert
complete control over something in that first area,
something external. They insist that something in their
external life must be a certain way. And then when it proves
beyond their control, they feel frustrated
and helpless and angry. Or they fail to take control over zone 1,
over their own beliefs and thoughts. Instead, they use something
in the external world as an excuse or an alibi. They said: “I had no choice because
this happened to me or because of that.” For example, when I had social anxiety, I was very fixated
on what other people thought of me. I thought: “They must approve of me
and if they don’t, it’s a disaster.” Well, that was a classic recipe
for feeling very anxious and alienated and out of my control. I’d made myself a slave
of something external, a slave of other people’s opinions. And the antidote to that
was always in my control. At any moment I could say:
“I’d prefer for other people to like me, but that’s somewhat out of my control,
I can still accept myself and like myself
and do the right thing regardless.” As soon as I thought like that,
I felt less anxious and out of control and more calm and in control. So let’s say you’re here at a TED Talk
today and you have a light bulb moment. You think:
“Now I understand how to live my life.” The problem is that that might
change you for a few days or a few weeks, but then you’ll probably go back
to the person you were before because we’re very forgetful creatures, we tend to sleepwalk through the day,
as Socrates put it. And that’s a problem for philosophy.
Can we really change ourselves? The Greeks actually understood to what
extent we are habit-based creatures, and they understood that if philosophy
is going to change us, it can’t be just beautiful ideas, it has to be changed into
ingrained habits. So the word “ethics” in Greek is very closely connected to the word
“ethos,” which means “habits.” And I’m going to end by telling you
a few of their techniques for creating habits. One technique they used,
for example, was the maxim. They would try to make their philosophy
easily memorizable by turning it into maxims,
catch phrases like proverbs or mantras. Things like, “Know thyself” or “Everything in moderation” which students would repeat
out loud to themselves over and over until they became
ingrained habits. They’d also write it down
in little handbooks which they’d carried with them
through the day called “enchiridions.” CBT uses a very similar technique; you repeat ideas over and over until
they become ingrained in your habits. They’d also keep journals;
at the end of the day the trainee philosopher
would write down in their journal what they’d done well,
what they’d done badly. The idea of that is that we
sleepwalk through the day, we don’t realize what we’ve done
or even who we are. So the journal is a way of keeping
track of what you’re actually doing and also keeping track of your progress. Are you really making progress
in weakening bad habits and strengthening good habits? Epictetus said: “If you have a bad temper
and you’re trying to improve it, count the number of days in which
you’ve managed not to lose your temper and if you get to 30 days, you can
consider you’re making progress. So CBT uses a very similar technique
of the journal. The third technique
that the Greeks used was fieldwork. It’s not enough just for your philosophy
to be purely theoretical, you have to go out and practice it
in real life situations. Epictetus said to his students: “You may be very good
in the lecture room, but drag yourself out into practice
and you’re miserably shipwrecked. So you need to practice in
all of different situations of your life. Likewise, in CBT,
there’s a big emphasis on changing not just your thoughts but your behavior. It’s called
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. So when I was trying to overcome
social anxiety, it wasn’t enough to challenge my anxious
beliefs in the safety of the therapy room. I had to go out and practice
in real life situations, to go to parties, for example, or practice public speaking, so eventually one day
I might be able to do things like this. So there are some other ways then that CBT has rediscovered
the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and CBT put it on a firm evidence base which persuaded governments
to put a lot of money into making CBT more available. In my own country they put
half a billion of pounds into making CBT free
on the National Health Service. So if we have this new evidence-based
version of the ideas of the Greeks, do we then still need ancient philosophy? Perhaps now we have CBT
we don’t need the Greeks anymore. I think, finally, it is worth going back to ancient
philosophy for two reasons. First of all, the ancient Greeks and Romans
wrote beautifully. The works of Plato, Seneca,
Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus are some of the most beautiful works
we have in Western literature and that beauty makes it very persuasive. And secondly, CBT, though it created a wonderful
short-term therapy for emotional problems, it left some things out. It left out any ideas of virtue. What does it mean
to have a good character, a good life, a good career, a good company or a good society? And it also left out higher questions. What’s the meaning of life?
What does it mean to flourish? Now the ancient Greeks and Romans
they answered those big questions about what a good life looks like,
what a good society looks like, but they had various different answers, they didn’t just have one answer. Plato thought a good life
is a life that’s close to God. Epicurus thought a good life was a life
full of happiness here on Earth. Aristotle thought a good life was a life
very much engaged with your society. So I don’t think psychology is ever
going to prove one answer to that question of “What is a good life?” We’ll never find one scientific formula. And that’s why I think we need philosophy, that’s why I’d like to see
more practical philosophy in our schools, universities
and companies as well. So we learn not just techniques
for changing ourselves but also we learn how to ask questions
about what it means to live a good life so we can make up our own minds. Thank you. (Applause)

About the author


  1. Well-done. I enjoyed your talk and its relevance to my life. The topic reminded me of being a confused, undiagnosed anxiety and panic-sufferer in law school. The Socratic Method is no friend to panic. You're right about "dragging Philosophy out of the classroom." It must be put to the test of life.

  2. We can change our outlook rather circumstances as buddha said. There is lot of commonality between Socratic and buddhist thought.

  3. Great vid, but CBT didn't "come" from Albert Ellis. It is should be attributed to Aaron Beck and Alfred Adler who were important precursors.

  4. WOW! Truly interesting information. Being a Philosophy, Psychology Double major and one whom has experienced anxiety, depression and PSTD, this talk has me hanging on the edge of my seat! This video really captures a true virtue of Philosophy, WISDOM!

  5. This is, by far, the most important TED Talk I have ever had the pleasure of listening to. Not only is it both wholly relevant and eloquently presented (considering the 15-minute time limit) but it reinforces the idea that you CAN make a difference… to others and to yourself. Personally, it made me seek out and read the works of Epictetus on a deeper level. (As a philosopher myself, I'm almost ashamed I never gave much focus to the Ancients… we can derive much wisdom from their works!)

    Thank you, Jules Evans, for this inspiring talk.

    p.s. Beware the 116 folks who felt the need to "downvote" this talk. How tragic it must be to live life as one of them (or, worse, to live under their sphere of influence). Good luck, people.

  6. IMÆF King God AUTHORaë JJJAAAGaGaGaORaORaORaZaZaZaÅÖÖ Œ AVAUAXAE WAYIEAË , The KIZORa ONE TWO Buckel my SHOE THREE FOUR CLOSE THE DOOR 5 6 PICK UP STICKES 7 8 DONT BE LATE 9 10 LEARN TO RYÉÁMAXAE and there you're prepared for university. Never alone!!!

  7. Very good speech. One point I should make is that CBT is based on Buddhist analysis of mind. Obviously socrates and others came much later than buddhist philosophy. Late Mr Ellis as well as his colleagues who brought this format for psychological interventions for human problems which later coined CBT has many aspects of philosophical ideations.

  8. How great to learn from experienced people. I now wen how important phylosophy is

  9. I agree that the ancient philosophers have much to teach us. However, a more proper title for the talk seems to be: How drug use can ruin your life.

  10. It's actually psychology that saves you and it's all about brute forcing if you ask me! It won't be required if a mass of people will get rid of mental illnesses like depression though

  11. The way to get out of your vicious circle of self consciousness is to ignore what the person who caught you while frowning is thinking.

  12. Also a very important thing to note here if you do read my 2 comments below then that's not misreading or misjudging people. When I say this then I'm contradicting my 2nd comment below acc to time but who cares because you're doing the same right?
    The key is not to beat around the bush if you're an educationalist

  13. Couldn't agree more, during one of my lowest points in life being extremely depressed and suicidal, finding and studying Philosophy gave me a sense of comfort and helped me start to make sense of myself, others, and the world around me – it gave me purpose, and is genuinely one of the things I attribute so saving my life

  14. How psychology can save your life? Philosophy seems pointless only way you can make money from it is teaching it, by teaching about ideas people had in the past… if anything its history of ideas people had… Philosophy I sure can be translated into any field of science as Philosophy is love of wisdom aka knowledge. And so yah Science saves lives…

  15. Philosophy is memory trigger that allows the mind to question thing as a way of wanting to aquire more knowledge. It forces the mind into critical thinking.

  16. English language is poor for complex philosophical requests.
    Too many of same words with different meaning and the brain works slow!

  17. Yes, philosophy should be paramount. I reckon (and hope) it's inevitable that it increasingly will be and sciences shortcomings will be realized.

  18. I love philosophy 💙💙💙

    I write this with sincerity and not to offend or convert or force. this is about religion/spirituality so proceed calmly
    la ilaha illallah muhammad rasul allah which translates to " Theres no god but god and muhammad is his messenger. "
    We all believe that our religion is the truth for one to make true sense of this world and Islam is the truth for all situations. I believe Islam is the true religion of Allah the most merciful and beneficent, the one and only and i want whoever reads this to know too.

  19. If only people valued philosophy and knowledge, if only schools taught it extensively and mandatorily, then mankind will make significant progress in daily life.

  20. Awesome, indeed!! Jules Evans mentions what this therapy (CBT) means, why it is connected to philosophy (of course!!!) and what more we should do to take advantage of the practical way of thinking to have a good life!!! This is very human, spiritual, and ethical perspectives we urge to put into practice!! A practical suggestion for the "know thyself", tks for this talk as philosophy also helped my anxiety and miserable periods and moments in my life! And what field do Jules Evans work?

  21. Since becoming a Stoic – over two years ago – I am a changed man. No, I'm not perfect but I am very different from the way I was. I no longer rush to anger or judgment and I don't allow the opinions or actions of others influence me negatively. I have learned what's in my control and what isn't, and am a better person for it. I wholeheartedly recommend this philosophy as a way of life.

  22. This is an excellent speech on philosophy and its practical application to day to day life. Delivered with clarity and simplicity.
    CBT theory and practices, originated from Buddhist psychology, over 500BC though the name CBT coined much much later.

  23. Our mind is our blessing and our course at the same time. We are the only beings able to philosophise and the only beings who need that.

  24. The true philosophy is knowing the Creator of breathe we have……not the philosophy define as Plato's disease.
    And all scientists are lost!!!!!!!!!!
    The worst abuse facing here in our generation is why we fear death, that is nonsense!

  25. Philosophy is the GREATEST subject. It's the only subject that teaches you how to think rather than what to think.

  26. I've possessed this thought process sense I was a teenager, 10 years later Im at a point where I recognize this is one of my most far reaching tools for understanding myself and others.

  27. Gosh this is speaking to me so much. I love philosophy and will definitely be getting a PDH and one day be up there speaking to others about this.

  28. I studied philosophy for two years, Ancient Greek but nothing has changed in me, i decided to switch my life into something that can help the others, Law. <3

  29. Very good Ted talk. Study of Ancient Greek philosophy especially the dichotomy of control definitely relieves anxiety.

  30. The difficulty of introducing a western student to philosophy is enormous. For a materialistic mind, it is beyond bearing to carry on a task that demands time and effort, here being studying through entangled branches of philosophy, without seeing material rewards or a guarantee for success. A CBT would be just a good start for a anxiety ridden life to discover that there are other things in the world other than money and possessions.

  31. Couldn't agree more. The only problem i found with CBT is its very hard to motivate a depressed person to go and do an hour of exercises of an evening. The philosophy gives you a more beautiful and poetic reason than just, you may feel better. Stoicism saved my life.

  32. I almost agree with u . It's so certain that our beliefs are hurting us in unconscious way. They cause many mental problems and we admitted that we are the victims.we are just hurting ourselves by ourselves.

  33. Thank you so much for this amazing incredible Ted talk .It's one of the rarest talks that gives much enhancements and energy to continue in living our lives.also,it's a kind of self -improving philosophy talk which emphasize on Philosophy as the real or the only saver of our psychology problems ,and let's us engage with life in more appropriate way. Thank u thank u I can repeat as much as I can cause I have never saw this talk ever like this with so much emphasize and importance to the philosophy 👍💗💗😍😍

  34. Ayn Rand and Aristotle and Anime saved me from suicide ……………….thank you everyone …..thank you to all the philosopher's in the world for saving my life ….

  35. Oversimplified the philosophy of stoisism, which nowadays just means the Stoa of Massonism etc.And about the roles,which are taken often as "given'and not chosen, what about not choose them instaed of socialize itself into them??

  36. 16 is way too early. Early drug use causes all kinds of disorders and DEFICITS.
    Pervasive Development Disorder. Induced deficit.
    At least wait untill your BRAIN has MATURED.
    Around the age of 24.
    This is really important.

  37. Philosophy has helped me a lot in my life. I won't make this very long, but I must say that I respect all sciences, art and other occupations, but Philosophy can mix and explain them. I'm a History buff, but you can't do this with History. Teaching children Philosophy, thinking and asking questions is something every parent should do. Although it may seem that is of no use because it doesn't satisfy our primal biological needs, it's the crown and foundation of knowledge and it satisfies our intellectual needs which separate us from animals.
    A person who knows how to question other people and avoid logical fallacies is more powerful than political leaders.

  38. Exploring the mysterious oceans of our souls will always be much deeper than crunching numbers and problems that we invented.

  39. He really hit the nail towards the end, Philosophy will not give you the final answers, but will give you the tools to explore the great questions for yourself.

  40. Goodness!
    1:50 — I had the same after taking LSD with my friends on a beach last summer. Everything was going so good, but than the terrible existential horror came suddenly, some time after.

  41. Stoicism and Buddhism are two of the greatest philosophies that I have studied and put into practice. They both aim at attaining 'neutrality' when confronted by good, bad, sad, disturbing, etc events. Buddhism taught me to let go and not give a reaction to things that had already happened, like getting cheated on by my partner at the time. Stoicism has taught me how resilient I am and how I mentally impose limits on myself that don't need to exist.

    Your thoughts are your power. You give strength to those negative thoughts that impede on your peaceful life, so learn to give strength to the positive thoughts. It is ten times easier to be negative than it is to be positive.

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