The Act of Living

What the Great Psychologists Can Teach Us About Finding Fulfillment


By Frank Tallis

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Life and its meaning is a mystery almost impossible to solve, but what can the leading theories teach us about the search for purpose?

For most of us, the major questions of life continue to perplex: Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live? In the late nineteenth century, a class of thinkers emerged who made solving these problems central to their work. They understood that human questions demand human answers and that without understanding what it means to be human, there are no answers.

Through the biographies and theories of luminaries ranging from Sigmund Freud to Erich Fromm, Frank Tallis show us how to think about companionship and parenting, identity and aging, and much more. Accessible yet erudite, The Act of Living is essential reading for anyone seeking answers to life’s biggest questions.




Leaving the Silent Theater

Some years ago, I attended a landmark Edward Hopper exhibition in London. Moving from canvas to canvas, I was repeatedly reminded of the artist’s genius for capturing private moments. Hopper’s work often shows ordinary men and women in sparsely furnished interiors, staring out of windows or gazing blankly into space. Even when he introduces several figures into his paintings, they are separate, inhabiting different universes.

One of Hopper’s most affecting explorations of aloneness is Automat. The title refers to an early chain of self-service restaurants where meals were dispensed by vending machines, not delivered by people. Hopper’s painting shows a young woman sitting at a table in such an establishment, about to raise a cup of coffee to her lips. The self-service restaurant immediately underscores her solitude. Even though her coat has fur trimmings and she is close to a radiator, she still needs more warmth. She has removed one of her gloves to absorb the heat of her coffee cup. The image is very realistic, but one detail is anachronous. On a shelf behind the young woman is a bowl piled high with fruit. Where did it come from? We are in New York, the season is cold, and it is the 1920s. At that time, out-of-season fruit wasn’t available. Fruit like that shouldn’t really be there. Hopper is inviting us to think symbolically. He is asking us to consider how the luscious, rounded forms in the bowl correspond with what Freud called “the larger hemispheres of the female body.”

The young woman’s coat is green (the color of innocence), unbuttoned and open, and we can see that she is wearing a red garment (the color of passion) underneath. Her neckline is low and her skirt has risen to reveal a pair of shapely legs. These erotic elements alert us to what she might be thinking. Above her head, the reflected ceiling lights of the automat recede into darkness; they resemble the “thought bubbles” of a cartoon strip. There are two lines of these bubbles, which means she must be of two minds. Will she? Won’t she? The chair that she faces is conspicuously empty. She struggles to resolve a dilemma without companionship or support. Her aloneness is amplified by the infinite nothingness outside, which is mitigated only in part by the double row of reflected lights. Angular bannisters, just visible, suggest a descending staircase. It appears to be the only means by which she can leave. Like all of us, she has limited options.

The men and women in Hopper’s paintings are almost invariably mute; even when they are depicted in conversation, they are sealed in, separated from us by an additional barrier, like the glass of a window. The absence of sound in Hopper’s paintings (and particularly the absence of imagined voices) is discomfiting. Human beings are social animals and we crave conversation. When we talk to each other, we no longer feel so alone, and the black nothingness outside the automat window ceases to be quite so threatening.

I’d like to claim these observations as my own, but I’m paraphrasing Professor Walter Wells, an American academic who wrote a remarkable book titled Silent Theater: The Art of Edward Hopper. I was introduced to Walter at a dinner party in London, and we became friends. We used to meet up intermittently, just to chat. He was a brilliant conversationalist, insatiably curious, and knowledgeable across an impressive range of subjects: the language of business communication, aspects of medicine, Mark Twain, and the Hollywood novel, to name but a few. We would talk about pretty much anything. I can remember raising the question of whether Marvel and DC superheroes were the American equivalent of Greek gods. Walter politely pointed out that if I really wanted to put America on the couch, then I’d probably find genre fiction more illuminating. “America has come to terms with its past through the western, engages with the present through crime writing, and explores potential futures in science fiction.” Like many astute observations, it’s blindingly obvious—but only in retrospect, once it’s been said. Walter and I were never silent, not even for a few seconds.

The last time I met Walter for lunch was a sad occasion. His wife, who was some years younger than him, was dying. I did my best to avoid offering him platitudes, because he wasn’t the kind of person to shrink from hard truths. He was unflinching in his intellectual honesty and possessed what one existentialist writer has described as a willingness to “stand naked in the storm of life.”1 Having already lost one wife to cancer, he understood that bad things happen, and when they do, we can’t escape them. As the bill arrived, Walter reached for his wallet and said, “You pay next time.” But there was no next time. A few months later his wife died. He traveled for a while, and then he died. His cancer diagnosis couldn’t hide the fact that his end had been hastened by personal loss. Emotional pain really does break hearts. Takotsubo, or stress cardiomyopathy (also known as broken heart syndrome), is a recognized medical condition.

When Walter and I met, we tended to talk about ideas more than personal experiences. I was therefore somewhat surprised, maybe even astonished, to hear some of the things that were being said about him at his memorial service. This witty, charming, stylish man had been raised in very modest circumstances, and occasionally, evidence of his insalubrious youth would become apparent. He once knocked out a French restaurant proprietor whose unreasonable behavior (and it was unreasonable) had severely tested Walter’s ability to tolerate provocation. Someone remarked, “You can take the boy out of Queens, but you can’t take Queens out of the boy.” It made me laugh to think of my mild-mannered friend slugging his way across the south of France.

I miss Walter. More so than I ever expected. I bitterly regret not having spent more time with him. Of course, I had my reasons. There was always something else that had to be done first. Now, I can’t even remember what those pressing matters were. I want to continue our conversation. We weren’t finished; there was so much more to be said.

A few years ago, I visited the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, Walter’s hometown. I was keen to see the Hoppers. While browsing in the bookshop, I came across a copy of Silent Theater. I took it off the shelf and sighed. If a passing stranger had taken a photograph of me at that moment, the resulting image would have resembled an Edward Hopper: a man, standing apart, isolated by introspection. I slotted the book back into its place and went to find my wife and son.

“I just found Walter’s book.” With these words I broke the silence, and in doing so, I reconnected. Some critics have described Hopper’s silences as deadly. This isn’t hyperbole. It’s a scientific fact.

Bertha Pappenheim, immortalized in the annals of psychiatry as Anna O., suffered from hysteria. She was treated by Josef Breuer in the 1880s using a method that was later developed by Breuer’s junior colleague Sigmund Freud. The final form of that treatment is now called psychoanalysis, and it is the first major example of a formalized psychotherapy. The treatment of Anna O. is described in Studies on Hysteria, a pioneering work published by Breuer and Freud in 1895. If psychoanalysis is the first instance of psychotherapy, at least in a recognizably modern form, then Pappenheim is arguably the first psychotherapy patient. She invented a term to describe her treatment: the “talking cure.” In doing so, she identified the key ingredient of psychotherapy, the principal means by which psychotherapy achieves its beneficial effects.

The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar has suggested that talking evolved from grooming, the mutual hygiene maintenance behavior that our apelike ancestors practiced. This theory hasn’t gained much traction among academics, but it has a certain intuitive appeal. In addition to having positive health consequences, grooming—in apes—strengthens social bonds. When we talk to each other meaningfully, we are, in a sense, experiencing something that feels like a form of primal intimacy. Words allow minds to touch. The evolutionary significance of talking is reflected in our neural preparedness. We are disposed to acquire language, and the learning process begins at the earliest opportunity.2 Newborn babies will suck harder (a sign of recognition and interest) when they hear their mother tongue, as opposed to a foreign language. They have been eavesdropping from within the womb. Such accelerated learning is all the more remarkable given that fetal wakefulness is only present in the final trimester of pregnancy—and then for no more than two or three hours a day. The first flickering of consciousness is very probably accompanied by speech. We are made aware of ourselves by listening to others.

Talking isn’t just about words. We adopt congruent postures; we smile, frown, gesticulate, and make eye contact; we read expressions and know exactly when to stop in order to let the other person respond. Once again, these are skills that we acquire early. As soon as a neonate is placed in its mother’s arms, the mother will coo, tickle, gaze, and prompt simple turn-taking games. These “dialogues” serve as templates for more complex communication skills. Mother and child become attached, and the strength of this attachment is predictive of future social adjustment, emotional maturity, and resilience.3

Direct face-to-face communication is one of the most fundamental and earliest human needs, and yet we live in a world in which it is becoming increasingly rare. Mothers spend more time interacting with their electronic devices than with their children. An observational study published in the journal Paediatrics in 2014 found that forty out of fifty-five caregivers in a restaurant used devices during the course of their meal. Sixteen of these caregivers used their devices continuously, looking at their screens instead of their children. The social world has migrated to cyberspace. Emails, text messages, and communication via social media are preferred to talking on the telephone. For many, direct communication is becoming effortful, demanding, or even aversive. These trends will inevitably have consequences. In Japan, for example, information technology has been linked with a decline in intimacy and a dramatic drop in the national birthrate. Pessimists suggest that by 2060 the population of Japan could shrink by as much as 30 percent.4 A 2019 study examining three National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles in the United Kingdom concluded that frequency of intercourse among British couples is declining. Similar declines have been recorded in Australia, Finland, and America. The demands of modern living and information technology were implicated as causal factors: “Life in the digital age is considerably more complex than in previous eras, the boundary between private space and the public world outside is blurred, and the internet offers considerable scope for diversion.”5

The Harvard Longitudinal Study, the oldest and most extended of its kind, began collecting data relevant to physical and mental health in 1938 and continues to the present day. The original cohort consisted of 268 young men, but in due course their children (about 1,300 of them) were also recruited. Results indicate that close relationships (i.e., the kind in which people communicate) keep people happy throughout the course of their lives (much more so, for example, than wealth or fame). Moreover, close relationships are associated with longevity. They are a better predictor of long-term health than social class, IQ, or genes. Not all forms of conversation are equivalent. Are some forms more likely to produce well-being than others? And if so, can psychotherapy—the talking cure—give us any useful indications as to what the characteristics of an optimal conversation might be?

People often look back on their teenage and young adult years with great fondness. This is an interesting phenomenon, almost a paradox, because those years are also associated with significant challenges: first loves, important decisions that will affect future prospects, the establishment of a sense of identity. When deconstructed, much of this nostalgia can be attributed to the formation of close friendships that thrived in an environment where frequent and long conversations were possible. As soon as we enter the workplace, take on responsibilities, and begin the struggle to meet the demands of modern life, opportunities for long, candid conversations are reduced. In some cases, they disappear altogether.

An interesting feature of teenage conversation is its lack of purpose and constraint. This is not a new development. In a quotation attributed to Socrates by Plato, the great philosopher criticizes the readiness of the young to “chatter.” Teenagers just shoot the breeze, one thing leading to another, their idle talk moving the conversation forward: random observations, confidences, gossip, popular culture. And yet it is by having aimless conversations of this kind that they consolidate their sense of personhood, establish emotionally meaningful connections with their peers, and discover their values. Somehow, while talking about nothing in particular, they become mature adults. This process is so rewarding that most people recall the atmosphere, if not the precise content, of such conversations for the rest of their lives.

A fluid, improvisatory style of talking has much in common with Freud’s technique of “free association.” At the beginning of consultations, he asked his patients to say the first thing that came into their heads and then to carry on talking without restraint or censorship. He found that when patients talked in this way, adventitious associations led to interesting discoveries about the person. Significant and otherwise inaccessible memories seemed to ascend from hidden depths. By simply talking, we frequently discover what it is that we really need to say.

The English Romantic poet John Keats spoke of “negative capability” when he wished to describe the looseness of thought and openness of mind that make great artists and writers innovative. It is a view of creativity that has much in common with Aristotle’s contention that producing works of genius requires a little madness (a mental state characterized by extreme loosening of associations). There are certainly many examples of wholly original ideas arising under conditions where consciousness is completely untethered—for example, when we are asleep. Albert Einstein was afforded valuable insights into relativity—and Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein—while dreaming. Others who have experienced revelatory dreams include Beethoven, Salvador Dalí, Charlotte Brontë, Dmitri Mendeleev (the periodic table), August Kekulé (the structure of benzene), and Niels Bohr (quantum theory).6 In his 2017 book Why We Sleep, neuroscientist and psychologist Matthew Walker reports that when a person is awakened from a dream, the dreaming brain-state persists for a short duration, and he or she will perform better than usual on problem-solving tasks that require creative thinking.7

Studies of problem solving suggest that the best solutions are reached when focused thinking is preceded by a period of “brainstorming,” during which ideas are generated but judgments about their value suspended. Counterintuitive solutions that might have been otherwise prematurely dismissed are given proper consideration at a later point. Prescriptions of this kind have much in common with free association. In addition to psychoanalysis, certain schools of existential and humanistic psychotherapy advocate uninhibited, free-ranging speech. Around 2,500 years ago, the Taoist master Lao Tzu suggested that “being a good listener spares one the burden of giving advice.” In the same spirit, it is supposed that a therapist isn’t obliged to supply patients with specific answers, because eventually, patients will discover their own answers.

The benefits of allowing thoughts to go where they will also has a historical precedent in the person of Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century writer whose rambling and digressive essays stumble, in a roundabout way, upon answers to the problems of living. They may not be ultimate answers, but they are answers relevant to Montaigne’s time and even our own. His writing technique, which was essentially letting his mind go into free fall, was extremely productive, and his wise words have been valued for generations. Reading Montaigne is a little like listening to a man reclining on Freud’s couch, free-associating his way toward insightful observations.

Historically, film heroes have conformed to the cultural ideal of the strong, silent type. Such men do not speak unless they have something to say; they are doers, and “actions,” we are assured, “speak louder than words.” Hollywood has encouraged us to admire actors whose square jaws are firmly set in the face of adversity. The stereotypical British “stiff upper lip” signifies a related set of virtues: stoicism, bravery, courage. Recently, the strong, silent woman has also emerged as a recognizable character. She appears in many guises, although perhaps most frequently as the world-weary detective in crime dramas. Implicit in these portrayals is the notion that voluble people are weak and emotionally incontinent. Polarizations of this kind are wildly inaccurate. In fact, people who talk freely are generally less troubled than those who hold back. They have a cohesive sense of self and are more likely to generate creative solutions to problems. They feel less isolated and their secure attachments protect them from the effects of stress.

If we don’t use language to communicate our thoughts and feelings, we cannot be known. Our inner lives will have fewer points of contact with the exterior world, and we will feel detached from others. Existential psychotherapists identify aloneness as one of the fundamental terrors of the human condition. This shouldn’t be very surprising, because a solitary hominid would not have survived for very long in the ancestral environment. We have evolved to fear loneliness for a very good reason. Ultimately, when we’re talking, we are also keeping the darkness in Edward Hopper’s Automat on the other side of the glass.

A recurring idea endorsed by several schools of psychotherapy is that we should constantly strive to be genuine. We must say what we mean and mean what we say. Although this dictum may sound simple, it is difficult to put into practice. Human beings, either knowingly or unknowingly, frequently adopt “personas,” or social masks, through which they speak their lines like actors in a Greek drama. The words they say do not reflect their inner needs, wants, and feelings.

Sometimes, the extent of our habitual dishonesty only becomes known to us when the truth “breaks through.” This is what happens when we make a “Freudian slip,” unintentionally saying something that expresses how we really feel. In response to a colleague’s promotion, a disingenuous individual might intend to say, “I’m not envious,” but what actually comes out is the opposite: “I’m envious.” Freud attributed such errors to interference emanating from the unconscious, a division of the mind not overly concerned with social niceties. When we make a Freudian slip, what we are trying to conceal becomes embarrassingly obvious.

The Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne pointed out that human beings often communicate using what he called “ulterior transactions.” These are verbal exchanges that are dishonest, insofar as they conceal a hidden motive. Berne’s guide to ulterior transactions, Games People Play, became a best seller in the 1960s. The outcome of a “game” usually involves some kind of payoff that makes subsequent repetitions more likely. The game that Berne called “See what you made me do” is a typical example of an ulterior transaction. A husband wants to be alone and engages in an immersive activity to escape domestic obligations. When he is interrupted by an intruder, his chisel, paintbrush, pen, or soldering iron slips and he cries, “See what you made me do!” It is not the intrusion that has caused the fumble, but his own irritability. The fumble provides him with an excellent excuse to dismiss his visitor. Consequently, he can continue avoiding any of the demands his wife or children might care to make on him. The more games of this kind we play, the more unsatisfactory our relationships will be.

Games can become so well practiced that we play them automatically, with little or no insight into what is really happening. When they are maintained by regular, questionable payoffs, an individual might continue to reenact the same maneuvers and countermaneuvers until this style of relating to others becomes rigid and inflexible. One of the chief aims of “transactional analysis” is to help people recognize and acknowledge these games as well as other patterns of self-defeating behavior. The process usually involves gaining greater access to feelings that have been, to some extent, previously denied. Simply talking about ourselves can help us to reconnect with our feelings. This experience of reconnection can also be assisted by exploiting the subtle properties of language.

Whenever the air cools and the leaves begin to change color, I think of a sublimely beautiful Keats line: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” We can express the exact same sentiment using different words. For example: “The time of year when you get a lot of fog and fruit becomes ripe.” But it’s not the same, is it? The mood is entirely different; something essential has been lost. Keats’s poetry, although impressionistic, seems to say so much more. There is depth and richness to Keats’s evocation—the stirring of memory, hints of bonfire smoke, and the still-sweet smell of decay. Edges blur, and a muted light plays on shades of russet and amber. We feel something.

Words come with associations, overtones, and emotional resonances. From the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth, experts believed that language was mediated by only two small areas of the brain. With the introduction of brain-scanning technology, it immediately became apparent to researchers that language involves a much more extensive network of interconnections, regions, and structures than they had previously thought.8 If you think of the word “hammer,” for instance, a part of the motor cortex lights up in readiness to strike a blow. And if you think of “autumn,” the visual cortex flickers with ghostly impressions of mist and falling leaves. Metaphors produce congruent brain activity. For example, it has been found that reading the phrase “He had a rough day” produces more activity in cortical areas associated with feeling texture than reading the phrase “He had a bad day.”9

Every word reverberates through the vastness of the brain’s architecture, and when we substitute one word for another, we trigger varying patterns of spreading activation. These patterns are distinct and will have a differential effect on the availability of certain memories and feelings. Therefore, when we are talking about ourselves, our precise choice of words will influence the degree to which we are self-aware, and naturally, the more self-aware we are, the better able we are to make good life decisions.

One of the first psychotherapists to focus on the minutiae of speech and to experiment with the modification of language as a practice procedure was Fritz Perls. During the 1940s and 1950s, he was largely (although not solely) responsible for the creation and development of Gestalt therapy. Gestalt is the German word for “shape” or “form,” but it also implies “wholeness.” (The word was originally adopted by a group of experimental psychologists in the 1920s as the name for their particular school; however, the principal objective of these experimentalists was to discover the laws that govern visual perception. Although there are some interesting affinities between Gestalt therapy and Gestalt psychology, they should be viewed as separate.) In textbooks, chapters on Gestalt therapy frequently include a photograph of Perls as an old man sporting a long white beard. His portrait is typically contextualized by supplementary photographs of hippies, psychedelia, and flower-power. Perls’s guru-like image was consolidated with the publication of his much-quoted “Gestalt prayer,” a marginal exercise that nevertheless encapsulated something of the prevailing contemporary attitude: “I do my thing and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful. If not, it can’t be helped.” One can almost hear The Doors playing in the background.

Perls produced cultural ripples that reached Hollywood. The 1969 Academy Award–nominated film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice features a married couple who question social conventions after exposure to a type of therapy that encourages personal license and emotional honesty. They smoke marijuana, openly discuss affairs, and consider “wife-swapping.” The inspiration for the film was a photograph published in Time magazine of Perls bathing naked in a hot tub with his novitiates at the Esalen Institute in California.10 At that time, Esalen was the flagship of the human potential movement. In many ways, it still is.

Perls and his Esalen associates were employing psychotherapeutic methods to facilitate personal growth rather than to treat mental “illness.” They were interested in how psychotherapeutic ideas could help people discover better ways of living. This approach has much in common with Freud’s hope, expressed in the 1920s, that psychoanalysis would transcend medicine and be regarded as a more generally relevant discipline.

Perls drew attention to the fact that we often use impersonal or neutral language to interpose distance between ourselves and our painful feelings. This might reduce anxiety and discomfort in the short term, but in the long term we are failing to acknowledge our totality. Consequently, the decisions we make will not be based on all the information at our disposal.

Sometimes, when we say, “It feels bad,” what we actually mean is, “I feel bad.” By favoring the neutral third-person pronoun over the first person, we restrict the potential of the sentence to bring us fully into the here-and-now of the conversation. If a patient receiving Gestalt therapy says, “You know how it is, when people are in social situations they can get uptight,” the therapist might ask him or her to repeat the sentence, but using less abstract and more direct language. For example, “When I’m with my friends, I usually feel very tense.” This recalibrated sentence possesses quite different qualities. It is more personally meaningful and revealing. As with poetry and prose, identical content can produce different effects depending on how that content is worded. There are many ways in which modifying language can be beneficial. For example, sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we protest, “I can’t do that,” when perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “I won’t do that.” Here, the replacement of can’t with won’t admits the possibility of choice. There is an empowering shift from helplessness toward agency.


  • "Vivid...A lively and penetrating history of psychoanalysis."—Kirkus

On Sale
Jul 7, 2020
Page Count
336 pages
Basic Books

Frank Tallis

About the Author

Frank Tallis is a clinical psychologist and the author of over fifteen books, including The Incurable Romantic: And Other Tales of Madness and Desire. He previously taught clinical psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience at King’s College, London. He lives in London and Bonnieux, France.

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