This Emotional Life: A Review


It was good. Not perfect, not fabulously great, but really solidly good. I liked it much more than I didn't.

What I liked:

Dan Gilbert takes on a formidable task condensing tons and tons of information into a two hour segment. For Part II, called Facing Our Fears, he covered Anger, Anxiety and Depression. For each emotional problem Gilbert uses a mix of hard science with colorful graphics, celebrity testimonials and real life people to make it go down easily.

The experts Gilbert interviews are indisputable authorities, pioneers in clinical or research psychology so you can have confidence in what they say. The real life people are engaging, you care about them. Their stories and situations are believable. And there's no question it's edifying to see people like Chevy Chase talk about his depression or Katie Couric her anxiety.

Gilbert provides the basics that I think everyone should know about psychology. He educates the viewer about the neurology of behavior, what psychodynamic psychotherapy is, how it compares to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other treatments, the good side of negative emotions, and debunking myths about conditions like major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and more. All good, important stuff.

What I didn't like as much:

It's two hours long and that's long. I wonder why they didn't make it a six part series of one hour shows? There must have been some kind of marketing survey that demonstrated people were more likely to tune in if they weren't expected to do it as many times. One of Gilbert's scientists could have told him that after 90 minutes the ability to learn drops. The human brain just gets tired and starts to wander or power down.

The format is so packed with info, Gilbert had to edit what went in and what stayed out. No television program targeted to the public at large could contain everything so I've got to cut Gilbert a lot of slack. The only areas where I thought his deletions were concerning was in the explanation of brain cell changes in response to medication treatment and the description of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). In both, the scientist and clinician in me protested that there were significant holes in what was reported. There's documented research that supports the hypothesis that learning, without medication, also changes neuronal structure. Also, while it is true that ECT is much more sophisticated today, and potentially effective for chronic, treatment resistant depression, it is not side-effect free.

The real life segments made me squirm a bit. While I like the makeover shows like What Not to Wear, I'm not a huge reality TV fan. Plus I might be too much a clinician to feel good about watching people in genuine, emotional pain expose themselves in such a raw, public manner. There's a point where the gains of bringing the message home with a personal touch tips into the maudlin.

The most important thing: 

Despite the show's weaknesses, Gilbert and all the people involved, in front of and behind the camera, are to be commended. The strengths are solid and most importantly, the more exposure mental health issues get the better to combat the stigma of mental illness. That's an enormous service right there. Thank you, Dr. Gilbert. I'll be watching Part III, Rethinking Happiness, tonight.

What did you think? Did you see it? Did you like it? Do you agree, disagree with my assessment?


  • Stuart

    With the necessary detractors, I agree, it was good.
    For my personal tastes (and I’ll admit these are going to be taken as positively cynical after watching the “Happiness” series last night), I found the recurring celebrity interview segments and Doctor Phil sublimated marketing more than a bit tiresome; in fact, these sections were a repelling force for me. Watching the celebrity obsession embraced this way, but not examined for a second (maybe I misssed it?), speaks wonders about our (in)ability to love ourselves as individuals and as community members.
    The large majority of real examples seemed drawn from the rich liberal professional class that is often the subject of Hollywood romantic comedies. Perhaps Gilbert knows his target market. These are the people that can afford scientific answers, and they are not the majority of people feeling unhappy. They get too much coverage.
    I also felt strongly that a chord of “let’s get better America” (following the financial meltdown) was run through the entire show: the segment on an unemployed post-Lehman investment analyst is thrown in for inclusiveness… he finds a job in the end of course.
    In other words, looking at “ourselves” over six hours, Gilbert is nudging us along to look constantly inward or to the scientifically true (i.e. medicine) for our next enlightenment. This occurs without giving examples on how people deal with forces that are (if you’re an optimist, then maybe..) constantly conspiring to make us unhappy. There are people in the world that are systemically held down, and progressively denigrated over years. Americans in the last couple decades are getting a taste of this, and this kind of TV I think is the neo-liberal answer (take a look at the sponsors).
    So we have powerful current examples of how to contemplate personal psychology, and how to look inward. On the other hand, Gilbert leaves aside the notion of collective action against unhappiness (mystifying happiness itself complicates this) and misses whether our unhappiness is more or less systemic at this point. This is a giant area but played down with the hyper-individuality, hyper-awareness that is obviously lauded and promoted here.
    Of course, there is much good in this film. I am myself more intrigued with meditation after watching the bridge being formed between science (let’s hope) and this ancient tradition. The other good points I’m sure are either obvious or will be brought up by someone else as there is a lot of good stuff to review here.
    Hopefully, America does get better. But, it is really up to America itself, the people, as a group. As the young girl that died had said: “no one can do everything..”

  • Dear Stuart,
    You make very good points and I would love to know how Gilbert would reply to them.
    We both acknowledge good material here, however, there was definitely a ‘let’s all feel good’ theme to the show. I was particularly confused about whether not money made us happy. Does it? Or doesn’t it? It does right? Or it does but only if you start with nothing and suddenly win the lottery. If you have a billion dollars to begin with and find 45 million bucks, not so much. It felt a little like the show’s producers were trying to avoid the scientific evidence that financial security does indeed help happiness along.
    The juvenile delinquent son of alcoholics who became a surgeon fits your take of Gilbert’s target market. It’s a wonderful story, but I couldn’t help but wonder, if he had been an African American would his would-be mentor have seen that ‘spark’ in his eyes?
    Regarding the celebrity sound bites, they were there to draw us in, yes, like a barker in front of a carny tent. Dr. Phil wasn’t so bad. I know a lot of people like him and compared to Ms. Hay, he’s a paragon of reason. At least Gilbert pointed out Phil is an entertainer first, a psychologist second.
    Now I’m sounding snarky.


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