DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Personal Growth: The New Opiate Of The Masses?


In this series, I'll talk about a common criticism of personal growth that casts it as a veiled form of socioeconomic oppression.  I'll spend a chunk of time describing the argument to make sure I do it justice, because I think this is one of the most important controversies surrounding personal development.

The argument goes like this:  people usually seek out personal growth books, workshops and so on because they're unsatisfied with some aspect of their lives -- their finances, relationships, stress level, and so on.

Yet, even if they achieve their goal, that same unhappiness, in some form or another, remains.  If I get a new relationship, I may still dislike my job.  If I get a higher-paying job, I may want more time to relax.  And so on.

Unhappiness Comes From Unfairness

In the critics' view, this is because personal development does not address the root cause of this unhappiness:  economic unfairness.  From this perspective, there is no defensible moral reason why there should be disparities in wealth between people.  People's talents and abilities largely result from luck, and thus it is immoral to allow those talents and abilities to determine people's economic situation.

We all feel the impact of this unfairness, the argument goes, regardless of our circumstances.  A man in dire financial straits obviously feels it, because he's constantly worried about paying the bills.  But a wealthy man feels it as well, though perhaps in a subtler way -- maybe because he's nagged by the feeling that he doesn't deserve what he has.

Personal growth ideas, the critics say, obviously don't address this basic unfairness.  Even if I get richer, I'll still envy those with more, and I'll still feel guilty because some have less.  Even if I learn how to reduce the stress of my job, I'll still feel the stress of knowing I live in an unfair society.  The solutions offered by personal development, then, are temporary at best and useless at worst.

Personal Growth:  Part Of The Problem

Worse still, the critics charge, self-development ideas actually help maintain this inequality.  By encouraging us to seek happiness through meditation, making money, improving communication in our relationships, and so on, personal growth distracts us from the real source of our unhappiness -- economic unfairness -- which only government redistribution of wealth can ultimately solve.

Thus, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King write in Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, contemporary spiritual practices "seek to pacify feelings of anxiety and disquiet at the individual level rather than seeking to challenge the social, political and economic inequalities that cause such distress."

Similarly, as we saw earlier, Micki McGee writes in Self-Help Inc. that personal growth teachings trap their followers in a futile "cycle of seeking individual solutions to problems that are social, economic, and political in origin."

Marx Redux

We've seen that, to the critics, economic inequality is the real cause of the unhappiness that prompts people to explore personal growth.  If this is true, we should expect that doing away with inequality would get rid of the unhappiness -- and thus that, in an economically "fair" society, no one would care about personal growth.

This, of course, is not a new idea -- Karl Marx had pretty much the same to say about religion.  As he famously wrote, "religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people."  In other words, people's reliance on religion to relieve their suffering is misguided.  The real cause of their suffering is "oppression," meaning economic inequality.

Only a fair distribution of wealth -- to be achieved, for Marx, through communism -- can alleviate that suffering.  Under communism, because wealth would be equitably distributed, people would have no need for religion.  Similarly, if the critique of self-development we've been discussing is correct, eliminating economic inequality should also eliminate people's desire for personal growth.

A Brief Detour Into The Real World

Is this true?  Not, it seems, in real-life communist countries.  There, even though -- at least, in some people's view -- inequality runs less rampant, people still seem interested in activities that, in the West, we'd probably call "self-development" or "spiritual" practices.

In the People's Republic of China, for instance, tens of millions of people -- despite government oppression -- practice Falun Gong, a form of what we know as qi gong in the West.  In North Korea, again despite persecution, the underground practice of Christianity continues.  Back in the USSR, as Barbara Ehrenreich points out, "positive thinking" was mandatory -- if someone appeared to lack optimism about communism or the future of the Soviet state, they could get in serious trouble with the government.

Marxists might object that modern communist countries don't practice "pure" communism -- Marx, after all, envisioned people peacefully organizing into small communes, not the oppressive regimes communist nations have become.  That's the kind of society, Marx might say, where religion, personal growth and similar "opiates" would naturally fall away.  Personally, I question whether Marx's utopian scenario is realistic, but let's put that aside for a moment.

A Thought Experiment

Suppose we lived in a society where the government mandated total economic equality.  Everyone lived in an identical house, drove an identical car, and had an identical income, regardless of what they did for a living.  In this society, would anyone be interested in personal growth or spiritual practice?

For several reasons, I suspect the answer is yes.  First, I doubt that total equality of resources would affect many common human problems.  What about, say, conflict in people's relationships?  Can we honestly believe that the unfair distribution of wealth is the sole cause of, for instance, divorce and child abuse?

Second, a longing for spirituality and the transcendent, in one form or another, has existed in all societies throughout human history -- from hunter-gatherer tribes, to classical Greece and Rome, to communist countries as we saw, to modern capitalist nations.  It seems unlikely that total economic equality would reshape human nature so profoundly that it would erase this tendency.

I'll stop here in the interest of keeping this brief, but there's definitely more on this issue in the pipeline.

Other Posts in this Series:

  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 5: Self-Development and the "War on Envy"
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 4: "Money Doesn't Buy Happiness" Cuts Both Ways
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 3: The Hard Work of Happiness
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 2: The Hazards of Happiness
  • 10Mar/10Off

    The Responsibility Ethic, Part 5: The Politics of Responsibility


    This is the final installment in my series on what I've been calling the "responsibility ethic" in personal development -- the notion that it's best to see ourselves as responsible for our life circumstances, as opposed to seeing our situation as the product of chance or forces beyond our control.

    Today, I'll address an argument often made by critics of personal growth that has to do with the relationship between the responsibility ethic and politics.  This is a complicated argument, but I think it's an important one, so bear with me as I flesh it out a little.

    Is The Responsibility Ethic Anti-Political?

    The critics argue that, if I believe I'm responsible for my circumstances, I am unlikely to participate in politics -- to vote, protest, debate issues with others, and so on.  In other words, if I think I hold the power to change my life situation, I won't see any need to use the political process to improve my circumstances.

    Say, for instance, that I run a business, and a tax imposed by the city is hurting my bottom line.  If I believe I have full control over my destiny, I won't see any reason to lobby the city government to reduce the tax.  After all, because I have the power to fix the situation, I can solve the problem myself -- by, say, moving elsewhere, or just increasing my revenues to make up for the loss.

    To the critics, because it convinces people there's no need to participate in politics, the responsibility ethic is anti-democratic, in that it discourages an informed, politically active public.  What's more, the critics argue, we do need the political process to change aspects of our life situation.  Critics with a left-wing bent commonly argue that only the government can remedy the economic unfairness in our society, and the responsibility ethic blinds the "have-nots" to this by deceiving them into thinking they, individually, can solve their financial problems.

    Thus, they might say, the responsibility ethic serves as a kind of "opiate for the masses."  As sociologist Micki McGee writes, personal growth teachings tend to trap their followers in a futile "cycle of seeking individual solutions to problems that are social, economic, and political in origin."

    Clearing Up Some Confusion

    Simply put, I think this argument misunderstands the responsibility ethic.  All the responsibility ethic says is that I am responsible for the situation I'm in, and I have the ability to change that situation if I wish to do so.  It does not address the specific actions I should take to improve my situation, or whether "political action" is a good option.

    We can understand this by returning to my earlier example, where my city imposes a tax I think is bad for my business.  If I accept the responsibility ethic, I will believe I'm capable of improving this situation.  But the question remains:  what is the best way to change it?  Should I move to another city?  Try to increase my revenue?  Lobby the city council to repeal the tax?  The responsibility ethic is silent on this issue.

    In other words, it doesn't follow from my belief that I can improve the situation that political activity will not be an effective method of doing so.  Supporting a politician who pledges to repeal the tax might indeed be an effective method of getting what I want.  Thus, I think it's a mistake to cast the responsibility ethic as inherently anti-political.

    The Politics of "Non-Responsibility"

    This becomes even clearer when we consider the extreme opposite of the responsibility ethic, which I'll call the "non-responsibility ethic."  A person who accepts the non-responsibility ethic (in other words, someone with an external locus of control) sees events in their lives as the product of luck, or of forces they can't control.

    Suppose I believe in the non-responsibility ethic, and I'm faced with the same situation where the city tax is hurting my business.  If I believe my actions are unlikely to make a difference, what will I do to improve my situation?  If I really think I'm a helpless pawn of fate, I'll probably do nothing.

    As this example illustrates, it's also a mistake to call the responsibility ethic inherently politically conservative, as left-wing critics of personal growth tend to do.  If these critics want to see more redistribution of wealth, it won't help them to have a nation of people with an external locus of control who feel powerless to change the status quo.

    In light of this, it's no surprise that some of the most popular personal growth books use political leaders to illustrate their ideas.  Even the much-maligned Think and Grow Rich cites Gandhi as "one of the most astounding examples known to civilization of the possibilities of faith."  Gandhi's faith in his ability to change the world, writes Napoleon Hill, drove his contribution to ending British rule of India.

    The Psychology of Responsibility

    I won't harp too much on the psychological evidence, because I've done it a lot in past posts.  Suffice it to say that several psychological studies have suggested that people with an internal locus of control -- a belief in their own capacity to affect events -- are actually more inclined to participate in politics.

    For example, one study surveyed some newly voting-aged college students, and found that the ones who described themselves as having an internal locus of control were more likely to vote in a presidential election.  Another found that people who tended toward an internal locus of control were more likely to participate in political activism.

    In other words, it seems that a person's belief that they're responsible for their circumstances leads them to be more politically active, not less, which also belies the critics' claim that the responsibility ethic is somehow anti-political.

    In my next post, because I find this issue fascinating, I'll talk more generally about the political implications of personal growth and spirituality.

    Other posts in this series:

  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 1: Self-Blame
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 2: Responsibility Vs. Blame
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 3: Guilt And Morality
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 4: Responsibility And Compassion
  • 6Mar/10Off

    The Responsibility Ethic, Part 4: Responsibility And Compassion


    We're talking once again about what I call the "responsibility ethic" that's common in personal development -- the idea that it's best to see ourselves as responsible for our life circumstances, as opposed to seeing our situation as the product of chance or forces beyond our control.

    Today, I'll look at another argument personal growth critics often make against the responsibility ethic.  The argument goes like this:  if I am responsible for my lot in life, it follows that other people are responsible for theirs.  For instance, if I assume my own actions created my financial situation, logically I must also assume other people's actions created theirs, and thus I must accept that poor people's own actions created their poverty.

    What's more, if I believe poor people are responsible for their situation, there's no reason for me to help them.  After all, because their choices and actions created their situation, it's "their own fault."  Thus, if we accept the responsibility ethic, we must jettison any semblance of compassion for others.  Wendy Kaminer, for instance, decries the "antisocial strain of the positive thinking/mind-cure tradition," which holds that "compassion is a waste of psychic energy."

    The Psychology Of Generosity

    As in my last post, I think it's useful to begin this discussion with a reality check.  Again, the critics are speaking hypothetically.  No one, to my knowledge, has any evidence that people involved in personal growth actually give less to charity, or do anything else that might suggest they lack compassion for the less fortunate.  What the critics say is that, if people took the responsibility ethic to its logical extent, they would stop being generous to others.

    Admittedly, I don't have conclusive evidence that personal growth books or seminars make people more generous either.  However, there is evidence suggesting that people who see themselves as responsible for their circumstances -- in other words, people who accept the responsibility ethic -- are actually more inclined to help others, not less.

    You may recall that, in the first post in this series, I described a concept in psychology called "locus of control."  As the psychologists have it, people with a more internal locus of control believe they have the power to determine their destiny, while people who tend toward an external locus believe their destinies are largely shaped by outside forces.

    As it turns out, there has been much psychological research finding that people who tend toward an internal locus of control are actually more concerned for others' welfare.  One study of children, for instance, found that children with a more internal locus of control were more likely to help another child struggling with an academic problem.  Another study found that people who tended toward an internal locus of control were more likely to act in an environmentally responsible way.

    Intuitively, this makes sense.  If I believe I have control over events in the world, I'll be more inclined to think I can make a difference in someone's life.  So, if I help another person study for a test, they'll probably do better.  But if I don't see myself as capable of affecting events, why would I bother helping another student?  If nothing I do seems to change anything, why should I expect them to benefit?

    It stands to reason that, if self-development ideas are causing people to see themselves as responsible for their circumstances, those ideas may actually be promoting generosity and compassion, not stifling them.

    And Now, Back To Philosophy Land

    We've seen that, even if we assume that the responsibility ethic, taken to its logical extent, would cause people to lose compassion for others, it's not at all clear that people who believe they're responsible for their circumstances are -- in practice -- less generous.  Now, let's turn back to the original, abstract question:  if I see myself as creating my circumstances in life, does it follow that others' circumstances are "their own fault," and I shouldn't help them?

    I think the answer is plainly no, for several reasons.  To keep this post to a readable length, my discussion of each will be brief, and I may not approach them from every possible angle.  I'll happily hash them out with you further in the comments.

    1.  I'm Responsible, You're Responsible? If I believe I'm responsible for my life situation, it doesn't follow that I must believe others are responsible for theirs.  I may see myself as someone with the health, resources, social network, and so on that I need to have control over my reality.  However, I might see others who lack the same advantages as helpless, or as less capable of influencing their situation than me.

    Personally, this way of thinking strikes me as irritatingly paternalistic, but the point is that, at least, it's not illogical to think this way.

    2.  Responsibility Vs. Blame Redux. As we saw earlier, it's possible to see yourself as responsible for an event in your life without blaming yourself or beating yourself up over it.  By the same token, I think, it's possible to see someone else as responsible for their situation without judging them as "at fault" and unworthy of help.

    As I said to Evan in an earlier exchange, suppose you have a friend who has a decent job and is capable of supporting himself.  However, he becomes addicted to drugs, and because of his addiction he falls into poverty.  Would you lack compassion for him because he chose (at least, initially) to take drugs?  I doubt you would.  In other words, although your friend is responsible for his situation, that doesn't mean you'll automatically lose any desire to help him.

    3.  Unconscious Beliefs. We'll delve deeper into the concept of unconscious thoughts and beliefs later on.  For now, I'll note that, according to many personal growth teachers, our situation in life often results from thinking that occurs outside our awareness.

    In one sense, we're "responsible" for these beliefs, because we're the only ones who can become aware of and change them.  No one else can do that for us.  However, it would be hard to argue that we're "to blame" for our unconscious thinking, as it's often the product of our childhood conditioning, and letting go of those harmful ways of thinking can take a lot of time and energy.

    For instance, suppose I harbor the unconscious belief that I'm unlovable, and thus I have trouble forming relationships.  I'm "responsible" for this belief, in the sense that no one else can change it for me.  However, I don't think anyone would claim in this example that the difficulties I'm having are "my own damn fault" and I'm unworthy of compassion.

    Next time:  Is the responsibility ethic anti-political?

    Other Posts In This Series:

  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 1: Self-Blame
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 2: Responsibility Vs. Blame
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 3: Guilt And Morality
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 5: The Politics of Responsibility
  • 1Mar/10Off

    The Responsibility Ethic, Part 3: Guilt And Morality


    This post continues my discussion of what I've called the "responsibility ethic" in personal development -- the idea that it's best to see ourselves as responsible for our circumstances in life, as opposed to seeing our situation as the product of chance or forces beyond our control.

    In my last post, I noted that many personal growth teachers who advocate the responsibility ethic draw a distinction between taking responsibility for our life situation and blaming ourselves for it.  Taking responsibility is healthy, they say, but "beating yourself up" is not.

    I also observed that critics of personal growth often object to this distinction, arguing that our tendency to "beat ourselves up" is actually what keeps us behaving morally.  In other words, it's not enough just to know what's right and wrong.  You won't act morally unless you fear that, if you don't, you'll be wracked with guilt.  Thus, if human beings lost their capacity for self-blame, society would descend into violent anarchy.

    A Brief Reality Check

    First off, I think it's important to keep in mind that this argument is purely theoretical.  I don't know of any critic who has presented solid evidence that personal growth teachings are actually turning people into violent psychopaths.  Nobody has shown that, say, serial killers are statistically more likely to have read I'm OK, You're OK than the average person.  What the critics claim is that if, hypothetically, people took the "responsibility vs. blame" distinction to its logical extent, people would stop behaving morally and we'd all be in trouble.

    Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the critics are right -- that if people fully accepted the idea that we shouldn't punish ourselves for the past, and they fully understood the logical implications of that idea, they'd start murdering and stealing with wild abandon.  Even if this is true, that doesn't necessarily mean the responsibility vs. blame distinction is a menace to society.  That would only be true if we had reason to believe that people, in practice, are taking, or will take, that distinction to its logical extent.

    Is there reason to believe this?  Like I said, there's no conclusive evidence one way or the other, but I think a few observations are worth making.

    First, consider the audience. Admittedly, given the vastness of the personal growth field, it would be difficult to come up with a profile of the "average personal development consumer."  But we do know that the majority of self-help book sales are made to women.  I hope it isn't unforgivably sexist of me to point this out, but men commit most recorded violent crimes (and, in fact, most crimes of any stripe).  Notably, in the U.S. in 2008, men committed 90% of murders where the killer's gender was known.

    If personal growth teachings really do turn people into miscreants, shouldn't we expect to see more criminality among women, who are self-help books' biggest consumers?  Or, to put the point differently, perhaps we can all rest easier knowing that women, who appear to have a lower propensity for violence, are largely the ones buying these books.  But if there's ever an upsurge in male self-help book consumption, I guess, we'd all better stock up on ammo and canned goods and hunker down for the apocalypse.

    Second, consider the teachings. As we saw, the critics' argument is that, if people took the responsibility vs. blame distinction to its logical extent, they would behave destructively.  If this is so, personal growth teachers certainly aren't encouraging their audiences to make that logical leap.  You know the typical goals of personal development:  to help you make money, have fulfilling relationships, develop inner peace, and so on.  We don't often see books, CDs or seminars about "Guilt-Free Murder," "Self-Esteem For Child Abusers," or "Loving Your Inner Car Thief."

    I don't know for a fact, but I'll make the educated guess that consumers of self-development products and services, by and large, aren't even thinking about the abstract philosophical implications of the ideas they're learning.  They have specific, practical objectives, and they're interested in personal growth only insofar as its perspectives and techniques help them get where they want to go.

    Is Self-Blame Needed For Morality?

    We've seen that, even if we assume in the abstract that letting go of self-blame means eliminating morality, it doesn't follow that personal growth teachers who talk about releasing guilt are, here in the real world, promoting immoral behavior.  Now, let's return to the original question:  if we lost our tendency to "beat ourselves up" over the past, would we lose any incentive to act morally?  Would the proverbial dogs and cats start living together?

    To some, it's obvious:  a person who doesn't feel guilt (which, I think, is another term for self-blame) is, in psychological terms, a psychopath, and therefore a danger to society.  As we saw earlier, Wendy Kaminer argues as much in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, writing that "there's a name for people who lack guilt and shame:  sociopaths."  However, as philosopher Gilbert Harman points out, that's not what psychologists actually think.  Psychologists see the lack of guilt feelings as only one of several defining characteristics of psychopaths -- the others include antisocial behaviors like killing or stealing, a lack of empathy, and so on.

    In other words, the fact that someone is guilt-free doesn't necessarily make them a psychopath, just as the fact that my car has an engine doesn't necessarily make it a Lamborghini.  For all the psychologists know, there may be many people out there who don't suffer over the past and nonetheless behave morally.

    What's more, clearly the threat of self-punishment isn't the only reason people refrain from antisocial behavior.  Many of us, I suspect, don't even form the desire to harm others in the first place.  I don't know about you, but as I go through my day, I don't usually find myself thinking "you know, it'd be great fun to kill that person, but I'd just feel so guilty if I did."  I also suspect that many of us abstain from hurting others because we care about them, and want to see them stay well.  And, at the very least, surely the fear of getting caught and punished by others -- which is distinct from the fear of self-punishment -- deters some people from criminal activity.

    My point is that I think there's reason to question the notion that, if people let go of their tendency to self-blame, widespread chaos would ensue.  Hopefully, this will give some solace to people locked in a painful cycle of self-flagellation.

    Next up:  Is the responsibility ethic anti-compassion?

    Other Posts In This Series: