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
  • Comments (9) Trackbacks (2)
    1. Chris,
      You have done a great job laying out the foundation for your thoughts. I understand the Marxist thinking and I believe that it is misplaced. We are each here for a purpose and each of us have a unique purpose which folds into the purpose of the whole. Make everyone the same and people will still strive towards their purpose which has little if anything to do with economic equality. One place you may want to look as an example of pure Communism in practice is a military “Boot Camp” where all members are stripped of all possessions, wear the same clothes, eat the same food, have the same privileges and restrictions and see what their experience is in regards to spirituality and personal growth. The finding would be very interesting. I remember going through this experience myself and even when all things appear to be equal there is still a desire to grow and that desire is fueled by our purpose.

    2. Hi Mark — what you say definitely resonates with my experience. Although there are obviously many people with more money than me, I don’t find myself envying them and trying to dissipate my envy through meditation or other forms of personal growth. At least on a conscious level, my interest in personal development has nothing to do with “inequality” at all. It doesn’t seem that the human desire for self-improvement and self-knowledge can be squelched, whether through communism or the egalitarian atmosphere of the military.

    3. Hi Chris, there is also Frankl’s observations of people in the Nazi death camps – differences persist.

      However there is evidence that inequality affects individual health (of the wealthy and poor). There is an organisation called something like

      There are different spiritualities too. Some are used quite consciously to avert revolutionary impulses (Wesley and Luther both were quite upfront about their politics).

      I think this question deals with the nature of people – I think we are social individuals not individual individuals (I can’t find a better way of putting it).

      I think personal transformation can lead to social innovation (but not directly).

    4. Hi Evan — that’s a good point — that even in concentration camps, people like Viktor Frankl retained the desire to find meaning in their lives. What you said about the inequality and health relationship is interesting. It appears that the study favors a European social-democratic approach as opposed to more hard-line socialism, because it doesn’t use, say, China or Vietnam as data points — and so it prefers some degree of economic inequality over none. I doubt that communist countries’ health figures would support the authors’ thesis.

    5. As is often remarked in the debates about population health outcomes (life expectancy and such) Cuba has a higher health status than the US (and for a fraction of the cost).

    6. Chris, this is another really well written article that I’m happy to have stumbled upon this morning.
      Two things come to mind in support of your conclusion on this topic: one is that in traveling the world and meeting some incredibly poor people, money or lack thereof doesn’t cause unhappiness. It’s how one views their circumstances that determines discontent. As Byron Katie would say, “The unquestioned mind.”
      Second, I believe and have seen around me that spirituality — or a desire to “awaken” — naturally calls to people when they’re ready. It’s an innate drive in many.

      I really love this new site of yours! Keep up the great writing!

    7. Hi Megan — I’ve definitely had that experience in traveling as well — the people living in villages I met in Mexico seemed far less stressed out than the US and European tourists who were staying in fancy resort hotels. Thanks for the appreciation and I’m glad to have you here.

    8. I know that poor people can be happy – a friend of mine lived in some slums in India – the people there were often happier than affluent Australians (I’m an Australian).

      However, lack of money can lead to unhappiness – like not being able to buy drugs to save a sick child. At base I guess this isn’t so much about money as an inhuman way of organising medical provision – and society more generally.

    9. Just one other comment here on the whole issue of whether “money buys happiness” (which I’ll do a full post about shortly) — I think we all agree that, even if we assume that having more money is related to increased well-being, or that less economic inequality produces more happiness, that doesn’t mean there’s _no_ role for personal growth or spiritual practices. The fact that money may buy happiness doesn’t mean it’s the _only_ way to buy happiness, and meditation, affirmations and so on may be alternative ways. I think this is the point that the critics who basically argue that “all unhappiness comes from inequality” miss.

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