DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Self-Help and Selfishness, Part 2: Cultivating Compassion

We've been talking about the argument, sometimes made by critics of personal growth, that self-development practices are basically selfish.  This criticism goes that, when we "work on ourselves" -- whether by taking workshops, meditating, or something else -- we only benefit ourselves, and the time we spend doing those practices could be better used serving others' needs.

As I noted earlier, there's much research in psychology showing that, the happier we feel, the more generous we're likely to be toward others.  This is why, I suggested, personal growth practices that help us develop peace and happiness benefit more than just the immediate "user."

I can imagine a critic responding:  "but why do all these things to 'develop' compassion?  Why not just go out and be compassionate by giving your time and money to those who need it?"  As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her important book Bright-Sided, "why not reach out to others in love and solidarity or peer into the natural world for some glimmer of understanding?"

Do Motives Matter?

It seems that, to some personal development critics, being compassionate, kind or generous is simply a matter of taking the right actions.  If you give your time, energy or money to someone, and receive nothing material in exchange, you qualify as a compassionate person.

From this perspective, it doesn't matter whether you actually feel a sense of love or kindness toward the person you're serving.  Perhaps, for instance, you hope to tell others how generous you've been and receive praise.  As long as your actions help someone else, by definition, you're being compassionate.

On the surface, this makes sense.  If I give money to a foundation that helps children with a serious disease, for instance, those children will benefit even if I don't really care about them.  Even if I only want to brag about how giving I am to my friends, or get mentioned as a "platinum-level donor" on the charity's website, I still serve those children with my contribution.

False Compassion Creates Suffering

However, this example becomes more troubling when we look at what I'm getting out of my donation.  I'm giving to the charity because I want recognition from others.  But what if I don't get the kind of recognition I want?  What if my friends don't praise me for my generosity, or at least don't praise me as much as I want?

The answer, I suspect, is that I'll feel resentful.  I'll see my friends as insensitive and uncaring, and retaliate against them in overt or covert ways.  So, by helping someone out of a desire for recognition, I actually set myself and others up for suffering.

This problem becomes clearer when we look at acts of false compassion within a family.  In a common scenario, a parent gives a lot of time and energy to their child, in the secret hope that the child will please the parent in return.

If the child doesn't show the kind of appreciation the parent wants, the parent feels resentful, and strikes back at the child through abuse or neglect.  In other words, when a parent serves their child out of a desire for recognition, rather than genuine love, both parent and child are likely in for suffering.

Compassion as a Way of Being

When we help others out of actual feelings of kindness, rather than a desire to prove that we're "good," we don't create this kind of suffering for ourselves and others.  If our actions are solely motivated by a desire to help, it doesn't matter whether the other person falls over themselves to thank us, and we won't resent them if they don't.

This is why I think personal growth practices that help us develop genuine compassion for others, like Buddhist metta meditation, are so important.  Metta may be the most obvious example, because it involves explicitly wishing all beings well, but many other self-development methods help us cultivate kindness in subtler ways.

The Promise of Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy is a great, and frequently misunderstood, example.  Critics often talk about therapy as if it's merely a self-indulgent exercise in griping about the past (an issue I'll deal with at length later).  I think this ignores many key goals of therapy -- the most important one being, for our purposes, to meet needs that went unrecognized in a client's early childhood.

As I touched on earlier, psychologists often observe that, when a parent's early needs for love and recognition were unmet, they unconsciously seek to meet those needs in their relationship with their children.  In other words, the parent expects the child to give them the affection and appreciation they never got when they were little.  When the child doesn't meet these needs, the parent gets angry and withdraws their love.  (There's an illuminating discussion of this in Kathleen Faller's Social Work with Abused and Neglected Children.)

As long as the parent's childhood needs are unmet, we might say, the parent will have difficulty experiencing real love and compassion for their children.  However, a skilled therapist can help the parent meet those early needs outside the family structure.  When the parent no longer seeks validation from their children, genuine love becomes possible.

Once we can see why actually feeling compassion -- not just looking compassionate -- is important, we understand why "working on ourselves," and our own peace and happiness, can actually be a gift to the world.

Other Posts In This Series:


Is Self-Help Selfish?

Critics often put down personal growth practices on the ground that they're selfish, or at least self-absorbed.  The time people spend meditating, saying affirmations, taking workshops, and so on, according to the critics, could be better spent helping others.

"The question is why one should be so inwardly preoccupied at all," writes Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided.  "Why spend so much time working on one’s self when there’s so much real work to be done?"  Similarly, in The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need, Paul Pearsall writes, in questioning the value of much self-help literature, that "most of the problems we think we have stem from too much self-focus rather than too little."  The phrase "selfish help" has also become popular on blogs that are critical of personal development.

This criticism may have some appeal on the surface.  After all, when I meditate, I'm the only one who gains calm and clarity.  My meditation practice doesn't cause food to appear on the tables of impoverished people.  Similarly, if I see a therapist, that can only help resolve my mental health concerns -- it does nothing for catatonic people in psychiatric hospitals.

But if we look a little deeper, I think it becomes clear that this critique has some flaws, and I'm going to discuss them in this post.

Does Self-Help Mean No "Other-Help"?

I think the most obvious problem with this argument is that it assumes that a person can't do both personal growth work and charitable work, or at least that people involved in personal development are less interested in helping others.

Clearly, the first of these is not true.  It's surely possible for me to lead a life that includes both, say, meditation and volunteering at a homeless shelter.

I suppose one could argue that the time I spend doing personal growth activities detracts from the time I could spend being generous to others.  But if we take that argument seriously, most of what we do in life -- apart from, I guess, eating and sleeping -- becomes "selfish" and unacceptable.

After all, every minute we spend hanging out with friends, watching a movie, hiking, and so on is one less minute we could spend serving others' needs (whatever that may mean to you).  This argument holds people to an impossible moral standard that I doubt even the most generous critic of personal development could meet.

Nor have I seen any evidence that people who do self-development work are less inclined to help others.  I've yet to see a study suggesting that, say, people who have read The Secret are less likely to give to charity.

Emotions Influence Actions

More importantly, I think the claim that "self-help is selfish" misses the deeper point that our emotional state affects how we act.  If my personal growth practices put me in a happier or more peaceful state, that's likely to change -- for the better -- the way I relate to others.

It may be that, while I'm in the process of meditating, I'm the only one gaining peace and clarity.  But when I'm done meditating, I take that peace and clarity out into the world.  Doesn't it stand to reason that, if I'm feeling more peaceful, I'll behave more peacefully toward other people?

This idea is more than just common sense -- there's substantial research supporting it.  You may remember that, in an earlier post, I pointed to several psychological studies suggesting that happiness actually causes people to be more giving toward others.  I've also discussed the evidence showing that people who believe they're responsible for their life circumstances -- a belief often promoted in personal development -- behave more generously.

However, there is also research bearing more directly on the relationship between self-development practices and qualities like kindness and compassion.  One study, "Mindfulness-Based Relationship Enhancement," found that couples who meditated reported more satisfaction with their relationships.  Another found that Buddhist metta meditation "increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward novel individuals" in study participants.

On a subtler level, the way we feel affects those around us, even when we aren't doing or saying anything.  Daniel Goleman's Social Intelligence, for instance, describes how our bodies instinctively detect and mimic the emotions of people we're with.  Goleman, for example, points to studies of couples showing that one partner's anger or sadness induced the same emotions in the other person.

In other words, because humans are empathic creatures, it makes sense that the emotional benefits we get from personal growth would "rub off" on others.  This is why, I think, one of my mentors says that "the greatest gift you can give to others is to work on yourself."

So, I think it's important to look not only at how a personal growth practice benefits its immediate "user," but also how it affects their actions toward others and the way they show up in the world.

The Promise of "Stealth Transformation"

I can imagine a critic of personal growth responding that I'm painting an unrealistic picture of self-help methods and the reasons people use them.  People don't get involved in personal growth to cultivate compassion for others, they might say.  They do it because they want more money, better relationships, improved health, and so on.

I think this actually points to one of the great social benefits of personal development -- what's sometimes called "stealth transformation."  Yes, some people may meditate because they want to be calmer in business meetings; some may do yoga because they want a more attractive body; and so forth.  However, no matter what their intentions are, the peace and happiness they gain from their practices can positively affect their behavior toward others.

In other words, even if people go into self-development practices for purely "self-interested" reasons, they may find their relationship with the world changing in ways they didn't expect or intend.  I know this happened in my own meditation and yoga practices.  I didn't begin them with serving others in mind, but the composure I got from those practices has helped people feel more relaxed and open around me.

Other Posts In This Series:


Growth As An Opiate, Part 3: The Hard Work Of Happiness


Last time, we discussed the argument that some personal growth techniques put people at risk of being, basically, too happy.  Practices like meditation and yoga, in this view, generate "artificial happiness" that can blind people to genuine problems in their lives or with their society.

In this post, I'll turn to a similar argument often made against the "positive thinking" strain of personal growth -- i.e., the idea that thinking optimistically is a good way to deal with a seemingly bad situation.  For some, positive thinking is a futile enterprise, because pushing negative thoughts or feelings away is impossible.  For others, it's doable, but it takes a lot of work.  And if it takes so much work to be happy, is it worth the effort?

In Bright-Sided, for instance, Barbara Ehrenreich derides positive thinking because it seems to require "a constant effort to repress or block out unpleasant possibilities and negative thoughts."  In The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need, psychologist Paul Pearsall writes that "striving to keep your hopes up at the worst times in your life can be exhausting."

I'll do something unusual for this blog and agree with this argument, at least partly.  In my experience, some people seem to love deliberate positive thinking.  To them, saying affirmations, visualizing success, and similar techniques don't feel like "work" at all.  But to others -- myself included -- making an effort to think happy thoughts or generate positive emotion can feel draining.

However, I think critics of personal development go astray when they suggest that, because positive thinking feels draining or self-deceptive to some people, no one should practice it.  Another common mistake is to equate all personal development with positive thinking, and then dismiss it all as "feel-good fluff," when in fact many personal growth techniques take a very different approach.

The "Art" Vs. "Drug" Models Of Personal Growth

Positive thinking may feel false and self-deceptive to some people, but that doesn't mean that, objectively, it is false and self-deceptive.  It won't be controversial for me to say, I think, that different behaviors feel authentic (or false) for different people.  For example, I would feel inauthentic speaking with a Portuguese accent, because I'm not from Portugal.  However, a native of Portugal wouldn't feel that way.

Similarly, perhaps thinking optimistically in the face of adversity causes some people to feel better, but not others.  But it doesn't follow that positive thinking "doesn't work" or is "fake."  For instance, suppose I happen to enjoy looking at Monet paintings, but you don't.  No one would claim that, simply because our opinions differ, the pleasure I feel when looking at Monet's work must be "false."

Yet, when attacking positive thinking, critics often make this kind of argument.  They treat optimism as if it were a drug that we shouldn't take until clinical trials have proven it's safe and more than just a placebo.  If some people react negatively to it, you shouldn't use it.  But I don't think that analogy works, because -- unlike drugs with dangerous side effects -- people don't physically hurt themselves simply by thinking.

I think what I've said applies to many forms of personal growth.  It makes more sense to think about these techniques as if they were pieces of art or music than to liken them to harmful drugs.  Because everyone's mind and body is unique, it stands to reason that each technique "works" for some but not others, and each person must do their own exploration to find out what "works" for them.

The "Change" Vs. "Acceptance" Models

As I mentioned last month in a post on my other blog, when I talk with people about meditation, they often tell me they "can't meditate."  This is because, they say, they can't seem to force their minds to empty, or compel themselves to feel peaceful.

It struck me recently that these people's understanding of meditation is completely different from mine.  I don't see meditation as being about "forcing" anything to happen.  To me, it's about allowing whatever thoughts and feelings arise to be there, without resistance.

I think this mirrors a distinction between two schools of thought in personal development.  I'll call one of them the "Change" model.  On this view, personal growth is about seeking positive experiences or emotions, and avoiding negative ones.

I think positive thinking, as it's usually understood, falls in this category -- as Norman Vincent Peale, the father of positive thinking, put it, "whenever a negative thought concerning your personal power comes to mind, deliberately voice a positive one to cancel it out.”

Let's call the other model "Acceptance."  From this perspective, the purpose of personal development is not to seek the "right" kind of experience, but to drop our resistance to the experience we're having right now -- even if, in this moment, we're feeling sad or angry.

The end goal of the Acceptance approach is to find what Buddhists call "equanimity" -- when we learn to allow all of the experiences life has to throw at us, the distinction between "positive" and "negative" feelings disappears, and we are always at peace.

Why This Matters

This distinction is important to our discussion because critics of personal development often neglect it.  In Artificial Happiness, for instance, Ronald W. Dworkin criticizes meditation by citing the example of a patient who "escapes her own consciousness through meditation, and keeps her unhappiness at bay," but thus "also postpones any serious analysis of her situation."

True, some people may use meditation from what I've called a "Change" perspective -- to repress or transform their grief, anger, and so on.  But this certainly isn't the only way people use meditation (nor do I think it's the most helpful way).  As I noted, many forms of Buddhist meditation have the goal of "Acceptance" -- that is, learning to simply allow the anger and grief to arise and pass away.

So, in a nutshell, even if you aren't a fan of the "never let a negative thought enter your mind" approach, I think personal development still has much to offer you.

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 2: The Hazards of Happiness
  • Personal Growth: The New Opiate of the Masses?
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    Growth As An Opiate, Part 2: The Hazards Of Happiness


    In my last post, I looked at a common critique of personal growth that goes like this:  personal development can't create lasting happiness, because it doesn't address the underlying cause of the unhappiness it's trying to address—which, the critics say, is the economic unfairness of our society.

    In this article, I'll examine a related but distinct argument, which basically says the problem with personal growth—at least, in some forms—is that it works too well.

    This argument focuses on personal development techniques aimed at transforming our inner experience—to make us happier, more peaceful, less stressed, and so on.  Examples include meditation, yoga, and saying positive affirmations like “I love myself.”

    Does Contentment Equal Complacency?

    By helping us feel content, some critics claim, these techniques may have us neglect problem areas in our lives.  Suppose, for example, that meditating gives me a deep sense of calm.  On the surface, this sounds wonderful.  However, let's say I'm deeply in debt.

    If meditation takes away the stress of my financial situation, I may not be inclined to get the help I need.  Perhaps I'll just sit there, blissed out in a lotus position, until my landlord throws me into the street.  In this example, meditation has actually harmed me, because it has removed the anxiety that would have spurred me to take action.

    In Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class, anesthesiologist Ronald Dworkin raises this concern.  Dworkin mostly focuses on the pacifying effects of antidepressant drugs, but he argues that meditation and similar practices pose the same threat.  The “artificial happiness” created by these practices, in Dworkin's view, can make people dangerously complacent about problems in their lives.

    Critics who focus on the political implications of personal growth sound a similar note.  Jeremy Carrette and Richard King write in Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion that modern spiritual practice is "the new cultural prozac, bringing transitory feelings of ecstatic happiness and thoughts of self-affirmation, but never addressing sufficiently the underlying problem of social isolation and injustice."

    In other words, if meditation, positive thinking, and similar techniques really can make us happier, that may be a bad thing, because we may lose the righteous indignation that would have us seek political change or help others.

    Are Happy People Uncaring?

    As we've seen, some critics worry about personal growth's effects on an individual level, while others focus on self-development's political impact.  However, their arguments share a common assumption, which we might call “happy people don't care.”

    That is:  if you feel happy or peaceful, you'll lose the desire to improve your own situation, or that of others.  In other words, you won't work toward personal or social change without some amount of anxiety, anger or despair.

    At least in American culture, people seem to take various versions of this idea as common sense:  people who don't worry must be lazy, “if you aren't outraged, you aren't paying attention,” and so on.  Perhaps these are vestiges of the U.S.'s dour Calvinist heritage.  But can they be proven?

    In the critical books and articles I've reviewed, I've seen no evidence that, say, unhappy or anxious people are more "successful" in life by some measure, or more generous to others.  Nor have I seen evidence that people who pursue sources of so-called "artificial happiness," such as meditation and qi gong, make less money, get divorced more often, or "fail" more frequently by some other standard.

    In fact, this study argues that "frequent positive affect" actually causes "favorable life circumstances" -- that being happier leads to better job performance, income, and so on.  In other words, perhaps happiness actually "buys" money, rather than the other way around.  Barbara Ehrenreich, to be sure, disputes studies like this one, arguing that all they prove is that employers in the U.S. are irrationally biased in favor of happy (or happy-looking) employees.

    More importantly, I've also found psychological studies suggesting that happier people are actually more compassionate.  One study found that children who felt pleased about having accomplished a school task were more likely to help a fellow student.  Another concluded that people with a greater sense of “subjective well-being” were more inclined to give to charity.  (For a great summary of the research on happiness and generosity, see page 4 of this paper.)

    I think these studies are actually consistent with common sense.  Unhappy people, at least in my experience, are more likely to criticize or avoid others than to help them.  If we feel okay about ourselves, on the other hand, we'll feel more secure turning our attention toward others' needs.

    What Is "Real" Happiness?

    There's another interesting assumption behind the critiques we're looking at, which is that happiness brought about by personal growth practices somehow isn't "real" or "legitimate."  Thus, the inner peace I may find through meditation -- no matter how wonderful it may seem to me -- is somehow "fake."

    "In real life," Dworkin tells us, "people succeed if they are rich, famous, powerful or glorious."  Happiness brought about by other sources, to Dworkin, is "artificial."  I think Dworkin correctly states the conventional wisdom about what creates happiness for people.  However, I don't think he gives a satisfying reason why we should take the conventional wisdom at face value.

    If I feel happy when I'm meditating, that experience is certainly "real" to me -- no less "real" than the happiness I imagine Donald Trump experiences when he closes a real estate deal.  Even assuming the average person gets no happiness from meditating, that doesn't make my experience "false."  To say that would be like arguing that, if I like an underground form of music such as Christian death metal, my enjoyment of the music is somehow "artificial" because the genre isn't popular.  This is a logical fallacy called "argumentum ad populum."

    In short, I think the critics overstate the danger happiness allegedly poses to society.  In my next post, I'll ask a deeper question:  are the kinds of practices I'm talking about in this post -- meditation, yoga, and so on -- simply intended to "make people happy"?  Or do they have a greater purpose?

    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
  • Personal Growth: The New Opiate of the Masses?