DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


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?
  • Comments (8) Trackbacks (3)
    1. Even the positive psychology people dispute these superficial understandings of happiness (and they aren’t exactly social revolutionaries – or even innovative come to that).

      There are lots of studies that show success is not directly related to happiness (the numbers that show the weak link between financial success – after basic needs are met – and happiness are legion). This is true at both population and individual levels.

      I’m sure the critics will be relieved that there anxieties are groundless. If not I guess there simple minded notions of success and happiness will need to be re-thought. They will of course be glad to do this (or their experience falsifies their theorising).

      Thanks for a great post Chris.

    2. Hi Evan — that’s a good point — that many critics of personal development, who tend to see themselves as advocates of social change, actually follow timeworn nuggets of conventional wisdom, like the idea that happiness causes laziness or indifference, in arguing their position. A lot of people, I’ve observed, seem instinctively uncomfortable with the idea of being at peace.

    3. Chris,

      I think economic disparity (or unfairness) is totally unavoidable and while it is sad to think about, I don’t think there is any action we can take individually or as a society to close that gap. Capitalism favors those with the best ideas and resources are funneled toward them. If you’re the creator of the I-pad, then you will get obscene amounts of money. If you create an app for it, then you will get ridiculous amounts of money, etc. This is the way new technology has been creating economic unfairness for centuries. That’s not really anything to get unhappy about, but it should inspire you to think of revolutionary techniques for making the world better.

      Personally, I am not a fan of meditating for myself. I think it’s a form of cognitive dissonance, and I’m not a fan of that either.

      I’m not saying the world is perfect the way it is, but I do think it’s a world that is pretty good overall as far as the free world goes. But that’s a whole other can of worms. (Basically, a mix of capitalism and socialism is the best form of government that we could hope for, and that’s what we’ve got, and I’m not sad about that!)

      I’m sounding like one of these “everything is positive and great” types, but I’m not. Bottom line is, disparity is unavoidable in the current system.

    4. Hi Mandelbrot: thanks for your comment. I don’t think I have a position on whether economic inequality is unavoidable, but if we assume that is, it occurs to me that personal growth has a necessary role even if the Marxist critics are right that inequality is the main cause of unhappiness.

      On this view, because there will always be some degree of inequality, techniques such as meditation and other spiritual practices have a necessary role in smoothing out the frustration or anxiety created by it. It’s an interesting perspective.

      I’m curious what you mean when you say that meditation is a form of cognitive dissonance.

    5. I can only speak for myself re: meditation as a form of cognitive dissonance. I can’t sit with my eyes closed and deny negativity or the reality of my own life or emotion or pain without feeling like a phony. It’s not real to me. I wasn’t designed to sit on a pillow and clear my mind. I love to work and live and create and solve problems. That is bliss to me. I couldn’t think of anything more fulfilling or relaxing.

      Cognitive dissonance, as I understand it, is telling yourself the opposite of what your real belief is. I’d rather be at peace with the fact that disparity is a harsh reality of this world than to pretend that I’m happy about it or pretend it doesn’t exist.

      True happiness is about coming out on the other side of difficult challenge–happiness is the ending, not the beginning point of a life well-lived.

      Thank you for your writings here, Chris! Very thought-provoking stuff.

    6. Hi Mandelbrot — thanks for the appreciation. Your comment actually seems like a perfect segue into what I’ll talk about in the next post, which is the different ways people tend to think about and practice meditation (and similar techniques).

      Some see meditation as a form of cognitive dissonance in the sense in which you seem to use the term — that is, it’s a way of trying to change your emotional state, or escape from your current experience. (Mr. Hadkins said something like this in an interview he did as well, I believe.)

      To others (notably, the Vipassana tradition), it’s actually a way to become aware of unconscious behaviors and thoughts that are affecting your life in ways that might not be serving you. Others, of course, don’t agree with either of these.

      I think it’ll be an interesting discussion.

    7. My personal experience tells me the same thing you concluded: when I’m happy (peaceful, fulfilled), I’m more likely to attract sustaining external circumstances into my life (wealth, love or adoration, good health, etc.). When I’m feeling low, though, I retreat from the world and become rather apathetic.

      Another well-presented article. Have you considered sending this series to a bigger outlet (one that might pay for such phenomenal content)? Just curious — they’re so intelligent to me, and I think they’d appeal to the mass public.

    8. Hi Megan — It sounds like, when you’re feeling okay with yourself, things seem to happen for you with less effort — I can definitely relate to that.

      I’ve definitely been thinking about ways to get more exposure for this site. I would like there to be a full-length Development In Context book, because I think this is such an important topic. One goal of this site is to build the all-important “platform” for the book, because agents and editors these days require me to be famous already before they will take a chance on my title. Any suggestions for where to send this would be welcome! :)

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