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: