DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


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?
  • Comments (2) Trackbacks (1)
    1. Hi Chris, In my experience acceptance is the usual path to significant change. By which I mean changes to our desires, self-concept and styles of relating.

      The ‘think positive’ approach for me needs to address why the current reality is unacceptable – and what the basis for this judgement is. I think it usually leads to frustration. And as the critics point out can mean people don’t address the causes of some of the problems. On the other hand I think the critics usually don’t state their basis for evaluating what is helpful either. The critics seem to have a criterion of happiness – which is just the same as the positive thinking line (it is often arguments among those who are close to each other that the arguments are most intense).

      I don’t wish to trash happiness but do think that the path to it is through the acceptance of our authentic selves and especially the parts of ourselves (not our behaviour) that we don’t like.

      I’m very much enjoying your writing on this. Looking forward to the next instalment.

    2. Hi Evan — I like that observation — that, every time we tell ourselves “look on the bright side,” we’re assuming we’re “on the dark side” right now, and we don’t usually explore the reasons why we’ve made that judgment — which are often mired in harmful beliefs derived from our social conditioning, like “if you’re not in a relationship, you’re not good enough,” and so on.

      I think it’s also worthwhile to point out, as I think you’re doing, that people who critique positive thinking tend to say “only taking action can get you out of a bad situation” — but they’re also making the assumption that the present situation is “bad” or not enough.

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