DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Rainbow Right-Wingers, and Other Myths About Personal Development Politics

Reading Barbara Ehrenreich, you'd think people who are into personal development must be rabid right-wingers.  The common New Age notion that you can create happiness from within, she says, supports a conservative political line.

After all, she basically says, who needs welfare programs if poor people can just "think themselves happy"?  And the same goes for the Law of Attraction -- instead of relying on the government, why don't the less fortunate just "manifest" a BMW in the driveway, or a winning lottery ticket?

What About Governor Moonbeam?

However, it would be hard to dispute that the most "new-agey" U.S. politician today is liberal Democrat, and California gubernatorial hopeful, Jerry Brown.  In the '70s and '80s, when he previously served as governor, some called him "Moonbeam" because of his study of Zen meditation and interest in creating a California state space academy.

By contrast, how many times have we heard Dick Cheney or Newt Gingrich extol the wonders of meditation, herbal aromatherapy, or any other "woo-woo" idea?  The answer -- mostly for those of you outside the U.S. -- is zero.  Most conservative politicians would never admit to participating in "non-traditional" spiritual practices, and risk alienating their spiritually "traditional" constituencies.  (Nor would most liberals, for that matter.)

We see a similar trend among personal growth teachers themselves.  For example, Tony Robbins, in this much-viewed speech, mentions that he wishes Al Gore had won the 2000 election.  Oprah Winfrey, whose show has skyrocketed the careers of many self-development and spiritual authors, is one of President Obama's most visible supporters.

Is Self-Responsibility A Right-Wing Idea?

Why, if personal growth ideas are aligned with political conservatism, is all this true?  Do liberals who are into self-development, and conservatives who aren't, simply fail to see the connection?  I don't think so.

Why not?  As we saw, a big reason critics tend to cast self-development ideas as right-leaning is personal growth's embrace of what I've called the "responsibility ethic" -- the notion that each of us is responsible for their life circumstances.

Some might see this as an inherently anti-government, or anti-political, philosophy.  After all, if I believe I have the power to shape my life situation -- to create the relationships, career, and so on that I want -- why should I depend on the government to provide me with, say, education or healthcare?

Self-Responsibility Through Political Action

This argument sounds good on the surface, but I think it misunderstands the responsibility ethic.  Here's why:  the idea that we can create our circumstances doesn't tell us anything about how we ought to create them.

For example, suppose I think I'm paying too much in income taxes.  If I believe I have the power to change this situation, there are a number of ways I might choose to bring about change:  vote for a politician who promises lower taxes, move to a different state or country, learn creative ways to exploit tax loopholes, and so on.  As you can see, some options involve trying to influence the government, while others rely more on individual effort.

What's more, in all likelihood, liberal politicians themselves strongly believe in their power to affect their situation (as do conservatives, I'm sure).  If they didn't see themselves as capable of bringing about change, they wouldn't have run for office.  After all, why bother getting into politics if you don't think you can make an impact?

So, I think the truth is that accepting self-development ideas, generally speaking, doesn't require us to buy into any particular political agenda.  Here in California, for better or worse, we may soon have a "new-agey" liberal governor to prove it.


Growth As An Opiate, Part 4: “Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness” Cuts Both Ways

Earlier I explored the argument, sometimes made by critics of personal growth, that practices for cultivating peace and happiness, like meditation and affirmations, are socially harmful.  By encouraging people to "look within" for happiness, rather than basing their satisfaction on material rewards, personal growth makes people less interested in righting the economic unfairness of our society.

In other words, if people become convinced that "money doesn't buy happiness," they'll be less interested in redistributing income toward the less well-off -- because, after all, having more money won't make lower-income people happier anyway.  As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in Bright-Sided, "if circumstances play only a small role . . . in human happiness, then policy is a marginal exercise.  Why advocate for better jobs and schools . . . or any other liberal desideratum if these measures will do little to make people happy?"

I don't think this critique fully grasps the implications of the "money doesn't buy happiness" theory.  To left-wing critics like Ehrenreich, this concept seems to counsel fiscally conservative policies like cutting taxes and rolling back the welfare state.  In fact, however, one could use the assumption that money doesn't buy happiness to support policies more to Ehrenreich's liking.

Taxes and Happiness

One might argue, for instance, that because wealth doesn't determine our happiness, we might as well increase taxes on the rich.  If it's really true that money doesn't buy happiness, redistributing wealthy people's income won't decrease their wellbeing or their incentive to produce.  And if the ex-wealthy find themselves pining for their lost assets, perhaps they can just take up meditation and make it all better.

In fact, my friend Duff -- who, I suspect, shares many of Ehrenreich's political views -- makes a similar point in discussing Daniel Pink's Drive.  Pink, says Duff, argues that people are more motivated by a desire for "autonomy, mastery, and purpose" in their work than the promise of material rewards.

If this is so, Duff writes, why not have the government impose a "maximum wage" -- for instance, cap everyone's annual income at $100,000?  After all, reducing wealthy people's income won't substantially diminish their happiness, since studies show that their work satisfaction largely depends on their sense of meaning.

So, it seems, the notion that happiness doesn't depend on material rewards can be used to support either conservative or liberal economic policies.  My larger point is that the idea that personal development is the linchpin of a right-wing conspiracy is misguided.  So, too, is the idea that personal growth somehow promotes socialism -- which we'll explore in the upcoming series on self-development's "culture of victimhood."

Other Posts in this Series:

  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 5: Self-Development and the "War on Envy"
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 3: The Hard Work of Happiness
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 2: The Hazards of Happiness
  • Personal Growth: The New Opiate of the Masses?
  • 4May/10Off

    Self-Help and Selfishness, Part 3: Compassion And Justice

    We've been talking about the claim, commonly made by critics of personal growth, that self-development techniques are "selfish" because they only benefit the person using them.  As I noted earlier, there's a good deal of evidence that effective personal growth practices actually help us develop more compassion and generosity toward others.  So, it seems to me, personal development can actually serve as a source of positive social change.

    Why don't the critics see it this way?  Why do they often treat personal development as, in fact, an obstacle to "social justice"?  My sense is that they, like much of Western political philosophy, think of justice as a set of abstract rules to follow.  Our society, in this view, will be good and just once it starts complying with the right set of rules.

    For people who are usually called conservatives, these rules are mostly concerned with preventing forms of violence like killing and theft.  A just society, from this perspective, is one where that conduct is minimized.  For those who tend to be called liberals, the rules are more about how resources are distributed -- to them, a just society is one where the right distribution of money, medical care, and so on exists.

    Justice:  Just A Philosophical Abstraction?

    For all their differences, these models of justice have at least one thing in common, which is that they treat the way people feel about each other as irrelevant.  Even if citizens of a given society don't care one whit about each other, that society is nonetheless just if it follows the correct rules -- whether through preventing violence, equitably parceling out resources, or something else.

    Given these typical ways of thinking, it's no surprise that critics of personal growth see self-development practices as basically irrelevant to achieving justice.  Meditating, for example, may well make people more compassionate, but that emotion alone does nothing to further the cause of a just society.  If anything, practices like meditation waste time that could be better spent fighting real-world injustice.  As Barbara Ehrenreich puts it in Bright-Sided, "why spend so much time working on one’s self when there’s so much real work to be done?"

    At best, if meditation causes people to be kinder, people may do more charitable giving, and thus advance the goal of equitably dividing resources.  But that's hardly the most efficient path to a fair distribution of wealth.  Why not simply have the government take some people's property and give it to others?  Meditation, from this perspective, is an inadequate and unnecessary solution to the problem of inequality.

    Abstract Justice In A Non-Abstract World

    In the real world, we can see this mentality in communist countries' approach to achieving justice.  To Marxist thinkers, practices for finding inner peace do nothing but distract people from the quest for equality.  Thus, Marxist regimes banned religious and spiritual institutions and practices, from the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union to the Falun Gong movement in China.

    These countries' history, I think, illustrates the danger of seeing justice as nothing more than a set of rules for preventing coercion or distributing wealth.  These regimes treated abstract concepts of justice as more important than the lives of actual people, and killed and imprisoned millions they saw as standing in the way of their ideal society.  I think this history shows that, when compassion our inner experience is taken as irrelevant to justice, justice itself becomes a monstrosity.

    Compassion Is Critical To Justice

    It's important to realize, I think, that compassion is not only relevant to justice -- it's actually the foundation of justice.  Our rules of right and wrong stem from our instinctual concern and respect for each other.  The reason people want a society without killing and stealing, or with a certain distribution of wealth, is because they see such a society as the best vehicle for relieving human suffering.

    Of course, as human beings, we are not always in touch with our sense of compassion.  We're also aggressive, competitive, and survival-oriented creatures.  When those drives completely take over, we're unconcerned with others' suffering, and we think only of our own survival and power.

    When we're under the sway of these instincts, no abstract principles will keep us from harming others.  Reminding a mugger of the Golden Rule, for example, probably won't stop him from taking your money.  What's more, as in the communist regimes I described, concepts of justice themselves can be used as a weapon, justifying mass murder in the name of "equality" and "fairness."

    How Personal Growth Can Help

    This is why, I think, merely following the right set of abstract principles isn't enough to create a just society.  As legal scholar Robin West puts it in Caring For Justice, it's important to recognize the "injustice -- not the justice -- of divorcing the pursuit of justice from natural inclination, from the sentient, felt bonds of friendship, and from the moral dictates incident to the pull of fellow feeling."

    Instead, we must experience -- firsthand, viscerally, in the body -- the emotions and instincts at the root of those principles.  We must actually feel compassion for one another -- not simply make and follow a logically consistent set of rules.

    At their best, I think, personal growth practices help us genuinely experience concern for each other.  Techniques like meditation and yoga work to accomplish this goal at a level deeper than the rational mind, which is why intellectuals are often wary of them.  But I think they're worth taking seriously if we truly want a more peaceful world.

    Other Posts In This Series:


    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?
  • 3Apr/10Off

    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?
  • 24Mar/10Off

    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