DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Rhonda Byrne’s The Power: Is The Packaging The Problem?

A common reason people attack The Secret (and now, Rhonda Byrne's sequel, The Power) is that it promotes a self-centered and "consumerist" attitude.  Byrne, critics say, encourages us to focus on "manifesting" luxury cars, expensive shoes, and so on, rather than on helping others.

It's true that the Law of Attraction is often packaged as something we can use to improve our own lives, rather than those of others.  The publisher's description of The Power, for example, proclaims that "perfect health, incredible relationships, a career you love, a life filled with happiness, and the money you need to be, do, and have everything you want, all come from The Power."

On the other hand, we can certainly imagine people using the Law of Attraction (assuming, for the moment, that it works) to serve others.  Perhaps we might visualize a sick relative getting better, hungry people receiving food, or a dangerous tropical storm abating -- just as Buddhists pray for the wellness of all beings in Metta, or loving kindness, meditation.

So, I suspect many critics' real gripe with the Law of Attraction has to do with the "self-centered" way they think it's marketed, rather than the concept itself.

The "Opportunity Cost" of Spirituality

To be sure, some critics recognize that the Law of Attraction -- again, assuming it works -- can potentially be used to help others.  The real problem, they say, is that it obviously doesn't work.  Wishing a tropical storm won't devastate a town simply won't have any effect.

Even if this critique is right, I think it's open to the objection "so what?"  People do all kinds of pointless activities, such as (in my opinion) watching reality TV and tweeting about what they ate for breakfast.  Even assuming it accomplishes nothing, why is visualizing the improvement of others' lives more problematic?

This is where some charge that trying to "manifest" what we want isn't just a waste of time -- it's socially harmful, because every minute we spend visualizing is a minute we could have used taking concrete action to help somebody.

Interestingly, this is the same objection we often see critics of "mainstream religion" making.  People who pray to God to relieve suffering in the world are misguided, the critics say, because there is no God.  But more importantly, churchgoers are squandering time they could be spending on real charitable work.  (This is the sort of thing we often hear from "New Atheist" Sam Harris.)

Religious People Give More

If this argument is right, we should expect religious people to do less charitable giving than unbelievers.  While believers are uselessly propitiating their imaginary sky-god, atheists are down in the trenches, solving real people's problems -- right?

Actually, much evidence suggests the opposite:  religious people tend to be more generous than unbelievers.  In Who Really Cares, a study of charitable donation, economist Arthur C. Brooks found that religious belief was the strongest predictor of giving to charity among the factors he looked at -- more so than any political orientation, age group or race.

So, while it may be true that believers spend time in worship that nonbelievers don't, it seems religious people nonetheless find the time to do more giving.  But why?

One plausible explanation I've heard is that religious people are happier.  They feel more secure, and grateful, living in a universe they see as orderly and benevolent.  And psychological studies have found that happier people tend to give more generously.

In any case, all this suggests that we shouldn't be too quick to conclude that adherents of the Law of Attraction are less likely to be charitable, simply because they believe their thoughts can affect reality.  Of course, because the ideas in The Secret are different in many ways from traditional religion, we shouldn't necessarily assume The Secret's followers are more giving either.

We'll explore this issue in more depth soon.


Personal Development Politics, Part 2: The Elections and Self-Responsibility

We've been looking at the argument, made by some personal growth critics (Salerno posted about this, for example), that self-development's emphasis on personal responsibility favors political conservatism.  If this is true, I've been asking, why do self-development teachers tend to be politically liberal?  Is it because they don't see the implications of their ideas?

Like I said in my last post, I think the answer is no.  I've seen many examples of personal growth teachers consciously embracing both liberal politics and a belief in human beings' ability to control their circumstances.

This recent Huffington Post piece by meditation teachers Ed and Deb Shapiro is a good illustration.  The Shapiros don't seem particularly thrilled about the recent U.S. election  — they describe it as characterized by “weird and unqualified people vying for top government positions," by which they presumably mean some of the Republicans who swept the House of Representatives.

At first, the Shapiros may sound like they're counseling people who are upset about the elections to give up, and accept that there's nothing they can do to change the situation.  "It is our ability to be fully present and engaged that enables us to accept every situation exactly as it is," they write, inviting us "to embrace difficulties, deep sadness, upset feelings, or injustice while staying aware, present, and available."

Self-Responsibility and Social Change

However, the Shapiros go on to reveal a strong, perhaps even radical, belief in personal responsibility.  We can only work for social change, they explain, when we drop our griping about the situation, "for in that moment of acceptance we can move to transform it."

Once we fully accept what's true right now, the power of our thoughts and actions to change the world is at its height.  "Everything we think, say, and do has an immediate effect on everyone and everything else," they write, and this "means that we have enormous resources available to us at all times."

In other words, although they stop short of embracing a full-blown "Law of Attraction," and saying we can conjure up things we want through thought, the Shapiros clearly are firm believers in individuals' ability to shape their situation, and reject the Marxian notion that we're basically pawns of impersonal social forces.

Also, notice that the Shapiros' belief in self-responsibility doesn't lead them to reject politics as a means of solving social problems -- their whole piece, though abstract, is about how adopting an attitude of mindful acceptance can actually empower people to reverse the current political trend.

But What About "Blaming The Victim"?

I can imagine a critic arguing that, although the Shapiros may think it's consistent to be politically liberal and believe in radical self-responsibility, they're simply wrong.

This is because, the argument goes, a major tenet of political liberalism is that the government should create a fair society by redistributing wealth.  This, in turn, is based on the notion that each person's wealth is mostly a matter of luck -- how much they inherited, their genetic makeup, and so on.

However, the belief that we can create our circumstances implies that we're responsible for how wealthy we are.  If we're poor, that can't be due to bad luck -- it must be because we're lazy.  And if we're lazy, that means we don't deserve to have wealth redistributed in our favor.

As I've touched on briefly before, I disagree.  I don't think you need to believe that everyone's circumstances are solely, or even mostly, the result of chance to consistently be a political liberal, as I've defined it.

I'll list four reasons why below.  (Notice how the arguments I'll make can also be used to justify voluntary charity, if government redistribution of wealth isn't your thing.)

1.  Social Harmony. Some, like this organization that Evan pointed out, argue that societies with lower disparities in wealth are more harmonious, in that their people tend to live longer, they have fewer violent crimes and less teen pregnancy, and so on.

I haven't looked in detail at their evidence, so I'm agnostic about what they say, but the point is that it can be used to justify economic equality regardless of whether the less well-off "deserve" contributions from the better-off.

To illustrate, if I was certain that giving money to someone in poverty would extend my lifespan by five years, I'd probably do it regardless of whether he was responsible for being poor.

2.  Compassion for people who make bad choices. Suppose your friend became a drug addict and, as a result, lost his job.  Would you feel no compassion for him, and refuse him help, because he chose to use drugs?  I don't think you would.  In other words, it's certainly possible to feel compassion for people whose predicament is arguably "their own fault."

3.  The "Unconscious Beliefs" argument. It may be the case that (1) we're all totally, or mostly, responsible for the situation we find ourselves in, but (2) not everybody knows that.

For example, suppose I harbor the unconscious belief that "I deserve to suffer and be poor."  I'm "responsible" for this belief, in the sense that it exists in my own mind, but I may not be conscious of its existence or my power to change it.  Many self-development teachers (T. Harv Eker is a popular example when it comes to money) see it as their role to make people aware of "limiting beliefs" like these.

What's more, one might argue, so long as there are people who aren't conscious of their ability to control their economic circumstances, redistribution of wealth or private charity is sometimes needed to help such people.

4.  Divine Command. As you know, many people believe that God, or another supernatural force, has given them an unqualified command to be charitable.  From these people's perspective, it's our job to help the less well-off, regardless of whether they're "at fault" for their plight.

What do you think?  Is a strong belief in personal responsibility inherently conservative?


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.


Regulating Self-Help, Part 2: What Is A Benefit?

Last time we saw that, if we wanted to determine whether, and how much, to regulate personal development, we'd need to weigh the costs of self-development activities against their benefits.

This, as I said, raises yet another question:  who is qualified to say whether someone benefited from a personal growth practice?  In other words, should we trust the subjective opinion of the person who did the activity?  Or, should we decide whether they got value based on some set of objective criteria?

For example, if you come back from a meditation retreat and say you got a lot out of it, should we trust your judgment?  Or, should we only agree with you if certain objectively measurable facts exist -- for instance, if your heart rate is lower than it was before you went to the retreat; if you've had fewer arguments with your spouse than before; or something along those lines?

Trusting The Consumer

Generally, in Western society, we trust the individual consumer's judgment, and refrain from regulating, where the activity isn't obviously harming any third parties -- even if the activity seems ridiculous or distasteful to many.

For instance, I don't need a permit to listen to Christian Death Metal, and people who play it need not pass a licensing exam.  The majority of the population may hate this music, but the government doesn't regulate it, because my listening to it doesn't injure anyone else.  (I mean, some take offense at its existence, but the law doesn't usually care about that kind of "injury.")

As I see it, meditation retreats, and other personal development practices that don't obviously hurt third parties, should get the same treatment.  Sure, some may think meditation is weird or a waste of time.  But those people's distaste alone isn't a good argument for regulation.  I think most people will be on board with this, at least.

What Are The Exceptions?

So, the question becomes:  when should we depart from this standard?  When should we disregard the consumer's judgment, and demand objective proof of the practice's effectiveness?  Let's look at a few possibilities critics of personal growth sometimes raise.

1.    The Price Is Too High. Like I said earlier, critics often focus on what they see as the exorbitant prices of products, seminars, and so on.  One much-discussed example is this ABC News piece about Joe Vitale's offer, for $5,000, to take people for a ride in his Rolls-Royce and teach them how to attract wealth.

I'm deliberately using this example because it seems like a "hard case" -- I wouldn't personally spend $5,000 to do this.  But I think we need to look a little deeper to determine whether it's worthy of regulation.

To some, it doesn't matter how many people who take a ride with Vitale might think they got their money's worth.  The government should ban this practice, order Vitale to lower his prices, or at least require his customers to show, to the government's satisfaction, that they won't starve if they fork over the $5,000, and they aren't psychologically impaired in some way.

The assumption is that, objectively, there's no way this consultation with Vitale could possibly confer $5,000 worth of benefits, whether financial or emotional.  Anyone who thinks otherwise must be delusional or ill-informed.

Should We Crack Down On Vacations?

But let's think for a moment about another thing people often spend lots of money on:  vacations.  Sad, perhaps, but true:  some people spend thousands of dollars to fly their families to an exotic locale, stay in hotels for a week or two, eat out, and go to museums.

Is there an objectively measurable benefit to this?  Is there reliable evidence that people make more money, become less likely to get divorced, or have lower heart rates after taking a vacation involving air travel and luxury hotels?  (Remember, I mean an expensive vacation of the kind well-paid professionals take, not a "staycation.")

I think the honest answer to one or both questions is no.  And yet, nobody suggests psychologically screening people who want to go to the Bahamas.  Moreover, at least in the U.S., no license is required to be a travel agent.

In other words, we don't second-guess people's decisions to take expensive vacations, or assume that they couldn't possibly have received enough value from their trip to justify what they paid.

To be sure, if overhead luggage falls on somebody's head in a plane, or they get food poisoning from a hotel restaurant, they can use the tort system, i.e., sue the responsible party.  But that's true of Joe Vitale too -- for example, if someone rode in Vitale's limo and it crashed, they could sue him for negligence.  Regulation, commonly understood, is different from tort law, in that it tries to prevent harm rather than compensate for it -- through licensing requirements, safety inspections and so forth.

So what's the difference? Is it that Vitale and some other self-development teachers base their approaches on spiritual-sounding or "woo-woo" ideas?  I'll open that up for discussion.