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
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: