DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Why Growth Is Good: New Free E-Book

WGIG Cover

I'm pleased to introduce you to a collection of articles from this site that I've put together called "Why Growth Is Good:  The Case for Personal Growth, Self-Help and the 'New Age'," which is available here as a free e-book.  I've edited many of my posts together into longer essays, and I've also written a new introduction.

These essays have the same goal as this site -- to present a compelling, organized argument for the value of personal development ideas and practices, and respond to their critics.

This book will be great food for thought if you've ever wondered about any of these questions:

* Are there practical benefits to self-development practices like meditation, yoga, and transformational workshops?

* Does self-help advice that encourages taking personal responsibility invite us to beat ourselves up?

* Does the same kind of advice discourage us from caring about others?

* Is psychotherapy about nothing more than whining about our families of origin?

* Did too much "positive thinking" cause the recent economic downturn?

* Do people who are into self-help tend to be more selfish and less generous?

* Is there a danger that self-development practices may make us feel "too happy" and neglect problem areas in our lives?

* Do personal development ideas discourage us from getting involved in politics?

I hope you enjoy this compilation, and I'm looking forward to your feedback!

(Sponsored by http://e-library.)


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.


Regulating Self-Help, Part 1: Defining Some Terms

I expect that, once James Arthur Ray's manslaughter trial begins, calls to "regulate self-help" will become louder and more widespread.  Because there's a lull in media coverage of the Sedona incident, I think now is a good time to soberly consider some questions about whether and how the government could go about regulating personal development, and the impact regulation might have.

I'm going to raise some of those issues in this series.  I think the first question to address is what we mean by "regulation," since we can't go into the particulars of what and how to regulate without that understanding.

What Is Regulation?

After all, self-development books, seminars, and so on are already subject to many generally applicable laws -- meaning laws that weren't specifically designed for personal development, but apply to it anyway.

The criminal laws obviously apply to personal growth teachers, as we see in the Sedona matter.  Contract and tort law applies to self-development -- if someone sells a book or leads a workshop that doesn't do what its advertising promised, they can be sued for fraud or breach of contract.  In this sense, self-development is already "regulated."

But in my experience, this isn't usually what people mean when they talk about regulation.  My sense is that "regulation" typically refers to laws and rules tailored to a particular business or area of life -- for example, self-help, or securities trading.

Normally, regulations, as commonly understood, are also preventive -- meaning they require us to take precautions to prevent harm, rather than punishing people for inflicting harm.  Laws against driving without a license are a good example -- they don't punish people for causing accidents, but rather for failing to pass tests that, in the state's view, ensure that they will drive with some degree of safety.

Some areas of personal development are "regulated" in this sense.  To hold yourself out as a therapist, in most of the U.S., you need a license, and to get that license you need to -- among other things -- earn an advanced degree in psychology and pass a test.  Other areas are not.  For example, I (thankfully) don't need a license to be a self-development blogger.

The Need For Cost-Benefit Analysis

So, the next important question, in my view, is:  do we need more regulations of the preventive sort in the self-development field?  To answer that question, we need some idea of the costs and benefits of personal growth ideas and techniques.

I think this is a key point, because the criticisms and calls for regulation around personal development tend to focus solely on its costs.  But that discussion is incomplete.  For example, we often hear people decry the outrageous price of a product or workshop.  But without an understanding of that offering's benefits, we can't fairly judge whether its price is "too high."

A new car in the U.S. typically costs tens of thousands of dollars, which to most people seems like "a lot of money" in the abstract, but people are often willing to pay that kind of price for a car because of the benefits they expect from car ownership -- being able to go various places quickly, and so on.

Importantly, as a society, we regularly do this kind of cost-benefit analysis even when it comes to activities involving a risk of serious injury or death.  To go back to an earlier example, driving is obviously this kind of activity.

If we only looked at the number of deaths and injuries that happen while driving, we would instantly decide that a total ban on driving was justified.  But that hasn't happened, because the benefits of being able to drive are widely recognized.

Hold On, What's A Benefit?

This brings us to yet another series of questions:  what are the benefits of personal development?  What qualifies as a "benefit"?  Who gets to make that judgment?

For instance, if someone subjectively reports that they "feel better" due to some personal growth practice, does that mean they benefited from it?  Or will we require a "benefit" to be objectively measurable -- for instance, will we judge a product or service as worthwhile only if people who use it tend to make more money, "find the one," or something along those lines?

All this and more . . . coming soon!


Personal Growth’s “Victim Culture,” Part 1: The Threat of Therapy?

In our earlier discussion of the "responsibility ethic," we talked about critics' common claim that personal development promotes an unrealistic sense of personal responsibility.

In this series, I'm going to respond to critics who take the opposite view -- that much self-help writing actually teaches people not to take responsibility for their lives.  A frequent criticism of personal growth is that it encourages people to sit around whining about their emotional issues, rather than getting up and accomplishing something in the world.

Is Therapy Just A Blame Game?

The biggest offender, to the critics, is psychotherapy, because it often involves exploring how our past -- particularly our childhood development -- shaped the way we think and behave today.  Therapy, in the critics' view, often gives us an excuse to blame our present problems on our parents, rather than simply bucking up and dealing with them.

For instance, in SHAM, Steve Salerno accuses psychiatrist Thomas Harris and similar authors of claiming that "you were basically trapped by your makeup and/or environment and thus had a ready alibi for any and all of your failings."  Similarly, in One Nation Under Therapy, Christina Hoff Sommers and Sally Satel lament that "what the older moralists spoke of as irresponsible behavior due to bad character, the new champions of therapism . . . speak of as ailment, dysfunction, and brain disease."

I think these critics take a misguided view of psychotherapy.  To them, it seems, people turn to therapy simply because they wish to stop blaming themselves for parts of their lives that aren't going well, and instead blame their parents or somebody else.

I doubt most therapists who explore their clients' histories would explain their methods this way.  Of course, there are many possible reasons why a therapist and client might delve into the client's childhood.  However, I suspect one common goal is to help the client let go of dysfunctional behaviors they continually find themselves doing.

Why Our Histories Matter

The theory goes, roughly, like this:  many behaviors we do today developed in response to our childhood circumstances.  For example, if our parents often scolded us when we asked them for something, we may have decided it was best to act totally self-sufficient, and never tell others what we want and need.

This show of self-sufficiency may have "worked" for us as children, because it protected us from our parents' anger.  However, it may not work quite as well for us as adults.  If we can't ask for what we want and need, intimacy with another person becomes very difficult.

Suppose a client came to a therapist with this sort of concern.  The therapist might explore the client's past in order to show the client that this self-sufficient facade developed in response to the client's childhood.

The Power of Awareness

Now that the client is grown up, the therapist may help the client see, they no longer need this behavior to protect them from their parents.  This awareness may help the client understand that it's now safe to let others know what they need and want.

As psychologist Kevin Leman whimsically puts it in What Your Childhood Memories Say About You, therapists' common practice of "asking about dear old Mom helps reveal patterns, and psychology is a science of recognizing patterns in human behavior."

For the therapist, then, exploring the client's past is not simply intended to help them blame their parents for their problems.  Instead, the purpose of this exploration is to help the client let go of behaviors that aren't serving them -- to solve their own problems, we might say -- and thus to lead a more fulfilling life.

In that sense, I think it's fair to say that therapy actually promotes, rather than retards, the growth of personal responsibility.


The Responsibility Ethic, Part 2: Responsibility Vs. Blame


This post continues my discussion of what I've called the "responsibility ethic" in personal development -- the idea that it's best for us to see ourselves as responsible for our situation in life.  I've been looking at the common argument that buying into the responsibility ethic causes people to beat themselves up over the setbacks they face.  You can read the last post in this series here.

2. Responsibility Vs. Blame

The critics of personal growth aren't the only ones aware of what I'm calling the "self-blame argument."  Many personal development teachers understand it as well.  What they often say is that it's possible to see ourselves as responsible for our circumstances without blaming ourselves for them.  In other words, if we suffer a setback, we can admit how our actions contributed to it without suffering over it.  If I'm in debt, for instance, I can acknowledge what I did to create the debt without calling myself lazy or stupid.

As we saw earlier, psychological research suggests that people can, and do, make this "responsibility versus blame" distinction.  People who tend toward an external locus of control -- the belief that they lack control over their lot in life -- often punish themselves for the difficult events in their lives, even though they see themselves as helpless.* People who tend toward an internal locus of control, although they see themselves as in control of events, actually do less self-flagellation when they get bad results.

Some critics acknowledge this distinction but reject it, arguing that it effectively destroys any notion of morality.  For example, in Self-Help Inc., sociologist Micki McGee derides Deepak Chopra's discussion of responsibility in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, in which Chopra advocates "not blaming anyone or anything for your situation, including yourself."  "This notion of responsibility," writes McGee, "suspends the literal meaning, ensuring that no one is actually accountable for anything," and creating "a mystical world without need of morality or ethics."

The Philosophy Behind Self-Blame

Is this true?  Let's take this question to a deeper level.  As I think you'll see, this discussion is a good example of how the debate over personal growth ideas raises some important, and timeworn, philosophical questions.

What is self-blame?  I'd put it this way:  When we blame ourselves for an event in our lives, we are 1) judging ourselves as worthy of punishment or suffering because it happened, and 2) administering punishment -- by, perhaps, tensing our bodies painfully when we think about the event.  For example, I'll bet you can think of a time when you got really angry at someone, in a way you now see as inappropriate -- and that you cringe (punish yourself) when you remember it.

When you think about it, the idea that I should suffer because of something I did is based on some interesting metaphysical assumptions.  The idea seems to be that, when I do something wrong (whatever that may mean to me), I basically knock the universe out of balance.  I can only restore the cosmic equilibrium by experiencing suffering proportional to the suffering of my victim.  The fancy philosophical term for this idea is "retributive justice."

We see this mindset in how people tend to talk about the criminal justice system.  For instance, people often say of a criminal that he must "pay for his crime."  This means that the criminal has drawn on a sort of "cosmic bank account" by creating suffering for another person, and he must repay the "debt" through his own suffering -- most likely, by going to prison for some number of years.

Justice Without Retribution

In essence, many personal growth teachers, while asking us to take responsibility for our situation, also invite us to let go of the philosophy of retributive justice.  I can acknowledge my role in creating my circumstances, they say, without punishing myself if those circumstances aren't up to my standards.  What's more, when I stop wasting time and energy punishing myself for the past, I become able to look to the future and take constructive action -- make a plan to reduce my debt, perhaps, or look for a new relationship.

If we do what these teachers suggest and let go of the retributive justice idea, do we also eliminate morality?  I think not.  It's certainly possible to believe in moral rules -- that is, rules of right and wrong conduct -- without accepting the concept of retributive justice.

I could believe, for instance, that stealing is wrong, without also believing in retribution against people who steal.  Instead, I might believe that people who steal should be required to pay their victims the money they stole, or the value of the property they took, to put the victim in the position he was in before the theft.  In other words, I may accept what's called compensatory justice, but not retributive justice.

What's more, I would be far from the first to take this stance -- many philosophers have argued against the concept of retributive justice, and the notion that people should suffer for their misdeeds to restore some abstract cosmic balance.  The idea of dispensing with retribution against ourselves and others is not some kooky New Age innovation.

But Isn't Guilt Good For Society?

Now, I think some personal growth critics would acknowledge that we can retain some notion of right and wrong, even if we stop blaming or punishing ourselves when our results are less than perfect.  But that, the critics might argue, is not the real issue -- the point is that, if we don't blame ourselves when we act wrongly, morality loses any practical significance.

The very reason we act morally, they say, is because we're afraid that, if we don't, we'll beat ourselves up over it.  If people lost the capacity to self-blame, society would descend into violent anarchy. "There's a name for people who lack guilt and shame:  sociopaths," writes Wendy Kaminer in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.  "We ought to be grateful if guilt makes things like murder and moral corruption 'harder.'"

What will I say about this?  It's a nail-biting cliffhanger!  Stay tuned, dear readers, for Part 3 of The Responsibility Ethic.

As psychologist Helen Block Lewis puts it in The Many Faces of Shame, "behavior theorists have described a cognitive paradox in depression: If depressed people are as helpless as they feel, logic dictates that they should not also feel self-reproaches (guilt) for what they are unable to do." And yet, oddly enough, they do feel guilt.

Other Posts In This Series: