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?
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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."
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.
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