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.


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.


Do Thoughts Create Things?, Part 1: Yes, Unless You’re A Robot

It will probably be obvious, to anyone who follows debates about personal development, that a central question in these debates is whether our inner experience can affect reality.  In other words, can changes in our thoughts and feelings cause changes in the world around us?

It's tempting to respond the way some critics do, and treat the answer as plain -- and, perhaps, the question itself as dumb.  Clearly, the answer is no -- thinking about a BMW won't cause one to appear in my driveway, my bad moods don't cause inclement weather, and so on.  Only a fluff-headed, New-Agey navel-gazer could think otherwise.

But that response, as we'll see, caricatures and oversimplifies the question.  In fact, this question raises profound, and hotly debated, philosophical and scientific issues.  To illustrate, let's look at a few (and by no means all) of the ways we might answer this question.

Reductive Materialism

From one perspective, it's impossible for our thoughts and feelings to affect reality.  What we perceive as "thoughts" and "feelings" are merely our subjective experiences, or "epiphenomena," of biochemical processes in our brains.  Our experience of those processes plainly cannot cause or influence those processes.

Here's a crude analogy -- the chemical reactions in my brain are like a movie, and "I" am like a person watching that movie.  Clearly, my experience of the film can't alter the film itself. The fact that I like some character in the film, for instance, won't cause the movie's plot to change so that the character lives rather than dying.

One result of this view is that human beings don't have free will. This is because the very concept of "I" -- an individual who chooses, wants, makes plans, and so on -- is itself just a subjective experience of chemical reactions in the brain.  "I," being merely an illusion created by neurological activity, can't influence anything that happens in the physical world.

If you buy this view, you're free to claim that our thoughts and feelings don't affect reality at all.  But if you don't accept it, I think, you have to believe -- on some level -- that they do.

Emotions As Reasons

You may recall that, in an earlier post, I observed that we do most, or all, of the things we do in life because we want to experience certain feelings.  For example, as I pointed out, most people don't make money just to own little colored pieces of paper -- they do it to create feelings of security, power, joy, or something else.

If this is so, there is clearly a sense in which our inner experience -- our thoughts, feelings and sensations -- affects our reality.

Take the example of making money.  The feelings we desire (security, power, etc.) influence the actions we take in the world (starting a business, getting a job, and so on) -- and when we act, of course, we alter the physical world in some way.  This is just another way to put the point that we make money because we want those feelings.

Thus, on some level, I think most people would agree that our inner experience does affect reality.  The real question is the way in which, and perhaps the extent to which, it does so.  We'll get into that question more deeply in the next post.


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: