Jun 15, 2010

When Self Help Isn't Helpful

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

The backlash against "positive thinking" continues. Psychologist Jeffrey Hull weighs in on the lack of utility in the shiny, happy help.

A client walks into my office, flings down her hefty shoulder bag with a scowl, and flops on to the sofa. Reaching into the overstuffed bag, she pulls out a small stack of brightly colored self-help books, all of which have the trendy word "Happy" in the title, and tosses them on my coffee table. "Ok, Dr. J, I've read all these new books on happiness. I've tried out their five steps, completed their six practices and read about their endless studies of happy people--all to no avail. Why am I still miserable? What's wrong with me?!"

Tough question. But a good one, and by no means the first time I've heard it. With the emergence of the field known as "positive psychology" (a.k.a. the study of happiness), the self-help industry has decidedly tilted away from personal and spiritual growth and begun churning out a surfeit of "don't worry, be happy" kinds of books. Most of these surely intend to make us feel better; however, they are simply book-length motivational speeches. They do well in today's quick-fix, pop-a-pill approach to dealing with life's upheavals but there is one problem: I don't think they work. In truth, it's worse than that. We read them at our peril. In the guise of "self-help," I find that, in many cases, they actually hurt--reinforcing the exact opposite of what they intend: unhappiness. Why?

Unfortunately, many people respond exactly as Hull's client has. They blame themselves rather than considering the possibility that something is "wrong" with the books. Motivational speakers are, after all, very good at sounding certain. So, in addition to whatever discomfort leads people to the bookstore for help, they now have the added misery of being made to feel like they've failed at the very "simple" process of completely turning their lives around. Worse still, some of these people are battling serious emotional and/or physical illnesses for which they now feel they are to blame because they "created" them and can't seem to uncreate them by following "seven steps" or some other simple formula.

Consider an analogy. Substantial research has shown that as our culture becomes more and more obsessed with physical appearance and vaults "thin" (downright skinny if you're a woman) and "fit" into iconic territory, incidences of poor self-esteem, low self-worth and even depression associated with physical appearance, in young people particularly, have exploded. As the bookshelves, magazine racks and now Internet sites clog with pictures of sculpted, muscular, six-pack-toting fellows and elegant stick-figure females, the importance we ascribe to beauty and a slim physique actually seems to increase suffering for one reason: Most of us never measure up.

I submit that the same dynamic holds sway in the kingdom of happiness. In a world where the real process of living is more cyclical and replete with constant shifts and upheaval, anchoring ourselves in "happy-land" may be a laudable goal, but its achievement, at least for any length of time, contradicts nature's ways. Just as the beauty of any rose is doomed to fade, so too the bloom of happiness is transient, and any attachment to it being permanent is bound to set up a clinging, anxious longing. Buddhists are clearly onto something. Attachment to and idealization of all things "happy" may actually bring on the very thing we most try to avoid: suffering.

Precisely. Happiness, health, wealth, and perfect relationships are the new impossible standards spiritual seekers are now supposed to compare themsevles to. As James Arthur Ray put it in these choice quotes:

Maybe you, like me, are tired of the so-called "spiritual individual" who is sick and broke all the time, or the "mystic hopeful" who can't carry on an intelligent conversation about real life.

. . .

Likewise, there are others who qualify as a creative genius, and they're physically sick all the time. That's not real wealth!

Then there are those who claim to be really "spiritual," and they're always financially broke. That's not wealth either!

Think about it. By Ray's standard, Stephen Hawking is a cautionary tale.

I was reflecting this morning on the absurdity of some of James Ray's "teachings." Because he knows "how the universe works," Ray likes to talk in quantum physics analogies. Here, he explains how wealth is created... or not.

The observer effect basically states this: At the foundation of this entire universe, in the quantum domain, you get what you're looking for. Always. Always. Let me tell you something. If your financial abundance today is in the wave state, that's why it's not in your wallet.

As anyone who's ever tried to stare quantum waves into hard cash has discovered, it's not as simple as he makes it sound. There are many reasons for this, but among the more obvious is that even the greatest minds in physics are still lacking a "theory of everything." Even that loser Stephen Hawking knows that. I was reminded of this this morning when I read this:

Lord Rees told The Sunday Times: ‘A “true” fundamental theory of the universe may exist but could be just too hard for human brains to grasp.

'Just as a fish may be barely aware of the medium in which it lives and swims, so the microstructure of empty space could be far too complex for unaided human brains.’

Lord Rees’s prediction has been prompted by the failure of scientists to reconcile the forces that govern the behaviour of the cosmos with those that rule the ‘microworld’ of atoms and particles.

So if brilliant physicists are still struggling to reconcile quantum theory with the physical world, how is it that James Arthur Ray has it so sorted out?

The problem with books like The Secret and its many imitators is that they promise simplistic solutions to complex problems. They lay out paradigms that are impossible, impracticable, and completely unproven. Being happy all the time is not a natural state. Nor is a constant state of perfect health, wealth, and relationships. And a cat in a box cannot be simultaneously dead and alive.

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