Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The trouble with self-help. Or, why the James Rays of the world do even more damage than you realized. Part 1.

Here's a link to last night's Primetime: Mind Games (with significant contributions from your sun-damaged host). The most jaw-dropping moment comes near the end, where at least two of the (surviving) Spiritual Warrior participants admit publicly that despite all that's happened, they still haven't given up on such retreats or even—most remarkablyon Ray himself. To me this speaks volumes about the obsession, desperation and cultlike thinking that's at the heart of today's self-help faddism. Dan Harris, by the way, does a masterful job throughout, and producer Miguel Sancho must get props for his writing, continuity and overall direction of the project.


I AM BY NATURE a happy, upbeat person. (Veteran SHAMbloggers: I'll give you a few moments to catch your breath after that laughing fit that just seized hold of you, then we'll proceed.)

It's true, though. Granted, I'm happy and upbeat in a very different way than that packaged and sold by the gurus of SHAMland. On the other hand, I think it likely that my kind of happiness is the only kind that works, sustainably, for the great mass of people who aren't Donald Trump or Stephen Strasburg. (And it probably applies in their case as well, inasmuch as the most rigorous studies of happiness suggest that wealth, fame an
d other environmental circumstances are not nearly the reliable markers for happiness that you'd think they'd be. I cover all this in a forthcoming piece for Skeptic.)

If I sometimes strike you as cranky and/or "negative
," it's because the gurus of the realm I cover have bastardized and perverted the concept of happiness in their haste to commercialize it. They're selling a vision of happiness and fulfillment that, while highly appealing and salable, is incompatible with life as it's actually lived, and for many (if not most) people is counterproductive. The sort of perpetually striving, goal-oriented Happyism that floods American culture is the opposite of the outlook that, evidence suggests, is needed to achieve lasting happiness or a reasonable facsimile thereof. The gurus, thus, are extracting large sums of money from you in exchange for filling your hearts and minds with a program that may make your life worse.

The key to happiness, you see, is not to fix your gaze continually on some distant horizon of more, better, bigger, faster, pricier. The key to happiness is not to buy into today's renewed revolution of rising expectations, with i
ts untold, backbreaking vanity taxes.

The key* to happiness is to never stop being grateful for what you've already got. Or—if you don't have that much—to be grateful for the fact that your life isn't worse. Good luck selling a self-help book with that titular concept, huh?:

Coming soon to a bookstore near you!
The Key to Happiness: Be Thankful Your Life Doesn't Suck Even More Than it Does Now!
This is, in fact, the crippling paradox of the entire self-help movement: You can't sell books or seminar programs with realistic themes.** If you tell it like it is, with all the inconvenient nuance and unpleasant straight talk, consumers won't buy. (In reality, it won't even come to that, since you'll never get a book deal to begin with.) To be marketable, your book must be simplistic bullshit.

But let's take a specific example. I've written in this space about my California neighbors, who'd leave their homes each winter morning, walk to their cars, get in and drive away without once looking up at the breathtaking snow-capped hills in the distance. For all intents and purposes, that gorgeous scenery had cea
sed to exist. I'd watch them leave the cul-de-sac and I'd just shake my head and wonder: How does a person ever get that jaded, that unappreciative?

See, we each have a box of things that we've done or accumulated—let's call it our Got-Box—and once something is in that Got-Box, we tend to stop counting it. We forget abo
ut it; at best, we fail to value it the same way we did when we were in hot pursuit of it. Accordingly, everything you have (or have achieved) to this point in life becomes a Given to you. You tuck it away in your Got-Box and you take it for granted as you refocus your lens on the next goal. Take my Cali neighbors. They lived in a lovely area, had sporty, reliable cars to drive to their well-paying jobs, were able to bring home good food for their nice, healthy families to eat night after night, etc. None of that really mattered anymore. Not the way it should have. Because all of that was already tucked into their Got-Boxes.

Or it's like this woman I saw one winter's day, many years ago, on Fifth Avenue. True, I didn't really know her circumstances, but based on appearances and locale and everything else I could discern, this was a woman of considerable privilege. Still, she wasn't smiling as she stood at the curb, waiting to cross. She looked solemn, serious (as did all of the equally privileged-looking people who flanked her). And when the bus came by and splashed her with dirty puddle water from the melting snow, she went ballistic. Out of her mind with rage. And I thought: When your ermine coat gets splashed with puddle water...why aren't you still grateful that you're wearing an ermine coat in the first place?

Answer: Because, again, the trophy was tucked away in her Got-Box.

Here are a few more things you didn't know about me, and probably wouldn't imagine, based on what I've presented on this blog in the nearly five years of its existence. I have never lost my personal sense of wonder at what life has to offer. Those who know me would tell you that I can get positively giddy about the prospect of a good hamburger, that I can "live" on that anticipation for the entire day, till the hamburger actually happens, after which I'll relive the joy for the balance of the evening. I am delirious that I can turn on my TV and, in a matter of seconds, be watching a baseball game that's taking place hundreds or thousands of miles away. That still surprises and delights me: that there is something called television that brings distant events into my home. And the Internet? Fuggetaboutit. The idea that I can simply go online and find troves of information that my predecessor journalists would've had to chase down over the course of weeks or months...or that, when I'm relaxing, I can click on YouTube and locate classic vids of Miles Davis or John Coltrane.... I don't think there are words to convey how I feel about that.

I take almost nothing for granted. In general, except on very, very bad days, I am grateful for each and every little thing in my life, each and every time I encounter or experience it.

When I talk to my grandchildren about how school went that day, regardless of whether they had a good day or a bad day, always in the back of my mind (and not very far back) I am thankful that they don't have to dodge bullets or shrapnel from IEDs or their way to and from school. To my way of thinking, that alone puts their lives at the 90th percentile, even if they never get a new outfit to wear and there is no money to sign them up for baseball or ballet. The fact that they do get new outfits to wear and that there is money to sign them up for baseball and/or ballet puts them up near the 100th percentile.

Here at home, I've been married for 34 years, yet it always astonishes me that someone is willing to make my dinner; I am never nonchalant about that. Each and every night when my wife prepares food, I thank her for it, and I am sincere in that gratitude. (To my mind, each time this happens, it's as if some surprise benefactor I've never met before arrived at my house and, for some unfathomable reason, cooked food for me to eat. I am amazed and enchanted that someone would do that for someone else, let alone for me.) Same with doing my laundry, if she does it. I'll do it, too, though she usually prefers to have unabridged dominion over that aspect of domestic life, because her conception of the type and number of categories of clothes that need to be separated into different wash-loads differs from my own. Point being, in Steve's world, everyone is individually responsible for doing every last thing for himself, and if someone else pitches in (even if that someone else is acting in accordance with a spoken understanding about the division of labor), that is still wonderful and happy-making when it occurs. It never goes into a Got-Box.

Nor is happiness, for me, about looking forward to trading my suddenly problematic five-year-old Maxima for that new Mazda SUV I've had my eye on; it's more a case of marveling at the fact that I ever had a Maxima at all. Drilling a bit deeper, I am thrilled for starters at the idea that cars exist, and that I can afford one, thereby alleviating the need for me to walk to the store and carry groceries back with me. (And on occasions when I've actually had to do that, I've been grateful for the exercise.) For that matter, I'm grateful that there are grocery stores, and that I don't have to play the role of hunter-gatherer anymore, fending off woolly mammoths or whatever as I go. be continued...

* or at least a key.
Discussion of these sorts of attitude adjustments may be moot, by the way, since science also suggests that to a considerable degree, happiness is genetically predisposed. But it's worth thinking about nonetheless.
** The irony is that you can sell parodies with such themes, but they won't be read by the people who really need to read them, and in any case no one takes them seriously.


RevRon's Rants said...

I think we could all do with a reminder now and then, Steve. My own "got box" tends to fill up now and then, and I appreciate the nudge to empty it when it does.

Many years ago, I took a vow of poverty (as I've mentioned before... one product of aging is the propensity for telling the same stories over and over again). It took me manhy years to realize that my vow was not a declaration that I couldn't have something, but rather a realization that at any given time, I have enough.

Ironic that a vow of poverty could actually be the ultimate affirmation of affluence. And for the record, the delightful lass who tends to things I'd rather avoid (and loves me more than my behavior warrants) will NEVER end up in my "got box."

Cosmic Connie said...

As someone who is also deeply grateful for the everyday things in my life, I think this is one of your finest posts yet, Steve. I think it's amusing that New-Wage gurus such as Joe Vitale, Abraham-Hicks, and even Rhonda Byrne have also written about the importance of gratitude, of being thankful for what you have. At one time Rhonda was even selling a leather-bound "Gratitude Journal" as an auxiliary product to The Secret DVD and book. I suppose the idea was to write in your gratitude journal to give thanks for your present circumstances, while at the same time you were pasting pics of fancy cars, mansions, and hot lovers on your Vision Board to help create your future circumstances.

The huge difference between the type of gratitude you write about, Steve, and the type the gurus preach about is that the latter suggest we use gratitude as a framework for making the so-called Law of Attraction work in order to get more and better stuff. The key, apparently, is that even if your life basically sucks, you have to be genuinely grateful for where you are now, so you don't send out "desperation vibes," which will apparently attract more desperate circumstances. It's as tricky as shopping for health insurance, pre-reform days, if you had a pre-existing condition.

I've cited the following example numerous times before and probably will again, but Joe V has a friend in Maui who goes by the name Bootsie. On more than one occasion Joe has quoted Bootsie as saying, "I'm totally satisfied, I just want more." The implicit message is that this is the type of attitude we should adopt if we expect the Universe to deliver all of the things to which we're really entitled.

Rational Thinking said...

Just to pick up on what Connie wrote, I think the problem with things like a Gratitude Journal is that it is forced - it becomes an itemized list of stuff you have that you know you should be grateful for - but that is nowhere near the spontaneous experiencing of gratitude - an overflowing heart, if you will:-)

Hope the ABC thing goes well tonight - and I am crossing my fingers that it gets on to You Tube, so that those of us across the pond get a chance to see it.

FreeSpiritDiva said...

I so needed to read this. I'm a regular reader and first time commenter. I'm recently coming out of my "happyism" fog and learning how to deal with life "today" rather than trying to fake being happy in hopes of a better "tomorrow". I've been trying to explain to my friends that life does not have to be a constant pep rally. I certainly have days where I feel sorry for myself but I have always lived with gratitude. For instance, on a particularly bad day, I was walking along and minding my own business when I was suddenly rained on by bird droppings and directly on my face and in my eye, no less. As I began to cry at the unfortunate situation, I instead began to laugh as I realized that my day could not get much worse than literally getting crapped on. On my worse days, 15 yrs later, I recall that moment and know that things will be alright. Your post reminded me a lot of how my kids see the world. They get genuinely excited about little things that even I go "oh brother" in regards to. It is so easy to take those little things for granted. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

mojo said...

While not a Buddhist myself, I have for a few years now been an unabashed fan of Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, who was very recently (just last Sunday!) touted by ABC's Dan Harris as a sort of an "anti-Secret" self-help purveyor. (The "anti-Secret" being my interpretation of Dan Harris' presentation, not necessarily her stand.)

Ani Pema's takeaway (as I understand it) is to fully face, embrace and experience the suffering of life along with the joy--instead of denying it, fighting it or pretending bad things aren't happening. I think anyone who has ever successfully conquered personal demons can attest to the efficacy of this approach, even though it is DISTINCTLY UNPLEASANT and rather hard, continuous work. Despite this promise of discomfort, by nearly all accounts she has been much more successful than most of the "gurus" you profile. She's even been extensively interviewed by Oprah(!).

Regarding happiness, like many people here, I too come from a very long, stable and loving relationship (I too am annoyingly happy and cheerful), and I agree that simple, quiet, heartfelt gratitude for the other person is probably one of the "magical" secrets so many are searching for. My husband and I do not hesitate to say "please" and "thank you" to one another, about the stupidest, littlest things, and, even more importantly, we MEAN it.

I think the basis of this respectful politeness (how's THAT for making a happy marriage seem utterly, utterly DULL?) stems from a deeper philosophy that seems the very antithesis of what is being taught by many of the "self-help" crowd--the notion of actively putting the feelings and desires of another person (gasp!) before your own. Of course, if you attempt this with an abusive person, you're just opening the door to abuse. But if each partner honestly desires only the other's happiness ahead of their own, well, happiness seems to be what both of you wind up getting.

It might not be flashy, but it's *real*. And that one lone reality is worth a thousand "happy" pretty, comfortable lies, in my book.

Steve Salerno said...

AND A NOTE TO MY ANONYMOUS TROLL-FRIEND(S): If you say something intelligent or at least semi-literate, no matter how critical it is of me, the blog or the house point of view, I will post it. If you just keep sniping away with your mindless potshots and putdowns, you might as well tell it to the mirror, because it ain't gonna make it onto the blog, and it bothers me about as much as it bothers me to accidentally step on an aphid...except that an aphid, I'm told, has a purpose in the cosmos.

Weston said...


An excellent post but (at least from my own experience) incomplete.

I tend to be most satisfied and happy with the stuff in my "got box" when I'm around and interacting with those that have less of those same things. However, I clearly tend to appreciate that exact same stuff (and experiences) much less when I'm around those that have more than me.

Am I just a flawed selfish human or are you failing to adequately consider the impact of comparisons to others, in effecting happiness?

Cal said...

I must admit that the last part where some of the participants said they would continue on in the self-help movement with either Ray or other gurus was shocking to me also. I mean people died! And that still wasn't enough for some of them.

Dave Q. said...

Thank-you, Steve, for a very personal and enlightening post. I appreciate you opening up like that to make your points. Great points they are, too.

I have to admit, I was preparing to ask if you might accept my vote or three (and since I'm from Chicago, the votes of my deceased relatives and friends) to nix the anon-snipers. They are usually just verbose, pseudo-intellectual troublemakers who are at best annoying, and at worst upsetting. I see you have already dealt with that issue and applaud you for it. I am a regular reader, and had been finding myself bracing for the negativity before I even opened the comments page.

Good job, as always.


NormDPlume said...

I just caught the Mind Games show via the link you posted. It was a carbon-copy of what NBC did about two weeks ago, except they Mind Games had you to indict to whole movement, and not just Mr. Ray.

I find the "victims" of this show to be annoying folks I would run from during my daily life. The three women reminded me of the worst dates in my life. And the two grinning-idiot guys are what I hope I never become: spineless morons just begging to be manipulated.

That said, annoying people do not deserve to be put a dangerous situation that they can't possible control just because they are terminally annoying. However, if Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity want to go undercover in the next James Ray sweat lodge, I won't object.

Steve Salerno said...

Norm: I think you oversimplify re the victims/"victims." But so be it.

For the record, I know for an absolute fact that our project (which began as a 20/20) was in development a long, long time before Dateline got its bright idea. We started working on this last October, if you can believe it. Dateline was very late to the party--getting started sometime in March or April.

Anonymous said...

The few at the end soud not much different than Ray to me. It comes across how awful someone else died but hey it helped me so heck yeah I'd do it again. Or as the one women said:

“It is horrible what happened in the sweatlodge, 3 people died but my life is better and I am so grateful for that, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

SaltyDroid said...

Great Post!

GotBoxing is so natural ... but so destructive. Learning to control it must be one of the keys to sanity, especially if you are fortunate enough to have been born into the developed/rich part of the world.

Another highly effective happiness bringing strategy almost never mentioned by these SHAM idiots ... NOT thinking about yourself all the god damn time. If you are having an "it could be worse" type of year ... then go out and find some people for whom it is worse {that won't be hard} ... and try to help them out in some way. Empathy for the suffering of others is like a shortcut to appreciating the beauty already present in your own life.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 4:07, to paraphrase Meg Ryan: yes, yes, YES. I was going to write a new post that homed in on that point explicitly--the narcissism of such comments; the utter detachment from any and all consequences that have no impact on you personally.

This is what the postmodern self-help movement has helped breed, and now those chickens are coming home to roost: It's all about personal empowerment in an era when "codependency" has come to mean "I don't really give a crap about anyone else; it's all about ME."

Steve Salerno said...

Droid: Very true, and not unrelated to the comment by Anon 4:07 or my response, above.

roger o'keefe said...

Steve, this Got Box thing is very catchy and just the kind of thing they love on morning television. I can see you doing an interview with Robin Roberts and her asking you all sorts of questions about how people can break out of their Got Box mentality. Have you considered writing a self-help book about this?

Steve Salerno said...

Roger: Very funny.

RevRon's Rants said...

I still think that the most callous instance of narcissism I've seen was when Joe Vitale wrote about his ex-wife's descent into depression after their divorce (and her having been molested by a "therapist" whom Joe had recommended she use). He ended the narrative with something like, "And yet, my own adventure continues."

He apparently reworded the offensive paragraph in a subsequent version, but had already shown his true colors.

RevRon's Rants said...

Forgot to mention: In his description of his ex-wife's descent into depression, he noted that it ended with her taking her own life, concluding the narrative with the "... meanwhile, my own adventures..." bit.

Of course, he has magnanimously "forgiven" his deceased ex-wife for the "choices she made." What a mensch, eh?

Cosmic Connie said...

Amen to Ron's observations about Mr. Fire and the sex predator "therapist." (I almost had an encounter with that same "therapist" years ago but fortunately was too creeped out after just talking to him on the phone that I never followed up.)

And related to what Droid, the 4:07 Anon and Cal said, I am pretty sad about the folks who, even after having attended the Death Lodge, still vow to follow JAR or some other selfish-help guru. I agree with the woman who said that there are some good people in the industry, but I rather suspect that most in the top tier are egotistical, narcissistic, and greedy, even if no one has died at their events.

The guy with the glasses in particular made me shake my head. By his own admission he doesn't have the promised wealth from his JAR experiences, and in fact has considerably less money than he did before he got sucked into the Ray sales funnel, but he feels more positive about his situation. I guess value really is a subjective judgment in many cases, but I wonder if these folks have any idea how utterly selfish and self-absorbed they sounded on that show.

And as Steve noted, the person who said the ABC show was a carbon copy of Dateline is wrong. Not only was it many months in the making but I think it was head and shoulders above the Dateline piece, which didn't even bother to mention Colleen Conaway, and also didn't make much of an attempt to put the James Ray incident into the larger context of the self-help industry. The very fact that Bob Proctor and Joe Vitale had cameo roles in the Mind Games episode (and Michael Beckwith had one in the ABC Nightline episode the night before) shows me that at least ABC is making a serious attempt to make up for the big pass that all of the networks gave the gurus for so long.

Steve Salerno said...

Look, folks. Boiling this down to the nitty-gritty (if indeed "nitty-gritty" is the distillate left from the process of boiling something down), the simple fact is, you can't do an airy, out-and-out "think piece" on network TV. No one will watch--or people will watch for about 5 minutes, until they realize they're being called upon to join in a participative exercise that attempts a philosophical assessment of life, at which point they'll switch over to Survivor or reruns of Hee-Haw. You have to give people the sizzle, in fair quantities, in order to get them to accept the steak. So the main emphasis in any piece about James Ray is naturally going to settle on the sweat lodge and its aftermath and the grieving people left behind; that's the "sexy" element, if you will.

That said, I agree (self-servingly) with Connie that ABC and I did a very good job at weaving in as much thought-provoking context as was possible under the circumstances. Because let's face it: If people hadn't died in James Ray's sweat lodge, would two of the three major networks be devoting hour-long exposes to self-help in the first place?

Nonetheless, let's not lose sight of the takeaway here: It is VERY important that viewers see the connection between the "silliness" of a guy like Joe Vitale and the more serious dangers of a guy like James Ray...that they are really one and the same, except that Ray pushed the envelope in execution (no pun intended). People need to realize that James Ray was not an aberration: that, indeed, he could be the poster boy for latter-day SHAMland. That's where our piece succeeded and Dateline failed.

Cosmic Connie said...

Couple more points: It appears, Steve, that I'm not the only person who thinks you might have the basics of a brand with this Got-Box thing. You could end up being the Accidental Guru! (Which could actually work, as long as you never completely play it seriously.)

Droid's suggestion about nurturing empathy for others who are worse off is very good, and it is so completely opposite of what the LOA-noids, including Rhonda Byrne, suggest. Since in the faux-scientific world of the Secretrons "like attracts like," the key to happiness and wealth and health is to hang around people who are happy and wealthy and healthy. If you hang around people with problems, or even if you think about their problems too much, the resulting vibes might attract some of the same crap to you, and you don't want that.

Rhonda even gave similar advice about weight loss in "The Secret" (book version): "If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it."