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 remarkably—on 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 and 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 its 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!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.
The Key to Happiness: Be Thankful Your Life Doesn't Suck Even More Than it Does Now!
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 ceased 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 about 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.
...to 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.