J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

The Pursuit of Happiness Is Meaningless Without the Pursuit of Justice

Where’s the Justice League when you need ’em?

Ambushed By An Article

Yesterday morning I was happily drinking coffee and reading the New York Times, when I came across this disturbing article by conservative think tanker Arthur Brooks.

The piece starts off as a bland rehash of “the latest” happiness research (trotting out studies from the seventies). Nothing new, but nothing offensive either. Towards the end, the piece takes a sharp right turn as Brooks champions free enterprise as the solution to both personal happiness and global poverty. The bogeymen of socialism and collectivism are trotted out as the usual enemies. Perhaps as an apologetic concession to liberal NYT readers, Brooks does acknowledge that social mobility and economic opportunity are on the decline in the United States (at least as compared to Canada and the Scandinavian countries — ironically all collectivist social democracies). The whole piece is a confused mess.

Personal Development Hijacked by Corporate Ideology

So why am I writing about it?

This blog is subtitled “Systems for Living Well.” I agree with many of Arthur Brooks’ conclusions about personal happiness (a spiritual life, strong relationships, meaningful work, and connection to community are all important). But I want to distance myself from Brooks (as well as bloggers like Steve Pavlina, Gretchen Rubin, Tony Robbins, and Tim Ferriss) who approach personal happiness and life satisfaction in a “bubble” context, ignoring social and political issues as if they didn’t exist.

Too often, self-help philosophies function as a justification for right-wing ideology. Ignore the bad cards life has dealt you, and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps! Pursue your passion and beat the economic odds! Be a winner not a loser! A credo of personal accountability ties in neatly to ideals of free enterprise and anti-welfare sentiments.

In a similar vein, advocating gratitude and forgiveness as spiritual practices is usually good advice (in terms of emotional health and personal empowerment). But the same philosophy can be twisted to imply that workers should be happy with (and feel grateful for) whatever is doled out by their employers, instead of negotiating for better wages, benefits, and working conditions, or fighting against corporate crime and corruption. It’s one thing to forgive the CEO of a Wall Street company that swindled tax-payers, so you don’t have to live with hate in your heart. But it’s another thing to lie down and let them do it again.

I believe in personal accountability, the value of hard work, establishing effective habits, practicing gratitude — all the same things that the Pavlina/Rubin/Robbins/Ferriss types are pushing. But I also believe that if we truly want to live well, we should fight against the injustices that prevent others from living well.

So what are the injustices we should be fighting against? Well, for starters:

Maybe, if I’m not happy, it’s because my conscience isn’t clear. Maybe I’m not working hard enough for the right for others to get a fair shot at the pursuit of happiness. Yes, we’re all responsible for our own happiness and sense of meaning in life. But if we ignore injustice, others may not even get the chance to pursue happiness.

Call To Action

To writers, bloggers, economists, psychologists, and social scientists who are exploring the topic of happiness, here’s what I’m suggesting:

  • Don’t be a tool for corporate ideology. In the discussion of personal happiness and life meaning, don’t ignore oppression and injustice, wherever you see it.
  • Allow for the possibility that the concepts of personal accountability and social inequity/injustice can co-exist.
  • Don’t only look at happiness and life satisfaction on a personal level, but consider social and economic factors that affect us collectively, and call people to action to fight against injustice, greed, corruption, oppression, and other realities that hurt all of us.

I do understand why self-help writers want to steer clear of these topics. If you write about political issues, you potentially lose half your audience (or more). And I want to give credit to Ferriss and Robbins especially for raising money for schools, fighting poverty, etc.

But it’s delusional to think that we can *all* pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and visualize (or optimize) our way to an ideal life, when income inequality is so high, and social mobility so low, and we live in an age of rampant unchecked corporate irresponsibility.

Please share your thoughts below.


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  1. Eric

    Well said.

  2. Sara

    Spot on as usual – I couldn’t agree more!

  3. Yes, yes, yes. And echoes of another blogger (and good friend of mine) who has made it her life’s mission to raise the consciousness of those of us still not awakened: http://bethechange2012.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/lets-face-it-charity-is-not-enough. You and your followers may be interested to check out her blog.

    • Good article. Charity is better than nothing, but constructive systemic change trumps charity every time.

  4. Julia

    I couldn’t agree more. Now we need to increase the awareness.

  5. The concept of being the change we want to see in the world is still largely not understood or applied. It is literally true that by working with ourselves, cultivating our own garden, changing in positive ways, simultaneously changes the world and those around us.

    This isn’t to say we should never extend a helping hand to others. But we help them more when we see their strength rather than focusing on their problems and the inequities of their situation.

    • Hi Jenifer. I agree that personal change ripples outward and affects those around us. I also agree with your point that focusing on a person’s strengths is usually more helpful than focusing on what is “keeping them down.”

      But can’t part of “being the change we want to see” include fighting social injustices? Like helping young children who don’t have access to preschool? Or fighting against corporate criminals who are polluting the environment or defrauding taxpayers?

  6. Thank you for the comments everyone. Another way of thinking about this issue just occurred to me.

    Imagine that you are a mega-wealthy plutocrat. Someone who is not only insanely rich, but believes that the elites should control society by virtue of their wealth. Someone like Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart, The Koch brothers, or the Walton family.

    Try to imagine, as that person, what kind of philosophy or system for living you would prefer to be popular among the masses. Something that would preserve the status quo, and brush social injustices under the rug.

    The philosophies of The Secret would be ideal. Attract what you want by focusing your thoughts and adjusting your attitude. In that philosophy there is no such thing as social injustice, because everyone attracts their own reality (including natural disasters, the collapse of the state into chaos or fascism, etc.). From your point of view it’s the perfect philosophy for the citizens of your nation. They many not even bother to vote! You’re all set — there are no threats to your wealth or power.

    More or less “neutral” philosophies or approaches (from your perspective) might include the advice of Tony Robbins, Tim Ferriss, or most of the advice on this blog. Ferriss, for example, focuses on personal health, accelerated learning, hacking systems for personal advantage, and helping underprivileged people through charity. There is a risk that these systems might create empowered, aware individuals who tackle social problems and address social injustices. These people could threaten your empire. But mostly these folks are focused on gaining personal wealth, health, happiness, career advances, and so on. There isn’t much focus on social injustice or changing society.

    Your “nightmare” philosophy/life system would be one that focuses not only on personal empowerment, but also on social activism. In such systems there is no separation between personal development and efforts to change society. The practitioners are a threat to the status quo, and therefore a threat to you (the insanely rich plutocrat).

    That’s the direction I’m interested in going. A system for living that embraces social change and activism as equally important to personal growth and empowerment.

  7. What do you think of this, J.D.?


    Principles of Spiritual Activism

    The following principles emerged from several years’ work with social change leaders in Satyana’s Leading with Spirit program. We offer these not as definitive truths, but rather as key learnings and guidelines that, taken together, comprise a useful framework for “spiritual activism.”

    1. Transformation of motivation from anger/fear/despair to compassion/love/purpose. This is a vital challenge for today’s social change movement. This is not to deny the noble emotion of appropriate anger or outrage in the face of social injustice. Rather, this entails a crucial shift from fighting against evil to working for love, and the long-term results are very different, even if the outer activities appear virtually identical. Action follows Being, as the Sufi saying goes. Thus “a positive future cannot emerge from the mind of anger and despair” (Dalai Lama).
    2. Non-attachment to outcome. This is difficult to puNont into practice, yet to the extent that we are attached to the results of our work, we rise and fall with our successes and failures—a sure path to burnout. Hold a clear intention, and let go of the outcome—recognizing that a larger wisdom is always operating. As Gandhi said, “the victory is in the doing,” not the results. Also, remain flexible in the face of changing circumstances: “Planning is invaluable, but plans are useless.”(Churchill)
    3. Integrity is your protection. If your work has integrity, this will tend to protect you from negative energy and circumstances. You can often sidestep negative energy from others by becoming “transparent” to it, allowing it to pass through you with no adverse effect upon you. This is a consciousness practice that might be called “psychic aikido.”
    4. Integrity in means and ends. Integrity in means cultivates integrity in the fruit of one’s work. A noble goal cannot be achieved utilizing ignoble means.
    5. Don’t demonize your adversaries. It makes them more defensive and less receptive to your views. People respond to arrogance with their own arrogance, creating rigid polarization. Be a perpetual learner, and constantly challenge your own views.
    6. You are unique. Find and fulfill your true calling. “It is better to tread your own path, however humbly, than that of another, however successfully.” (Bhagavad Gita)
    7. Love thy enemy. Or at least, have compassion for them. This is a vital challenge for our times. This does not mean indulging falsehood or corruption. It means moving from “us/them” thinking to “we” consciousness, from separation to cooperation, recognizing that we human beings are ultimately far more alike than we are different. This is challenging in situations with people whose views are radically opposed to yours. Be hard on the issues, soft on the people.
    8. Your work is for the world, not for you. In doing service work, you are working for others. The full harvest of your work may not take place in your lifetime, yet your efforts now are making possible a better life for future generations. Let your fulfillment come in gratitude for being called to do this work, and from doing it with as much compassion, authenticity, fortitude, and forgiveness as you can muster.
    9. Selfless service is a myth. In serving others, we serve our true selves. “It is in giving that we receive.” We are sustained by those we serve, just as we are blessed when we forgive others. As Gandhi says, the practice of satyagraha (“clinging to truth”) confers a “matchless and universal power” upon those who practice it. Service work is enlightened self-interest, because it cultivates an expanded sense of self that includes all others.
    10. Do not insulate yourself from the pain of the world. Shielding yourself from heartbreak prevents transformation. Let your heart break open, and learn to move in the world with a broken heart. As Gibran says, “Your pain is the medicine by which the physician within heals thyself.” When we open ourselves to the pain of the world, we become the medicine that heals the world. This is what Gandhi understood so deeply in his principles of ahimsa and satyagraha. A broken heart becomes an open heart, and genuine transformation begins.
    11. What you attend to, you become. Your essence is pliable, and ultimately you become that which you most deeply focus your attention upon. You reap what you sow, so choose your actions carefully. If you constantly engage in battles, you become embattled yourself. If you constantly give love, you become love itself.
    12. Rely on faith, and let go of having to figure it all out. There are larger ‘divine’ forces at work that we can trust completely without knowing their precise workings or agendas. Faith means trusting the unknown, and offering yourself as a vehicle for the intrinsic benevolence of the cosmos. “The first step to wisdom is silence. The second is listening.” If you genuinely ask inwardly and listen for guidance, and then follow it carefully—you are working in accord with these larger forces, and you become the instrument for their music.
    13. Love creates the form. Not the other way around. The heart crosses the abyss that the mind creates, and operates at depths unknown to the mind. Don’t get trapped by “pessimism concerning human nature that is not balanced by an optimism concerning divine nature, or you will overlook the cure of grace.” (Martin Luther King) Let your heart’s love infuse your work and you cannot fail, though your dreams may manifest in ways different from what you imagine.

    • I think that’s a great set of principles. I don’t completely agree with every point, but I won’t quibble. Good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Glad you appreciate it!

    We were discussing this general topic at one of my online forums, and one of the members posted:

    “My personal view is that we must open our hearts, correct the misunderstanding that we are separate from our brothers and sisters, yet allow them their experiences also. I am not here to take away an experience from anyone, but i will soften the fall, offer a hand, a room, an ear, and act in the knowing that this is one life, and I am mindful of being a servant unto a higher power than my own fears. Do we have a fear of looking? When does injustice reach a point where we choose to participate? Here we are, I keep saying. Yes create a beautiful world in your mind and it will come….I come from the standpoint of knowing it will come, that it is becoming, and until I see it, I will act in accord with my yearnings knowing that I am taking a stand to past thoughts – they are a collective thought of tyranny and victimization, but here they are, and here we are.

    How fast would it all dissolve if everyone took a stand united? How many people and only if they’re not related to you, does it take to make us take balanced action? When do we act? When it’s on our literal doorstep? Will we Omm our way out of all circumstances? -while liberties and privacy continue to shrink? While needy are too despondent to even bother asking? We experience the swing after the creation from the thought in the stillpoint, but if we always are the stillpoint then we’ll disappear out of here. It’s so easy to turn away, stay clean. It’s just as easy (I’ve learned) to act righteously and remain balanced. It takes a strong connection to God/Source, and that is all, because then we will always act as we are divinely guided. We got a bit stuck, so I will always do what I’m compelled to do…unequivocally shine on in my way regardless…so as to stir the flame of recognition in another. I’ll take a day off later. Meantime, no, lovetime, I’ll fashion my own pearls with those aggravating grains of sand, just more centered, with more power, and oftentimes with a laugh wanting to break free from somewhere within. I find there are times to retreat, times to observe, and times to act.”

    I think the bottom line is that we have to trust our own inner guidance in this as in all things. Thanks for bringing up this very important topic.

  9. sashwort

    It’s govt irresponsibility, not corporate irresponsibility. I suggest you read the works of Ludwig von Mises next time before sharing your ignorance.

  10. sashwort

    Why are you attacking business? Let me guess. Because govt, the communist/socialist/democratic party has brainwashed you into believing that the cause of poverty is corporate greed. I’ve got news for you. It’s not business holding a gun to your head demanding money. Corporations don’t have the legal authority to steal your money; govt does.

    • Hi sashwort! Thanks for your comment. Do you really see communism and democracy as the same?

      I am a middle-of-the-road centrist. I am for corporate charter reform, but I am not against corporations or the corporate structure in general (I am a partner in a limited liability corporation). I’m an entrepreneur and business owner.

      There is plenty of responsibility (or blame, if you prefer) to go around. I would include government, and I would include U.S. citizens (including myself). I do think we live in a era where large international corporations hold most of the power … these entities are not subject to the rule of a single government because they are multinationals and have accounts (and avoid taxes) in many countries.

      As a fan of Mises, do you consider yourself a libertarian? I am sympathetic to many libertarian ideas, especially along the lines of government staying out of people’s personal lives. Perhaps, like me, you are deeply skeptical and critical of the surveillance state. Maybe you are also critical of the United States spending tax money on illegal wars. Maybe we can find some common ground. Stick around — your comments are welcome — especially if you tone down the name calling.

  11. Great post. I will be going through a few of these issues
    as well..

  12. Turning off comments on this post because it seems to be a spam magnet for some reason.

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