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:
- Corporations that enjoy U.S. customers but shirk U.S. taxes
- Prison-for-profit schemes that target minority youth
- An unchecked surveillance state that treats citizens like criminals
- No public system of early childhood education (except for in a few states)
- The waging of multiple covert, unconstitutional, illegal stealth wars with taxpayer money
- Corporations that are allowed to destroy the environment and human health for profit
- Extreme income inequality that erodes social trust and decreases happiness across all social strata
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.