Let’s say you are dissatisfied with your life in some way.  Is the cause personal or societal?  Notice what emotions arise in you just from hearing that question.

Some quotes.

Micki McGee in Self-Help, Inc.:

“I have yet to find a best-selling self-improvement book that prompts one to consider, for example, the following:  “If you could live in a world where profit were not the motivating force of production, what would your life look like?” or “How would your life be different if the nutritional, medical and educational needs of children were the top priority of every individual, every group, and every institution?”  or “How would your life be different if racism/sexism/anti-Semitism or other religious intolerance were no longer a structuring principle of social relations?”  Were such questions part of the discourse of self-improvement culture, the writing exercises found in self-help books might be a remarkable tool for social transformation. One’s realization of one’s self might genuinely lead to societal change (though the steps between imagining the idealized future and realizing it would likely involve a good bit more than imagination.)  However, in its current insularity, the literature of self-improvement directs the reader to familiar frameworks, namely, what should one seek for one’s self narrowly conceived as a private individual rather than as a citizen or stakeholder in larger and more public arenas.”

“Self-improvement culture, as it actually exists, derails the opportunities for indivdiuals to understanding injuries or grievances as part of systematic social problems.  [….]  The literatures and practices of self-improvement culture do this in two ways:  first, in self-improvement literature, victims are anathema, and second, when victimization occurs, it is almost exclusively located in the past, in the lost world of childhood, where the family, imagined as isolated from society as a whole, is named as the cause of the violence or injustice. [….] Thus the usual political strategy of organizing individuals around their grievances is short-circuited, and culpability is turned back on the self. Problems and grievances are cast as personal “challenges” that the individual must strive to overcome.  [….]  What the literatures of self-improvement do offer is the promise of power, however limited in scope and mistakenly located it may be in isolated individual action.  Traditional political organizing, for example, the recruitment strategies of labor organizers, builds on a sense of aggrievement and then moves the aggrieved individual to locate his or her power in the group, forging a sense of collective identity that is not wholly a function of victimization but takes victimization as its starting point.”

In this way, self-help can be said to reinforce the social status quo, or at least not to challenge it.  Whether this is intentional or unintentional (I’m steering clear of conspiracy theories for the moment), in my opinion it would be at minimum convenient, to a relatively small group of people who wanted to gain disproportionate economic and social power over a relatively large group of others, if those others believe their problems are all “personal challenges” rather than symptoms of unhealthy, unjust or exploitative social systems.

Furthermore, notice recent propagation of catchy pop-psych memes, specifically the freedom people now seem to feel to tell strangers on Internet discussion boards, for example to “stop complaining and look at your own self and your own role in it” or similar.  Now, nobody has to regulate the populace against rebellion or broader scale social change.  They regulate themselves.

David Smail (who I’ve quoted before here) writes about societal and environmental factors in the context of mental health and psychotherapy:

“From a psychological point of view the Twentieth Century has been a colossal diversion (certainly in the West) from an examination of the way individuals are created and maintained by their environment. The   quality of thought Plato gave in his Republic to the kind of cultural diet most suitable for its future leaders is barely conceivable now, where about the most we get is cursory studies or literature reviews to show, for example, that television has no influence on violence. Our emphasis, as I have already indicated, is very heavily on the inside, on mental factors such as choice and will, and moral factors mostly seen as personal, such as ‘responsibility’. Because of this, our gaze is diverted from the social world around us and our preoccupations are with self-transformation of the personality rather than political transformation of the society beyond the boundaries of our skin.


We have become absolutely to depend on the notion that it is possible to change aspects of ourselves we find inconvenient, to erase the inscription upon us of the environmental influences which surround us. Rather   than accepting that experience marks us for good and all, we wish to insist – indeed have come to expect and demand – that its effects can be counselled away.

But would it really be so terrible if psychotherapy didn’t work in the way we seem to expect it to? Perhaps if we were shaken out of our bewitched fascination with imagination and ‘virtuality’, the wishful invention of interior worlds which have no embodied substance, we might come to see that paying sober attention to the realities of social structure and of our relations with each other as public, not simply private, beings is an option. A difficult one certainly – not so easy as dreaming and wishing – but at least a real one. What this would entail is a recognition that maybe prevention is more possible than cure; a down-grading of psychology in favour of an up-grading of politics.

Where, though, would this leave individuals? Would we not, for example, be in danger of depersonalizing ourselves and risking becoming part of a grey, undifferentiated mass, prey to totalitarian solutions of the kind too often experienced already in this now dying century? I really don’t see why this should be. Politics doesn’t have to be dishonourable. There is no reason in principle why we shouldn’t be able to resurrect a politics whose central concerns are with such things as liberty, justice and equality. Very difficult, certainly; naïve, Utopian, idealistic, I can’t deny. But at least not, like the psychology of self-creation and self-transformation, impossible.”

As Smail suggests, somebody has to start dreaming.  But so often stating these dreams out loud in public is immediately met with a response of judgment or evaluation:  “there’s no way that could happen for everybody worldwide, economic/political/whatever systems don’t work like that” or “what are you personally doing to make this happen?”

Personal integrity is certainly an admirable goal.  Note the popularity of the Gandhi quote “be the change you wish to see in the world” – quoted so often I don’t know if that is even the original wording.  It is difficult to be a leader and get others to follow you if you don’t practice what you preach.   But does “being the change” refer to changing personally, or changing in groups?

Especially if you are a very conscientious idealist, it is easy to focus so much on integrity that you think you can’t accomplish anything  until you’ve worked out all your own problems.  Oh, and especially if you’ve been reading about the Law of Attraction, you interpret the failure of your change initiatives (or of people to respond favourably to them) as being caused by your own “negative thoughts”!

Note that the authors I quoted above do not discount individual actions.  Instead they are saying that societal factors (e.g. government, economics) have significant (if not determinative) influence on the individual, but are largely ignored as a cause of individual distress by both the self-help industry and psychotherapy.  Collective action is needed to alleviate individual distress.

So, the next time you hear someone mention a possibility for social change, instead of jumping right to evaluating it….consider responding with a moment of stillness for contemplation of the new thing that has emerged.  Maybe even an attitude of “what if?”

Here’s mine for today.

Imagine a society where everyone who wants meaningful work has it, and anybody who finds their job unrewarding has options, isn’t stuck in it for practical reasons (for most people it’s financial, “I hate my job but I have to pay the bills”)….they can find something that pays the bills but is also personally fulfilling.

This might even involve a duty on the part of employers to provide people with meaningful work (or ways to make even the “…well, somebody has to do it” work meaningful).  Imagine that!

Yes, there are real obstacles.  Just….sit with me in the “what if” for a while.