This is part 2 in a series. Best read part 1 first if you haven’t already.
The other day I read an article in Newsweek entitled The Creativity Crisis (via my Twitter-friend @BeyondMeds). The article is about how American creativity is declining and what we can do about it. While there are many interesting tidbits in the full article, what stood out to me most was a particular research study from University of Georgia’s Mark Runco:
…creative people, for the most part, exhibit active moods and positive affect. They’re not particularly happy—contentment is a kind of complacency creative people rarely have. But they’re engaged, motivated, and open to the world.
The new view is that creativity is part of normal brain function. Some scholars go further, arguing that lack of creativity—not having loads of it—is the real risk factor [for anxiety and depression commonly thought to be a trait of creative people]. In his research, Runco asks college students, “Think of all the things that could interfere with graduating from college.” Then he instructs them to pick one of those items and to come up with as many solutions for that problem as possible. This is a classic divergent-convergent creativity challenge. A subset of respondents…quickly list every imaginable way things can go wrong. But they demonstrate a complete lack of flexibility in finding creative solutions. It’s this inability to conceive of alternative approaches that leads to despair. Runco’s two questions predict suicide ideation—even when controlling for preexisting levels of depression and anxiety.
In Runco’s subsequent research, those who do better in both problem-finding and problem-solving have better relationships. They are more able to handle stress and overcome the bumps life throws in their way. A similar study of 1,500 middle schoolers found that those high in creative self-efficacy had more confidence about their future and ability to succeed. They were sure that their ability to come up with alternatives would aid them, no matter what problems would arise.
In other words, people who aren’t particularly depressed or anxious now that can easily list potential problems but can’t come up with any solutions are more likely to think about suicide (a hallmark of depression).
The Unsuccessful Success Strategy
Lets say you were to take one of these people from the study who can’t think of solutions and get him or her to walk across burning hot coals barefoot by entering a “peak state,” screaming “COOL MOSS! COOL MOSS! COOL MOSS!”, and beating their hands on their chest to “break through their fear.” Are they likely to be more creative in coming up with potential solutions to their problems and thus staving off depression? What if this person were to take Robbins’ suggestion that the firewalk is a apt metaphor for how one should deal with life’s challenges in general?
Here’s a little thought experiment:
- A person with a lack of creativity in solving personal problems (i.e. “unsuccessful”) learns this “success strategy” of aggressively pumping themselves up instead of thinking about solutions.
- Unprepared for potential personal threats—since they haven’t thought through them—and yet manically overconfident, this person inevitably fails at reaching their goals, or else massively overcompensates thus creating multiple negative side-effects (more problems).
- Failing to reach one’s goals/creating more problems that seem overwhelming (due to poor problem-solving ability) creates feelings of depression and despair (another problem).
- Still not equipped with an effective strategy for dealing with problems or unpleasant emotions, the person doubles down on the original strategy since it at least worked temporarily to keep overwhelming emotions at bay.
- Still unprepared, s/he fails again, causing more intense depression, despair, anxiety, etc.
- Rinse and repeat.
Here we come to understand a looping program for spiraling depression, if not bipolar—built into the very framework of the cult of aggressive positivity found in Tony Robbins’ workshop, but also found in other popular self-help workshops, books, CDs, blogs, eBooks, coaching programs, etc. As with most chronic psychological problems, the attempted solution makes the problem worse. The alcoholic drinks to make his hangover go away. The sweet-tooth eats sugar to reward himself for going all day without sugar. The unsuccessful self-helper pushes away fear only to then be more unprepared and therefore more likely to fail, becoming even more depressed with each failure. By not thinking about negative potential problems or future scenarios, one never develops the skill of being able to handle them. Of course as soon as you teach your people to think critically, you’ve lost most of your potential money as a guru—both because they get better and thus aren’t as eager to buy more of the same, but also because they think critically about your sales messages too. One can still make a respectable living this way, but will probably not reach the same dizzying heights of fame and fortune.
Robbins claimed in his public TED talk—with now over 2.1 million views on YouTube alone—that he has never lost a client to suicide. Since his organization doesn’t do followups with all of his thousands of seminar attendees (only a select few that are used for video testimonials), this claim is totally corrupted by confirmation bias. There have been many reports of suicide and psychosis following intensive weekend workshops like Robbins’ on anti-cult forums like Rick Ross. Were these caused by the workshops themselves, or would they have happened anyway? The question of causation is tricky business, especially with lawyers under the employ of seminar organizations actively suppressing such negative information (note to such lawyers: while I can neither confirm nor deny any claims as to whether anyone has ever committed suicide as a result of attending a Tony Robbins event or any other workshop, I won’t be removing this post which merely states my opinions and is protected free speech—see also.) Regardless, the aggressive positivity taught in this and related workshops certainly does not adequately prepare participants to think effectively about life’s challenges. While Robbins does include a hodgepodge of other methods of personal change, his strong emphasis on emotional bodybuilding likely leads others to the emotional highs and lows I experienced as a devotee of his methods. Now we can clearly understand why.
Emotional Bodybuilding: All Show and No Go
Aggressively inducing states of happiness and overconfidence when you feel otherwise actively prevents you from becoming more resourceful and creative with personal problem-solving. Robbins and other Self Help gurus repeat the mantra that fear is the only thing stopping you from achieving your goals, and then encourage you to actively suppress fear by overwhelming it with aggressive positivity. While a little push may be a useful thing at times to get started, clearly what potentially depressed people need is to creatively think through rather than aggressively break through their fears.
Luckily the fear, sadness, anger, and other unwanted emotions contain the key to liberation from the emotions themselves….to be continued….
In part 3 I’ll cover some of the methods that actually do work in successfully dealing with life’s challenges. Spoiler alert: it involves courageous awareness of what’s actually happening without pushing it away, clear thinking and rational planning, compassion towards one’s self and one’s suffering, and looking for the positive in the negative (rather than instead of the negative) as in creative problem-solving and acting-as-if there is positive intent in unwanted experiences and behaviors. Oops, just gave away the secrets to happiness—should have monetized it first!
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