Editor’s Note: Andre Spicer is a professor of organizational behavior at Cass Business School, City University London. He is the co-author, with Carl Cederstrom, of “The Wellness Syndrome.” Unless otherwise noted, facts here reflect the research published in that book. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Andre Spicer: Liberal Americans will turn to self-improvement because of the election of Trump
Gym memberships and self-help books sales will go up, but empathy may go down, he writes
Donald Trump’s election, in addition to worrying many Americans, will usher in a new age of self-development in American life. Following what many liberals see as a profound political defeat, people are likely to see politics as a losing game and give up on it entirely. They will stop engaging with public issues like poverty, pollution or public violence.
Instead, they will focus on private concerns like their own individual happiness and health. There will be big increases in gym attendance, consumption of self-help books, alternative health treatments and therapy.
President-elect Trump’s ascension will exacerbate this trend. He has promised a more protectionist agenda, which will have a big influence on the way Americans relate to the outside world. But what will be more profound is the impact it will have on how Americans relate to each other – and themselves. My research indicates that they will start a turn inward, to look more closely at their own lives.
More Americans becoming self-development junkies means more money for the more-than $11 billion-a-year self-help industry, but perhaps counterintuitively, this surge in self-development won’t be healthy for the country overall.
We all know it is a good idea to look after your health by getting more exercise and not eating too much junk food. But as I have found in my research, stoking an overriding fascination with self-improvement can have some profoundly troubling consequences.
Recently, Carl Cederstrom and I took a look at the impact that the cult of self-improvement has had on our society. Our findings, published in “The Wellness Syndrome,” were not pretty. We found that focusing on self-development can make people narcissistic. It can make people more selfish, as they start to overlook wider commitments they have to family, friends and their wider community.
Self-development devotees become more interested in their own exercise routines than the troubles of other people.
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An obsession with self-development also make people anxious, as they start to constantly worry about the state of their personal development.
It can increase their intolerance. This happens when self-help addicts start to blame individuals woes on people not having the “right attitude.” As a result, they overlook more basic structural or environmental causes of problems like poor health, poverty and depression.
We were honestly surprised to find that becoming obsessed with our personal health and happiness makes us less healthy and less happy. We learned that when we constantly tell people to maximize their happiness, they start to find things in their daily lives that used to make them happy less fulfilling.
And we found out that many attempts by people to improve their health through dieting often end up making the problem worse.
This impending great turn inward also won’t be the first time that a liberal’s defeat forced Americans’ thoughts toward self-development. When Richard Nixon came to power, many Americans shifted their efforts away from building progressive political movements and started to focus on themselves.
Radicals stopped protesting and started to become fascinated with esoteric religion, alternative health treatments and social actualization. This created what Christopher Lasch memorably called a “culture of narcissism,” which took root in American life during the 1970s.
Following Ronald Reagan’s victory, many liberal Americans became angry, then depressed, then gave up on public life and started working out. This spurred a voracious demand for self-help books, therapy sessions and various fitness fads. It is no surprise that one of the enduring images I have of the 1980s is a yuppie drinking a Diet Coke after a particularly strenuous game of squash.
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It may also surprise people to know that turning inward following political defeat is not just an American curse. The same thing happened in Egypt recently. After the Arab Spring was crushed, middle-class Egyptians abandoned public life. It was too dangerous to even talk about politics. Instead, many began forming running groups; Egypt has now seen a huge boom in jogging.
By turning inward, Americans, particularly liberal Americans, will gain a sense of control over their own bodies in a context where they feel they have no control over their political institutions. This might mean they are little more buff, but it could also denude American political life of its people’s compassion or willingness to engage substantively in public life for years to come.