It is illogical to talk negatively about an industry founded on developing a positive mindset. Especially if you’ve been part of it for over 20 years. There are, however, major limitations, pitfalls and even dangerous aspects of the personal development (PD) industry. Many of these limitations are innocuous and merely a waste of time and money. Other trends are more insidious, even dangerous. As the life enhancement industry approaches 12 billion dollars, it is time to become aware of its shortcomings. I offer these insights as food for thought. While discussing “the seminar trap,” it is important to understand the inner workings of the human brain, as well as the essential concept of activation vs. installation.
The Challenge of the Human Condition
This may seem a bit unusual, but it is extremely important that you understand how your brain works to truly understand the pitfalls of the PD seminar trap. It is abundantly clear that life can be difficult and discouraging; life’s inevitable challenges drive the PD industry. Most personal difficulties are rooted in a biological glitch called negativity bias. Negativity bias developed in the dangerous environments of our distant ancestors. Back then, it was always better to be safe than sorry. Survival was dependent on a constant scan for threats and calculating worst-case scenarios. Contemporary society has eliminated these risks, making this evolutionary survival feature a bug in the operating system of our modern minds.
Your brain was designed for safety and survival, not happiness. Your neurochemical pathways care very little if you are happy. Emotions are your survival mechanism. They were engineered to help you make split-second life and death decisions. Fear and anxiety come over us immediately and uncontrollably, giving us very little agency when it comes to our emotions.
Your Happy Chemicals
As evolution developed the mammal brain on top of the reptile brain, primates established advanced mechanisms to move toward reward, not just away from threats. These mechanisms were layered on top of this negativity bias. We have four neurochemical transmitters that encourage us to move toward reward. These are:
- Dopamine – this gives you the amazing feeling you have when you achieve a big goal or find the perfect mate.
- Serotonin – gives you the calm, secure feeling that you have what it takes to meet your needs. We are hierarchical animals and this chemical gives you the feeling of being special, of elevated social status.
- Oxytocin – creates the feeling of trust and safety with a person or in a group.
- Endorphin – this is triggered by physical pain or It is commonly referred to as runner’s high and is also released after a severe injury. It eliminates pain both physically and emotionally.
These brain chemicals form the basis of addiction. Psychotropic drugs, both legal and illegal, are specifically designed to manipulate these chemicals.
Your Unhappy Chemical Makes You Stupid and Sick
There is one brain chemical that counteracts and overwhelms your happy chemicals and it is called cortisol. Cortisol gives you the feeling that something awful is going to happen; it generates the emotion of dread. It puts your body and brain on high alert and creates a sense of urgency to relieve the discomfort. Human beings are born helpless and vulnerable and need extensive social support to survive. When you feel a lack of this type of support, even a little bit, it will cause the release of cortisol.
Now that most of the safety and survival threats have been eliminated, we live with constant, low-level social threats. Common sources of these low-level threats are from concerns regarding relationships, economics, social status and health. Cortisol is toxic to the brain and body. It creates stress, anxiety and depression. It limits your cognitive abilities. Cortisol makes you stupid and sick!
The final stressor, one that is becoming more and more obvious in our daily lives, is uncertainty. Change is happening so rapidly; we live with the possibility of a major life disruption at any moment. This instability will continue to increase in the future.
Setting the Trap
The personal development industry has become a 12-billion-dollar business by catering to our cortisol-soaked brains. Life can be difficult, discouraging, stressful or worse; and at some point, many of us decide we need to make a change. We see an advertisement; “Transform your life in a weekend.” As unrealistic as this is, it sounds compelling. You think, I’ll escape life for three days and come out the other end a new person. Immediately, your neurochemicals are activated. Dopamine surges as you input your credit card information. You say to yourself, “I am finally doing something to change my life.”
Excitement builds as the event approaches, you are moving closer to a new life. You feel better just knowing you are “really” doing something, making a fresh start. On the day of the event, you are filled with excitement and a bit of anxiety, perhaps even second thoughts. When you enter the meeting room, all doubts are eliminated. You instantaneously become part of a heaving mass of excited, clapping, yelling and dancing people – you have officially entered the personal development emotional roller coaster. You have no idea why they are happy or what they are excited about, but you know they are. Ninety-nine percent of attendees just join in without even a question. It is like a junkie getting his first fix, he will never forget it as long as he lives.
There is always a dynamic speaker who tells you that you can achieve anything you desire in life. He then quickly transforms a few lives in front of your eyes and provides some heart-wrenching testimonials. If you allow yourself to get caught up in this drama, your happy hormones will surge. In this amped-up state, you are extremely susceptible to any new knowledge or suggestion. Especially if your brain’s neurochemicals are out of balance. For those prone to depression, these seminars are intoxicating.
There is a lot of good that can be taken from these seminars. They offer an abundance of practical life-enhancing information. The misleading part is when you believe you will transform your life in a weekend, or even worse, you latch on to some guru who then talks you into the extended, exorbitantly expensive, year-long, transformation package. Wait a minute; I thought it was a transformation weekend, now it is going to take a year?! They know that in your happy hormone-soaked brain you will do things impulsively that are probably not in your best interest.
The Hormone Roller Coaster
These events are great at manipulating your happy hormones. As we mentioned earlier, it starts with dopamine. You have a challenge in your life that you want to overcome. Signing up for, paying and attending the seminars gives you a sense of moving toward this goal. When you give up something, you are committed. You are then told, in no uncertain terms, that you are the master of your destiny, you can achieve any goal and overcome any challenge. Your dopamine surges.
Serotonin kicks in as you begin to interact with other people. You realize your problems are not so bad. There is a lot of suffering in the world. It can be cathartic, even helpful, to share your challenges with other people. You temporarily feel like part of a motivated group of individuals doing something for society and about their life. You sense a new and higher mission for your life, perhaps to save the world.
Most seminars encourage an immediate and overwhelming sense comradery. Attendees indulge in a series of hugs, back rubs and high fives. This, of course, activates your oxytocin. When you feel safe enough in a group to hug and rub backs, you are releasing copious amounts of the safety hormone, oxytocin. This creates a profound sense of relationship – something most people lack in their life.
Endorphins are the last and perhaps the most addicting hormone on the seminar menu. Typically, these seminar sessions can last 10-12 hours. By the end of the day, you are mentally, emotionally and physically spent. Your dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin-drenched brain then gets flooded with endorphins. This is your body’s natural painkiller. When endorphins are added to this chemical cocktail, you are HOOKED! In this state of mind, many people break out the platinum card or mortgage the house to get their next, bigger, better, stronger fix. This is a fatally flawed system, buyer beware.
Activation Versus Installation
As you can easily see, there are many challenges and pitfalls in the personal development industry seminar process. The first and most important is that they don’t work. Seminars are great at the activation of positive emotions but awful at their installation. These positive states are useless on the brain. Dr. Rick Hanson refers to this as “the dirty little secret of the life enhancement industry.” He says that these temporary artificial environments have no permanent effect. They make you feel good in the moment with no lasting value.
Dr. Lorretta Graziano Breuning, a renowned expert on neurochemicals, discusses in her book Habits of a Happy Brain, that it takes a minimum of 45 days to retrain your brain’s biochemical circuits. Flooding your brain with dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins has no lasting effect and is the reason people get addicted to personal development.
The Dark Side:
My experience is even worse. I was part of a large sales and marketing company that sponsored quarterly motivational events. We engaged in all the practices cited above, and then some. We layered in the promise of recognition, long-term financial security and time freedom. People would arrive at these events with great anticipation and leave with boundless excitement. After a brief time, back home, they would bottom out and lose all of their excitement. After the third or fourth event, they had lost total credibility with themselves to make any permanent change. They took time away from their families, missed work, and spent a lot of money. The net effect of the experience was that they were worse off. They had one more failure under their belt. This was a difficult process to watch.
There is an abundance of evidence that predictable change takes hard work, focus and time to rewire the brain for success. Dr. Richard Boyatzis details this in his work with Intentional Change Theory. Dr. Rick Hanson also discusses this in his many books, most notably: Hardwiring Happiness. Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning expertly outlines this in her book, Habits of a Happy Brain. Clearly, there are major benefits to be had from the personal development industry. The industry does offer some unique advantages when compared to the psychotherapy and psychiatry industry. There are, however, no weekend quick fixes.
Humanity Upgrade: We are in the greatest era of change in human history. Rapid change creates significant levels of stress. As the demand for personal development increases, we must become savvy consumers.
You must make sure you are engaging in activities that will move your life forward and won’t waste your time or drain your bank account. Effective programs focus on the issues discussed above. The most notable of these is transforming your innate negativity bias. It must be implemented over a period of 45-90 days to have a chance at retraining your brain’s neurochemical circuits. Dr. Boyatzis emphasizes the critical role of resonant relationship in any effective change process. This makes a competent coach a critical piece of the transformation process. Seminars can be a fun escape. They often provide practical information. Keep the experience in context and don’t make any significant financial decisions in the midst of a happy-chemical high. Perhaps recontextualize them as educational entertainment. Use them as an occasional boost, but don’t get hooked because you will be in for a big letdown.