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Personal Growth

Is personal growth a universal human goal? This was the topic of the Philosophy Café at Harvard Bookstore for this month, April 2011. The following provides a summary of some thoughts after researching the topic and after listening to what people said during the Philosophy Café meeting. This month was my first time helping to plan and facilitate the discussion. The discussion was fun, and provided some inspiration for more thinking and writing, and, hopefully, will eventually lead to more discussion topic ideas.


From self-help books to yoga and meditation classes to community arts programs and lecture series, we live in a society that values personal growth. The current value placed on personal growth has developed from a long American tradition. At least from the early 19th century forward, the populist, progressive and transcendental movements promoted the idea that everyone -- whether rural farmers, factory workers, tradesmen, recent immigrants, less-educated people and well-educated people -- should be able to engage in and enjoy lifelong learning and enrichment.


The pre-meeting reading list and the meeting started out by defining personal growth as the pursuit of intellectual, artistic, athletic, spiritual or other goals beyond what is necessary for economic security and community health and well-being. We also started by outlining some history – mostly 19th century American populism, the progressive movement and transcendentalism – and some theory – mostly Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – to frame the discussion.

Is personal growth a universal human goal?

One idea that came up throughout the discussion was that some type of personal growth or creative expression is universal among societies. Virtually every society has music, folklore and other cultural expressions. In any society, there are people who explore new ideas and try new ways of doing things. Examples that were mentioned included a person in a hunter-gatherer society exploring the healing properties of herbs; a farmer paying attention to different ways of cultivating plants; a worker making up songs to sing during the workday.

We originally defined personal growth as something that goes beyond what is needed for economic security and community health and well-being. Maybe a more universal view is to acknowledge that for some people, personal growth and personal expression can be something that is directly or indirectly related to their daily work, family and community roles. And it is also important to recognize that projects that seem to be completely unrelated to work, family and community roles might have some indirect practical benefits.

While personal growth may be a universal human goal, there was also some consensus that some societies and some people are more deliberate and explicit than others about pursuing personal growth.

While reading background about the value placed on learning and personal growth in America in the 19th century, I got the idea that a society will focus more explicitly on nurturing personal growth during times of social change. Many of the educational and cultural movements of the 19th century and early 20th century were probably in reaction to the social changes of the era, including industrialization, immigration, and large-scale migrations from rural to urban communities, from east to west and south to north. It would be interesting to look at different “renaissance” periods in history to see if there is a link between social change and a more-deliberate focus on cultural, intellectual and personal development.

There is also some consensus that some individuals might be more self-aware and more explicit about pursuing personal growth than others. The differences among individuals could be related to a “hierarchy of needs” – the idea that it is important to achieve economic security before pursuing other goals. Or it could be related to the availability of leisure time. Or it could be related to differences in personality. Or (the most significant factor in my opinion) it could also reflect different life stages, with the idea that individuals will be more explicit about pursuing personal goals during times of transition and change.

Should the things you do for self-expression be useful? Should self-expression be focused on social action and charitable projects? Is it better to spend time and energy reading good literature and classical music rather than watching television and listening to popular music?

American culture values both individualism and democracy. The nation was born as an experiment in personal and economic independence and political democracy, and the culture has a longstanding attraction to utopian values and missionary-type zeal.

Therefore, in contemporary American culture, there is a lot of emphasis on “self” but also a lot of emphasis on social action and social productivity as an ideal of self-expression. The media idealizes high-profile social action projects: celebrities or ordinary people travelling around the world, building schools or funding medical clinics; or, closer to home, participating in high-visibility “day of service” events in a local community. The media also idealizes entrepreneurial, technical and scientific achievements: dedicated people developing new technologies or discovering treatments for diseases.

An emphasis on classic “higher forms of culture” (literature, classical music, etc.) is maybe less of a feature of American culture, but a contemporary American corollary might be seen in the value placed on appreciation of local artists or folk arts or cross-cultural awareness or healthier organic food choices or an understanding of politics and current events.

All of these values are good, and, in fact, many of the things valued in contemporary culture are very positive and exciting.

But in this environment, it is almost counter-cultural to quietly choose forms of self-expression that are more private, low-key, and not visibly useful or socially productive. Is that okay? Most of us have the instinct to say yes … and the next two related questions might hold a key to answering this question.

Is self-actualization really the highest human need in a hierarchy of needs? Does self-actualization play any useful role in the evolution or survival of the species?

Some of the readings advanced the idea that Maslow’s pyramid of human needs is not based on any solid evidence and is not necessarily accurate. The reading included an article that said that there is apparently little or no evidence that people behave the way Maslow described, pursuing basic needs first and, once those needs are met, pursuing self-actualization as the highest human need. Another article suggested that since self-actualization doesn’t serve any clear evolutionary purpose, a more accurate hierarchy of needs would place mate acquisition, mate retention and successful parenting at the top of the pyramid. So should self-actualization be at the top of a hierarchy of needs? And is self-actualization at all “useful” in human evolution?

To answer that, it’s interesting to look at some elements that are common to many different cultures.

  1. Creative arts. Creative expressions such as music, folklore, myths, visual arts, toys and decorative clothing are found in virtually all cultures.

  2. Children’s play. Children’s play is a feature of virtually all cultures. Most cultures recognize the value of play for building skills and developing maturity. [There are some interesting parallels with the question of personal growth/self-actualization. Adults generally allow children to have fun and play without always asking “what are they learning?” or “is this a worthwhile use of time?” While it is important to recognize that not all play is equally valuable--it is important to pay attention to helping children avoid things that are likely to drain energy or cause emotional stress or lead to physical harm--in general play is seen as valuable for children as they develop physical, intellectual, social and emotional skills. This has interesting parallels to lifelong choices about personal goals and use of time and energy.]

  3. Religion. Across history, religious traditions have allowed and encouraged people to take time for singing, contemplation, reflection, holidays and ceremonies (along with directives to live well and do good things). These religious ceremonies, religious music and religious art are forms of creative expression, relaxation and rejuvenation that do not directly contribute to the productivity of an individual or the community, but are valued across many traditions.

  4. Spirituality. The concept of humankind “reflecting the glory of God” and traditions of contemplation, meditation and “oneness” suggest a spiritual dimension and value a dimension of life that goes beyond day-to-day survival.

These four examples are based on what I read from the list of “human universals” from the work of anthropologist Donald E. Brown. This is a list of things that are found in all or almost all cultures. The list is summarized in Steven Pinker’s book A Blank Slate. The list includes music, folklore, myths, toys and play for children, clothing and accessories as a form of art, and many other forms of creative expression.

It could be interesting to reason backwards, to hypothesize that if creative arts, spirituality, religion, chidren’s play and other forms of self-expression are found in virtually all cultures, it is likely that these activities probably play a valuable function. Here are some of the possible or likely benefits that emerged from the discussion:

  • Creative expression as a means for relaxing and rejuvenating and maintaining health;
  • Creative expression as a way of connecting with others in the community;
  • Creative expression as a way of teaching children and young people in the community;
  • Stretching yourself intellectually – with benefits to other areas of work, family and community roles;
  • Building emotional strengths – with benefits to other areas of work, family and community roles;
  • Developing skills through creative expression, including practical skills as well as purely fun/creative/personal skills and talents;
  • Activities that may have a direct impact on scientific and technical discovery and learning;
  • Activities that may have an indirect impact on discovery and learning or finding solutions to practical problems -- through cross-fertilization of ideas and other creative thought processes;
  • Creative activities that may become incorporated into the economy of the household or community, such as production of clothing or furniture or other practical art forms;
  • Non-tangible benefits of simply discovering what you enjoy and care about.

Some of the Philosophy Café participants suggested that human needs might not be organized as a pyramid or hierarchy (one suggested that it should be more of a paisley-like pattern!!) but that all of the human needs reinforce each other. Some suggested that some cultures are more community-focused (and less self-focused) and so that the words we chose (personal, self) might not fit as well. These thoughts open up more interesting, less limiting ways of thinking about personal growth and self-expression, and could lead to lots more exploration.

April 2011