June 1, 2012

Modern malaise – glass half full or empty?

I trained as a life coach five years or so ago and remain interested in seeing what write-up coaching gets in the media.  Before the bust, it was all glossy and glamorous. Now, according to a recent piece in the New York Times, life coaching is a symptom of what is Going Very Wrong With Our Society Today.

The article highlights how there now seems to be a market for anything you might need, including the services of a ‘wantologist’ (a type of life coach) to help you work out what it is you might want in the first place. The author, Arlie Russell Hochschild, a professor of sociology at the University of California, is particularly disturbed by the fact that

‘It is increasingly possible to outsource emotional attachment. A busy executive, for example, focuses on efficiency; his assistant tells me, “My boss outsources patience to me.’

Now, having invested time and money in training to be a life coach, I do feel coaching has a lot to offer, and that it is about positivity and progress. However, I am not sure that I agree with the rebuttal made in The Atlantic to Hochschild’s article. In crude terms, the argument here is that not knowing what we want and feeling anxiety is the sign of a successful society as we have moved from answering our basic needs to thinking about our higher purpose. (Yes – a diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is included as part of the article.)

Perhaps the author of the Atlantic article needs to read The Spirit Level. This shows there is another way. We can be prosperous without having to go through a phase of being miserable. We just all need to be equally prosperous, which is admittedly, easier said than done.

I came across another pair of articles presenting opposing points of view about the state of modern life. One piece was from Sherry Turkle of ‘Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other’ fame. Her article described the sad state of affairs we are in: we don’t seem to be going through the effort of talking properly to each other any more; we have lost the patience this requires; we expect faster responses; we ask simpler questions; and find it’s easier just to turn to some form of technology instead.

Again, there is a rebuttal from the Atlantic.  Here, Alexandra Samuel points out that many face to face conversations are in fact pretty inane, and we should recognise that these technologies can enhance, rather than replace, communication, in whatever form it might take place.

Once more, there is another reference I want to bring to the table. Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts’  makes the case for people whose natural preference is to flee big social gatherings. This suggests there is another aspect to the debate to take into account: people might not be talking so much as they tend to respond to the world around them in a different way – namely by reading and writing and listening. And that should be just fine.

Glass half full or empty?


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