The Tupperware trade in happiness

[Translation kindly provided by Niels Teunis.]

The belief that one can create one’s own happiness, is the great ailment of the last few decennia. An absurd number of people seem to think that life is something that you can mold in every conceivable detail, that you can control everything – or should. Create your own future, be the master of your own destiny, improve your health, coincidence doesn’t exist! These are the empty promises of snake oil salesmen, sect leaders and other imposters; promises of complete power and arrogance that completely ignore the fact that people control the circumstances of their lives only to a small degree. In what part of the world and in what class you are born, your gender and skin color are more reliable indicators of your eventual well-being, health and later societal career than sheer willpower and ambition.

But people like to be deceived. They think that they single-handedly brought about their ample income, rather than take into account that they were born in a well-to-do family, which gave them an advantage others can scarcely make up for. Were they to thank someone, they should thank their parents rather than themselves; or better yet the coincidence that they were born in Amsterdam-South instead of the slums of Delhi. This self-inflating conviction does wonders for you self-esteem, tough And for one’s hubris. Because, before you know it, you look down upon all those who are less healthy, less successful, rich or loved: they have obviously not given their all. Don’t want to improve themselves.

In gay Amsterdam, Landmark is making inroads. Landmark, created by former Scientology member Werner Erhard, focuses entirely on self-improvement. Landmark claims to teach you to ‘communicate better’ and to get the best out of you. Their beautiful promises are of course phrased in the vaguest terms possible. Landmark ‘gives participants the opportunity to achieve extraordinary, even miraculous results, and offers them a useful and practical freedom that will make them more effective and better equipped to plan their lives.’ They ‘offer limitless opportunities for growth and development of individuals, relations, families, communities, companies, institutes and society as a whole.’ They focus on ‘everybody’s capacity to think beyond the thinkable, and to operate effectively in the creation of new possibilities.’ They promise ‘extraordinary communication – powerful listening and dedicated speaking, resulting in self-development and self-satisfaction.’

All for a steep fee, of course. But the importance of that should not be over-estimated. Many companies pay through the nose for quite basic and superficial management courses or ‘seminars.’ Self-deception is a booming business.

But Landmark’s methodology is nasty. It works like this. An acquaintance invites you to their home to attend a discussion evening about Landmark. There you find a group of about ten people, all more or less acquainted. The host praises Landmark, praises the quality of the courses, relates one success story after another (‘after John took so-and-so course, he achieved his much desired promotion/improved his relationship with his loved one/was finally able to grasp the depths of his problems/was cured of asthma’), and, after telling his tale, asks who of those present is interested in an orientation course. There is always someone stupid enough to fall for this. Worse, The host will make sure of that – what he doesn’t tell you is that he gets a commission for every new course he is able to sell.

As soon as someone agrees, the host doubles his efforts. ‘Look, Peter is doing it. Peter senses what is good for him. Peter is ready to invest in himself. Aren’t you? Don’t you think you are worth it to invest your own money in? Don’t you think a few hundred guilders is a small sum for a better future? Darling, you pay more for rent. You’d rather spend money on your house than on yourself?’ And so on, and so forth. I know of a course leader who went so far as to suggest to an unwilling guest looking for excuses (‘I don’t have any money on me right now’) that it was all right, because ‘I don’t mind walking to the bank machine with you.’ On average half of those who are gathered thusly fall for the ruse and sign for a course.

The same group pressure characterizes the course meetings as well. Usually you take a session – an evening, or preferably a weekend – with one to two hundred people. During the session you hardly have time to gather yourself: doing things constantly, listening to speeches, conducting exercises. At the end of the session, every participant is required to take the stage and to publicly relate their ‘profit’: what he learned, conquered, or discovered. It takes a special person, who, after ten stories of jubilation, will tell the others that they thought the whole shebang was nonsense and that they did not get any benefit – and of course, people are inclined to see the worth of something once they have invested their money in it, even against all odds. After all the success stories, they ask, still in the presence of other participants, who wants to continue. ‘Don’t you think you are worth it? The others do!’ That is hard sales tactic.

It’s a glorified Tupperware evening. But I must admit that Landmark is clever for bringing their group pressure methodology into homosexual circles. Gay people tend to be more conscious of the need for mutual social support than the average heterosexual is, and are more inclined to identify as a group, and thus to its pressure. A splendid market to sell happiness and success.

Hats off to you, Landmark.

(Landmark responded to this column, which was published in the August 1999 edition of XL. Their letter and my response to it was published in the October issue of the magazine.)

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