The Dark Side of the Human Potential Movement
Personal response to “The Good Cult”
This is a cautionary tale for those involved in “personal growth.” This includes trainers and those taking personal growth training. It is also the story of how a lonely physicist decided he liked people and got hooked on psychology.
Our son Daniel suggested we listen to the six-part podcast, The Good Cult (2022). In it, River Donaghey tells the story of Lifespring Inc., a personal growth company. Daniel knew other family members had taken the Lifespring training.
Donaghey grew up in a family involved in personal growth seminars. If his parents hadn’t taken an offshoot of Lifespring, he would not have been born. We told Daniel it was the same for us. Without Lifespring, he would not have been born either.
Lifespring was an offshoot of the Human Potential Movement. In the 1940s, Abraham Maslow broke from psychology’s focus on studying the worst in people. And instead studied what made people thrive. He said,
A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.… This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one can become.
Maslow’s ideas, and the work of others, led in the 1970s to the Human Potential Movement.
John Hanley founded Lifespring in 1974 and dissolved it in the mid-1990s. It was a positive and empowering experience for many attending its trainings. But there were allegations of harm. In 1987, Marc Fisher wrote an exposé on Lifespring in the Washington Post. He said,
… the company’s early growth came to a crashing halt in the early ’80s following a rash of bad publicity about psychotic episodes and even deaths during and after Lifespring trainings.
In The Good Cult, Donaghey suggested Lifespring was seen as a cult because it pressured participants to enroll others.
Did Lifespring help people? What went wrong? How could the same organization do so much good for some and such harm to others? This article touches on these questions from my personal…