I have been reading a book about the way that power and success affects the brain. The basic idea of the book is that when we succeed in mastering a difficult challenge, the pleasure centres in our brain are stimulated and we receive a shot of dopamine. Dopamine is in fact involved in all pleasurable activities from sexual involvement to aesthetic experience. In the case of overcoming a difficult or challenging problem, we find ourselves not only feeling pleasure but also more confident and competent to succeed in further difficult tasks. As we experience success in these activities so we develop a more confident personality. The winner effect is the power and confidence that accrue to the successful person who overcomes the challenges set before him/her.
Clearly the experience of success is both enjoyable and beneficial for a human being, both psychologically and physically. It has a positive effect on health and even wards off some of the illnesses which shorten life. This fits into some research I mentioned on the blog by Sir Michael Marmot on the longevity of civil servants. He discovered that those at the top of the hierarchies lived longer and had better health than those lower down in the system. After excluding all the usual caveats, he concluded that the power of success and the ability to make decisions enhanced health and human flourishing. Those who spent all their time obeying orders and following instructions often encountered a level of stress that impacted good health and well-being.
This kind of research is not good news for the bulk of the population who live by taking orders from others. These are among the people that Chris constantly reminds us of in places like sweatshops, old people’s homes, domestic service and countless other places of exploitation. The stress of being at the beck and call of others is a harsh reality for many, even the majority in society. Those of us who are able to identify bullying and abuse in the workplace and in society generally have a duty to fight against it wherever possible and certainly never become complacent about it as an ever-present evil around us.
This blog post is however not going to be about those who struggle in society, except indirectly. I want to describe further what the book has to say about those who succeed and are identified as being at the top of their particular calling. For many such people there is acclaim and honour among their fellow workers and the satisfaction of achievement. Individuals, such as Nobel Prize winners, can be shown to live longer and in better health than the rest of us. The moment of real triumph, whenever it occurred in their life, somehow stimulated the brain in such a way that their future health was given a considerable boost. Also, the fortunate few who make a living through their creativity rather than just through the exercise of muscles and the ability to follow instructions, will probably also benefit from a similar boost to their health. I have noticed that musicians and artists often seem to go on into extreme old age. The same could be said for actors and authors. Clearly there are benefits in living creative lives or reaching the top of the pyramid.
The book, The Winner Effect, then explores what can be seen to be a sting in the tail. If success creates a dopamine rush in the brain, then it is possible for an individual to become an addict to this sensation. It is, for example, one thing to write a bestselling novel which everyone raves about: it is another thing to achieve such a success a second time. There are many people who achieve success perhaps too early in their lives. At a time of immaturity they were given exposure to a great deal of attention and, to put it bluntly, it turns their head. This is the fate of many young celebrities and artists. Those with little real or lasting talent are particularly vulnerable to the empty void of life after their great moment. We see breakdown, addiction and endless searching for new experiences in many who achieved acclaim early in their lives to repeat what they once had. A few artists, such as Paul McCartney, seem to have sufficient talent to carry them right through their lives. They manage to avoid the pitfalls of wealth and success and, even more strikingly, they manage to bring up children who also appear to be balanced and gifted. One of the big challenges for anyone who receives large amounts of money for their talents, is persuading their children that there has to be hard work in their lives if it is to be a worthwhile one.
I finally arrive at the way this book, The Winner Effect, touches on our theme of Christian abuse. It is a fact that adulation and success are sometimes considered desirable ambitions among a certain section of so-called Christian leadership. Some preachers desire to be a big name. In other words some people who preach the gospel want to be celebrities and be treated in this way by their followers. Their name on a programme is guaranteed to attract large numbers of people to attend big events and rallies. We have had reason to question what such celebrity culture in a Christian setting does to both the speaker and those who flock to listen to them. In particular the charismatic culture quite often seems to place its speakers on a very high pedestal. It is not hard to see how a constant exposure to this kind of celebrity treatment will create a constant appetite for the dopamine rush in the brain – in short an addiction. This is what the book warns us about. Too much exposure to success and achievement, particularly when young, is bad for you. This will apply in the Christian world as much as in any other. Being constantly told that you are important and gifted is not the way to achieve a balanced self-appraisal of your gifts. The person with abilities needs, of course, to have appreciation shown. But as with anything, too much appreciation will damage and unbalance their lives.
Popular psychology is often warning us against telling children too much that they are wonderful all the time. This is sometimes practised as a way of trying to boost their self-esteem. Many primary schools used to ban competitive sports on the grounds that some children would come last. Most of us know that there is a balance to be struck in the task of promoting excellence and not allowing children to feel defeated and unappreciated. The opposite is also true. We should never be party to a church culture which pushes individuals towards a godlike status. It is bad for them and it is very bad for us. Realistic appreciation of people’s abilities, together with a recognition of their limitations, is part of the way that we learn to appreciate one another as well as support one another. St Paul recognised that the Holy Spirit was given in a variety of ways to individuals. We each serve the whole, using the gifts that we have. Let us appreciate the things we can do as well as the things that we can’t, appreciating the fact other people may have abilities that we do not possess. May all of us avoid the addiction to the kind of adulation that comes as a result of the need for some to create idols and celebrities. It is not for nothing that the Bible speaks about the feet of clay that exist at the base of idols.