In this age of incessant optimization, it seems nothing is good enough as is. Popular products and services are constantly being improved so they fluently speak to our needs. Technology solutions don’t stay in place for long…they’re quickly discarded to make room for something better. And, if you think the concept of “next-gen” is limited to tech, think again. We humans are also caught in an endless cycle of system upgrades.
Advice on what and how to improve comes from all corners: the media, celebrities, healthcare professionals, and lifestyle gurus. It seems everyone has thoughts on how to plus up everything from a Friday night barbecue to your online dating profile. The message conveyed by this surfeit of advice is clear: You—the way you are right now, today, sitting there, reading this—are not nearly as great as you could be. You’re not eating as well as you could be, you aren’t sleeping enough hours at night, you overpaid for those plane tickets, and you spend way too much time sitting down.
While a certain amount of critical thinking about bathroom cleanser, spring wardrobes, and sunscreen application may lead to better habits, to this observer, things have gotten out of hand. Barraged with advice on how to improve every possible hobby and habit, the meta-message is: Do X and you will be better...and thus, happier. Nevermind that X is a moving target and includes everything from eating activated charcoal to handwriting thank you notes.
Barraged with advice on how to improve every possible hobby and habit, the meta-message is: Do X and you will be better...and thus, happier.
For proof of my own personal quest to be better, look no further than my bedside table. Housing a deep collection of books that qualify as “self-help,” it exposes those facets of my life that need rebooting, and fast. On any given night I might reach for The Teenage Brain, What Great Parents Do, Nonviolent Communication: The Language of Life, If You Want to Write, and (I wish I were kidding), Being a Dog.
Newly attuned to the message of mediocrity we’re met with out in the world, I wonder: Who or what plants the seeds of self-doubt that Amazon Prime, in all its next-day shipping glory, harvests?
Breaking the self-help cycle
A cultural bent toward introspection and improvement may be part of the problem. And, in small doses, it’s not such a bad thing. After all, a relentless optimism that an individual can achieve anything with enough effort, is a tenet upon which this country was founded. Optimization fixation may work well in the corporate world, where engineers and marketers work tirelessly to refine goods and services to appeal to target customers, thus improving the bottom line. But what about in our personal lives? What’s the cost, privately, of never being good enough just as we are?
I suppose it’s possible some of you reading this are impervious to the overload of advice on how to be a better you. But it’s hard to resist recommendations that promise self-improvement, even if one doesn’t seek them out. Yesterday, for example, my unsolicited mail offered me the chance to rethink my bed sheets and my meals. Reading hypnotic phrases like “the bedding upgrade you deserve,” and, “mix and match your way to bedding perfection,” I was hooked. Surely bedding perfection is the key to happiness, no? As are fresh, organic, ready-to-eat meals that get me “summer-ready” (whatever that means) in five days. Compelling prose extolled “the life-changing power of food as medicine,” and “clean eating made easy.” Forget that I’m already a reasonably healthy eater and I bought new sheets two years ago… Where do I sign up?
[Also read: Do more of what you love be being all of who you are]
This need to take immediate action in the name of continuous self-improvement is surely a sign of our times. As noted in “Improving Ourselves to Death,” published in January 2018 in The New Yorker, writer Alexandra Schwartz explains how we can view the drive toward self-improvement “as both a symptom and a tool of a relentless economy.” As a society, “We are being sold on the need to upgrade all parts of ourselves, all at once, including parts that we did not previously know needed upgrading.”
Another distressing truth about our penchant for positive change? These tips and solutions are going to come back around in a year or so. According to Schwartz, “It’s no longer enough to imagine our way to a better state of body or mind. We must now chart our progress, count our steps, log our sleep rhythms, tweak our diets, record our negative thoughts—then analyze the data, recalibrate, and repeat.” Meaning: the approach you take to cleansing your face today will soon be obsolete. Enter a new routine, new products, and a new thing to obsess about next year.
"It's no longer enough to imagine our way to a better state of body or mind. We must now chart our progress, count our steps, log our sleep rhythms, tweak our diets, record our negative thoughts-then analyze the data, recalibrate, and repeat." - Alexandra Schwartz
Self-help can be selfish
Our fixation with continuous self-improvement has consequences beyond our own psyche: it requires a laser focus on oneself, to the exclusion of family, friends, and coworkers. If we’re not fixated on what products we can buy to make things better, we’re working overtime to develop the right personal habits.
As noted in the New York Times by opinion writer Ruth Whippman, “Spiritual and religious practice is slowly shifting from a community-based endeavor to a private one, with silent meditation retreats, mindfulness apps and yoga classes replacing church socials and collective worship. The self-help industry — with its guiding principle that the search for happiness should be an individual, self-focused enterprise — is booming, with Americans spending more than $1 billion on self-help books a year to help guide them on their inner journeys. Meanwhile, 'self-care' has become the new going out."
And therein lies the rub: self-absorption, even in the name of betterment, comes at a cost. All the time we spend working on ourselves is time we’re not focusing on other people. By viewing our own actions and experience as paramount, we discount the very real impact we can have on the world around us if we engage with it.
Whippman notes that “this particular strain of happiness advice — the kind that pitches the search for contentment as an internal, personal quest, divorced from other people — has become increasingly common.” Things weren’t always so, but these days, she says, “In an individualistic culture powered by self-actualization, the idea that happiness should be engineered from the inside out, rather than the outside in, is slowly taking on the status of a default truism.”
Study after study shows that happiness comes from connection to others. When we reach out within our community or to complete strangers, we feel better. “Because far from confirming our insistence that ‘happiness comes from within,’ a wide body of research tells us almost the exact opposite,” Whippman writes. So, if what makes us truly happy is other people, why are we spending so much time and resources improving every imaginable aspect of our individual lives?
Our modern culture has evolved to celebrate the individual and the potential locked inside each of us, waiting to be unleashed. There’s a pervasive sense that by turning inward, listening to our inner guide, meditating, feeling grateful for each moment, trusting ourselves, and controlling our own actions, we find inner peace. Yet it seems clear that what we really need these days is more cohesion and connectedness, not more narcissism and self-absorption. One message that’s being lost amidst the deafening self-help noise is that every hour you spend with your partner or with friends, instead of rearranging your closet so that it sparks joy, is also an investment in your happiness.
Every hour you spend with your partner or with friends, instead of rearranging your closet so that it sparks joy, is also an investment in your happiness.
Be better only if you want to
All the prompts for personal betterment we encounter in the world are a ripe invitation for self-criticism. As the engine of self-improvement, self-criticism is—you guessed it—bad for you. A recent “Smarter Living” column in the New York Times ironically titled “Why You Should Stop Being so Hard on Yourself” notes that consistently focusing on our limitations isn’t healthy. Apparently, we’re supposed to take in all the information about how to optimize every single aspect of our lives, without feeling bad about it. Talk about having your (gluten-free) cake and eating it, too.
The article doesn’t make a connection between optimization fixation and stress; rather, it explains why we should go easy on ourselves and forgive our minor shortcomings. But, given the damage that critical self-talk can do to our health and happiness, I think we need to take it a step further. It’s time to start asking: “What for?” when we catch the latest headline exhorting us to rethink breakfast or expand our wine knowledge. Chances are, at the other end of that message, someone is selling something. Or, at the very least, pushing a value system or set of priorities that may not mesh with our own.
[Also read: Your attention is a finite resource—don't waste it]
Intentional improvement in a particular area you’re working on makes sense, but improvement in every area is nothing short of exhausting. Life is a great balancing act—for every minute of energy expended in one direction, it’s lost somewhere else. So, yes, your retirement plan might benefit from a once-over and it would be lovely if your closet hangers were color-coded by season or if you could be a person who read a book every month. But you know what’s even better? Acknowledging that those are steps you’re never, ever going to take toward being a “better” person…and deciding you’re fine with it.