Self Improvement: The Pursuit of Unhappiness

Published on April 30th 2018

The rise of social media and its impact on our psyche is a topic considered with increasing fascination and frequency over recent years. It’s an issue that I’ve thought and spoken about numerous times, quite often becoming the subject of a particularly impassioned drunk conversation among friends, and has now reached the point where it almost feels worn out. But every now and then, I come across something that articulates it all so well that I become interested again and I remember it’s a topic worth discussing.

A piece by Alexandra Schwartzman in The New Yorker on the self improvement industry did exactly that. What began as a comment on the burgeoning industry of self betterment – as examined by the likes of writers Will Storr, Carl Cederström and André Spicer, and pioneered by bloggers such as Gwyneth Paltrow with her boujee mecca Goop – ended as a rather uplifting reminder that the ‘self improvement’ marketed to us is often wholly unnecessary. In a society that extracts economic benefit from insecurity, it is hardly surprising that one’s perceived self worth gets piggybacked by a number of apps and products to help us achieve happiness. It seems that as soon as we become aware of a trend which purports to make us better, healthier people – such as yoga, clean eating, meditation- there is an industry built behind it with an arsenal of products to help fulfil the dream. As Schwartzman demonstrates, the pursuit of happiness has become an unhealthy pressure due in part to its commercialisation, but also its setting within a framework of social media.

A natural part of our self perception is the distinction between a true and an ideal self, the latter acting as something to strive towards in social situations and relationships. However, social media sites take this natural part of our psyche and amplify it to a point where our ideal self is an unreachable goal. When perceived happiness becomes confused with online presentation then suddenly everything we do must be documented, logged and held up as an example of how well we’re doing. This is not a new idea, but the aspect of the article I found comforting was the point that we are not our failures. Though it seems obvious enough, it is often so hard to believe that we’re doing things just fine when there is continual pressure to do things even better.

To fail is an inevitable part of life – but our ability to cope with these failings is predicated by our environment. Through encouraging an obsession with the optimised or ideal self, modern society seems to have ill-equipped us to deal with the fact that lives are often far less than picture perfect. We live in an outwardly optimistic society, seeing happiness advertised to us in television, magazines and through the lens of other people’s Instagram accounts. The constant pressure to achieve and demonstrate happiness suddenly makes it a subject of competition and when we fail even minutely, we see it as a fatal crack in the constructed, ideal self.

Even seemingly harmless things such as exercise or healthy eating can turn into sources of pressure if they’re pursued from a place of unhappiness. Surrounding ourselves with people and applications which remind us daily of the things we should be doing to improve ourselves turns what should be calming and healthy activities into chores to be completed. To let go of the pressure of doing these things for any reason other than the pleasure of doing it lifts an enormous weight, and allows for a more secure route to happiness than any of the activities themselves. As Schwartzman argues, realising it is our environment that encourages us to feel inferior rather than any inherent problem in  ourselves makes it an awful lot easier to find self love and security.

She quotes Storr, who says;

“Once you realise that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be, you can begin to free yourself from your demands.”

Though it’s easier said than done to simply ‘free yourself’ of societal pressures, it is incredibly lovely to hear someone tell you that you are in fact fine just as you are. You don’t have to be consistently demonstrating the beauty of your life to make it valuable, or blaming yourself when you fall short of the impossibly high standards we set. Difficult though it is to follow the advice to ‘simply be’, realising that you at least have the right to do that is good enough for now.

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