Stop Improving and Start Living

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This article first appeared on Positivepsychologynews.com

It’s that time of the year. The New Year’s Resolutions we set with such passion (and some frustration), and pursued with such determination, at least for the first couple of weeks, are now losing their momentum. Willpower seems harder to come by, and self-criticism and hopelessness are louder than ever.

There’s not much point in trying to silence the inner voices of “I’m such a failure,” “There’s no point trying,” and “How come she can and I can’t?” because right now, willpower is a wish at best. Instead, step away from your goals to see whether they’re worth pursing in the first place.

Three Problems with the Glorification of Self-Improvement

We live in a world that glorifies self-improvement. Look around you, and you’ll see calls for a leaner body, a healthier diet, a more perfect looking home. You’ll find courses on everything from being a better (fill in the blank) to achieving all your goals (usually in 3 easy steps). While many of these goals are worthwhile endeavors, they’re mostly structured around the self: our own needs, wants, and desires. This can have far-reaching negative consequences.

Firstly, a self-centered goal is at odds with the way we’re wired. As David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University, has written in his upcoming book Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, most of our self-improvement goals didn’t even exist for most of our evolutionary history. We didn’t become successful by exercising more willpower or developing greater self-control. To succeed in life, we needed strong social bonds that were built by nurturing other-focused virtues like compassion, kindness, and fairness. Self-improvement goals not underpinned by something larger than ourselves are bound to fail because they rely on what Professor Roy Baumeister has called a depleting resource. Failures of self-control lead to disillusionment and self-criticism, creating downward spirals of decreasing perceived self-worth.

Secondly, the notion of self-improvement is founded, often subtly, on two self-defeating beliefs. One, that there’s something inherently lacking is us, and two, that we can become whoever we want to be, regardless of our natural limitations. Media and consumerism have a large role to play in the endless striving that results. Social media adds a new dimension that’s further stressing us out. Once upon a time, the ideal looks, vacations, and successes were reserved for the few and far in-between. Now it’s our everyday friends that have become our target of comparison as they collectively bombard us with images of their perfect lives. We’re caught in the perpetual pursuit of a mirage called contentment.

Finally, there’s a social cost to our self-improvement craze. We’re a social species, evolved to find our sense of self by belonging to something larger than ourselves. French philosopher Paul Ricoeur talks about the idea of constance de soi (self-constancy) in order to develop the deep relationships that help us understand ourselves. An individualistic culture of never-ending self-improvement keeps us locked in an ego-centric existence that’s neither conducive to relationship building, nor to finding joy and meaning in our lives.

What is Your Legacy?

We’re a divided species, burdened with both a selfish mind that seeks individualist pursuits and a selfless one that yearns for meaning. The former is what we also share with our primate cousins, but it’s the latter that’s unique to us (as far as we know). People call it by many names: wisdom, consciousness, the Self, the soul, the divine within us. Call it what you may, but we all have it. It’s what wakes us with questions in the silence of the night and what haunts us towards the end of our lives with one simple question: “What legacy are you leaving behind in this world?” While each one of us has to find his or her own answer, one thing is for sure: it’s rarely found in upgrading our bodies and homes.

How we manage these two minds in our lives is what living is all about. We can begin by stepping away from the self-improvement craze and understanding our place in the larger flow of life. What are we here to achieve? What needs can we address (aside from our own) and how can we make a real difference to other lives? Meaning is relational by its very nature. It grows out of bursting our self-reflective bubbles and belonging to something larger than ourselves.

That’s perhaps what self-improvement could really mean in an era when we’re increasingly being called to leave the world a little better than we found it. We know this in our bones. It’s time we put it into practice.

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