Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Cult of Self-Improvement

It's that time of year; adverts for new diet regimes, articles about makeovers (houses, wardrobes, faces, lives) and on-line dating (I did enjoy the BBC's two offerings on what not to put in a profile). This year, the Guardian is offering an entire weekend supplement every month to help enable its readers to live more intensely. I panicked - this directly clashes with my personal ambition, which is to live a little less intensely; to lay back and consider the lilies rather than wake up and smell the coffee.

But I can keep breathing, because the Guardian's campaign to intensify your life includes instructions for knitting a scarf. The Do Something Manifesto explains the urgency in their woolly-minded project:
"As a society, we've long championed sober diligence over the quest for thrills. But the tide of research is turning. Recent years have established that a liking for novelty, neophilia, is a reliable predictor of wellbeing, provided you've got a certain capacity for perseverance, too. Couples bond more, it's been shown, when they pursue unfamiliar activities together, rather than the comforts of movies and meals out ("Marriage," as Balzac wrote, "must fight constantly against a monster that devours everything: routine.")"
Knitwear has a place in marriage: We model
our Smitten & Mittens, a wedding present
 knitted by idlevic.
(A white man and woman huddle together,
there hands held in a red heart-shaped
double woolen mitten in front of them.)
Of course, we only got married last year and I reckon we need to tire of that thing with the hedgehog costume before we bring knitting needles into the bedroom (there's a movie about that). The Guardian also suggest starting a Supper Club which strikes me as a great idea - I know so few people who call their evening meal supper, they should definitely get together and re-enact scenes from P G Woodhouse.

However, in line with all our culture's self-improvement narratives, the Do Something supplement is about doing more work and spending money in order to improve one's social status; to gain more whimsical anecdotes ("I was once a gorilla keeper for a day"), add upholstery skills to your CV, to make more of the right kind of friends, invite them round for tea and charge them £15 for the privilege.

This is the capitalist model of self-improvement. You buy an experience; an upgrade on yourself and your life. Even if there's no monetary transaction involved (although there almost always is), it's still about labour and acquisition; regardless of whether you enjoy knitting or want a scarf, we're told that knitting a scarf
"even makes watching telly feel productive". 
The pressure to reinvent ourselves is a very profitable one. As well as the spend required to coax them into being, the new you will require new trappings of identity - a new look, new surroundings, new accessories. After a short while, you are likely to see similarities between the new you and the old you, tempting you to seek out yet another newer shinier you. Self-help is like pornography; if it truly fulfilled rather than exciting then frustrating, the consumer would not keep coming back for new variations on the theme.

I've always been attracted to people who see themselves as works in progress. As I've grown older, I have become wise to those who have found the answer, usually unexpected (vigorous wishful thinking, doga), which is going to change everything.

Diane doesn't know it, but she is one of the wisest people I know when it comes to personal change:
"It’s taken me over a decade (I am not good at life) to realise that feeling turned upside down and like you’re about to hyperventilate is just… how it feels. Even when you’re moving towards something positive, change does not feel good. It’s so much easier to resist, to give in to the magnetic pull of I can’t do this. But it turns out that resistance and all those crappy feelings are part of the process. When you don’t recognise your life and nothing feels safe, it probably means you’re moving forward. 
"The other messed up, un-movie-montage-like thing I’ve learned is that change can be slow. Sometimes it’s so slow that it doesn’t seem like change at all."
I don't believe Diane is not good at life. Many people get through their whole lives without making any dynamic changes at all - many are lucky enough not to need to, others don't bother to try. Outright panic may not be inevitable, but meaningful change is always hard and often slow. It almost always involves either removing oneself from a warm, familiar and often comfortable source of misery (a place, relationship, job, personal habit) or else embarking on a terrifying adventure that should lead to somewhere good. If significant change was ever easy, we'd never find ourselves in positions when it needed to be thought about in any depth..

Meanwhile, when I first saw the phrase Do Something on the Guardian website, I had a naive expectation. I thought, since the Guardian is into hand-wringing about the injustices of the world (and they sometimes publish genuinely good social justice writing), a Do Something Manifesto might be about, you know, doing something to making the world a better place; helping out in one's community, supporting one's friends and family, giving time and energy to causes that make a difference. Especially as the tide of research would suggest that this, far more than neophilia (with all due respect to Keanu), is what makes people feel good.


Diane said...

Aw, thank you! Agree to disagree about how good I am at life, but I'll take "unknowingly wise" ;)

I have mixed feelings about self-help, I guess, in that I don't think it's universally unhelpful. But I do think the worst thing about a lot of new year recommendations is how nothing can be leisure and fun but has to be about being productive — I've written before (and might do so again) about how the "bucket list" phenomenon favours having experiences and ticking them off over actually, like... enjoying yourself.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks for your comment, oh unknowingly wise one. ;-)

I know not all self-help is bunkum - there's of course a massive spectrum of material which could be classed as self-help including philosophical or spiritual texts, informative and educational materials on psychology or health, as well as the "Find Love, Wealth and Personal Happiness in 3 Easy Steps" type advice. But I do have a great loathing for the latter kind, which I really do think give vulnerable people more problems and pressure in order to keep them coming back for the CD and the seminar and the set of healing cutlery...

The Goldfish said...

PS That relates to a post I did for the F-Word here: Sex tips: Deepening the Divide - I honestly suspect that a lot of sex and relationship advice is designed to make these subjects more mysterious, to make men and women seem almost completely incompatible, so that people won't talk to one another and there'll always be a market for this advice. The same goes for many areas of self-help.