The Self-Improvement Myth

Now that we’re nearing the end of January, it seems like a good time for a status check on those New Year’s resolutions.  Or were you one of those people who decided to call them something softer like “goals” or “targets” this year, because that felt less likely to immediately careen into failure?  Some have suggested that people fail in their New Year’s resolutions 92% of the time, although I had difficulty verifying that statistic.  If you’ve already backslid on a New Year’s resolution or two, I suspect the whole “goal” thing isn’t quelling that slowly rising sense of defeat.  I used to repeat this pattern of resolution and failure year after year, until I realized I should just stop making resolutions.  It was my last New Year’s resolution; one of the few that I ever kept.

Drunken Expectations

New Year’s resolutions are the Silenus of the self-improvement pantheon.  Silenus was a minor Greek god of drunkenness and wine making.  He was the step father and mentor to Dionysus, the god of wine.  He was also the champion drinker of all the satyrs.  According to Euripides, Silenus said, “The man who does not enjoy drinking is mad.”

Silenus. The Greek God of Drunkenness and Wine Making (possibly by van Dyck, National Gallery).

New Year’s resolutions are born in a metaphorical, and often literal, drunkenness instilled by the threshold of a new year.  Like an intoxicated pirate crossing the international dateline, we hope sailing into the next calendar year will somehow magically imbue us with a new understanding of our foibles and better self-control.  Our New Year’s Eve inebriation temporarily convinces us that we share the supernatural powers of Silenus, who revealed deep wisdom and even foretold the future, but only when he was drunk.

The Self-Improvement Industry

While New Year’s resolutions can seem comical, do the other gods in the self-improvement pantheon deserve any more serious consideration?  As an example that’s close to home, most of what you read in the personal finance world can seem like just another self-help deity of questionable wisdom.  We’re urged to budget, save more, spend less, track spending, invest more prudently, plan for retirement, optimize our taxes, and more.  And I sometimes feel that my website is just piling on more self-improvement chores for everyone.

And that’s just the god of personal finance self-help.  We’re bombarded everyday on social media, websites, magazines, and television with new ways to eat better, get more exercise and sleep, do better at work, improve relationships, be more time efficient and productive, be more charitable, be happier in general, and achieve “success and wealth”.  My favorite self-help god is “stress reduction”.  Aren’t all these action items part of our stress in the first place?  (By the way, the deity presiding over stress is actually a goddess: Oizys.)

The obvious problem, pointed out by many observers (see here, herehere, and here for starters), is the huge money to be made in helping people become new and better.  The self-help industry has been estimated to bring in $10 billion in annual revenue.  Some self-help advice is clearly absurd and bound to be totally ineffective.  A good example is the “wish for it” method popular in the last decade.  But if the self-help gurus can make it “sound” plausible enough for you to buy the book (or the whatever), that alone propels the industry forward.  None of it needs to work.  It just has to sound like it might work, and that’s sufficient to spur a whole new wave of self-help ideas and programs next year and the next.*

Desire and Suffering

From the perspective of Buddhist mindfulness, ego and desire drive the self-help industry.  Increasingly, it seems like society is pressuring us, particularly through social media, to be more, to be better, to be perfect even.  Becoming better means we’re flawed now, which ignites the desire to correct those flaws.  As I’ve written elsewhere, Buddhists believe that desire is the root of all suffering.

While researching about Silenus, I ran across this article from H. Sanchez on a website called The Ivory Tower.  Frankly, it’s a weird website, and I certainly don’t agree with everything written there, but it contains a compelling non-Buddhist (as far as I can tell) description of the cycle of desire and suffering.  It starts with a Greek myth told by Theopompus where King Midas asks Silenus what the best thing for humankind is, and Silenus answers:

  • “What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing.  But the second best for you is—to die soon.”
Silenus, Dionysus, and King Midas (from left to right) by Poussin.

Like a first reading of Buddhism’s four noble truths, this can sound suicidally pessimistic.  Sanchez’s analysis of Silenus’ answer might also leave you a bit depressed at first.  (I took liberties to paraphrase this a bit to make exactly my point here.)

  • We seek to make things better, but where is better to be found?  Does not every failure to achieve bring us suffering?  That bitter taste of knowing that the world was, once again, too much of an obstacle for us to achieve what we wanted?  And if we are gifted with the fortune to achieve such pursuits, how long will it take until we are no longer satisfied?  Is it not only when we have lost what is good that we know to acknowledge it?  Is it not only when we again feel suffering that we become aware of what we no longer possess?  Will not the pursuit of that which is better, when finished, simply be replaced by a new pursuit, thereby never giving peace to our quest?  Is it, therefore, not clear that suffering is the only constant we can ever expect?

It’s the constant cycle of striving and failing, or alternatively, succeeding and then losing satisfaction with the success, that drives most of the suffering from the self-help craze.  Cut off the cycle at the point of desire, and you have an opportunity to experience something new.

Acceptance

How do we cut off desire?  The mindful solution is cultivating acceptance of the current situation and acceptance of yourself as you exist right now, flaws and all.  Consider any of your problems, and you can easily imagine them being worse.  Perhaps your doctor says you need to lose some weight.  But if you’re 40 pounds over weight, that’s better than being 100 pounds over weight.  Being $40,000 in debt is better than being $100,000 in debt and losing your house to the bank.  In reality, if you’ve avoided the worst situations, you can’t be a total basket case.  We all have low points, and some of them are indeed very low.  But the low points can only exist relative to many other higher points.

Mindful acceptance comes from compassion for yourself and others.  For an explanation on the the linkage between mindful acceptance and self-compassion, see this article at Greater Good Magazine.  In brief, while you may think your “terrible” for being 40 pounds overweight, the only thing that makes you “terrible” is your own judgment and criticism of yourself.  Mindfulness is about letting go of judgment, which allows you to better appreciate and like yourself.

You’re probably thinking, “I will certainly be better off when I try to improve myself versus simply giving up.”  The Buddha is supposed to have said that if a man comes and cuts off all your limbs, you should love him in return.  Personally, I’d run away if some guy approached me with a saw and an evil look in his eyes.  I would take action instead of giving up.  Compassion for yourself and others is the best gauge of when to take action, particularly when acting will reduce suffering.

Here’s an example from my life illustrating this utilitarian type of acceptance:

  • Relatively early in my career, my then employer offered to pay my full tuition for a master’s degree within two years.  They said that after I got the degree, I would be promoted two levels, but I had to continue working full-time as well.  They made the same offer that year to another guy at a similar level in a different department.  Though the offer was tempting to me, working full-time, going to classes at night, and studying on weekends sounded like a miserable existence.  I turned the offer down.  This was well before I practiced mindfulness, but I felt I could accept wherever my existing career path might take me.  The other guy took the offer.
  • Over the next two years,  I continued to work hard, but not crazy hard.  I was promoted two levels anyway because of my performance, and I got two healthy year-end bonuses.  The other guy was indeed miserable, and he didn’t hide it well.  Distracted by getting the degree, his work suffered.  So, he didn’t get any promotions or bonuses in those two years, and he eventually quit in frustration.  I don’t know whether he ever got the degree or had to pay for the rest of the tuition.

Of course my story echos the myth of King Midas and his golden touch.  Be careful what you wish for, because it’s hard to predict the future.  Striving for something is no guarantee you’ll obtain it or that it will produce the desired result.  Striving less may produce less misery along the way and may also have a positive outcome, but likely not the outcome you first desired.

King Midas by Tournier

Less striving alone is not enough; the key is acceptance.  If you decide not to strive, but can’t accept your current situation, you’ll have the added misery of regret.  Mindfulness practice leads most people to paradoxically conclude that “improving” yourself is easier after you accept the current situation and compassionately accept your existing flaws.  With acceptance, the decision to change some aspect of your life is less permeated by anxiety and the fear of “bad” consequences.  Maybe you “succeed”, or maybe you “fail”, but your mental health doesn’t hang in the balance.

Self-Help by Any Other Name

I’m well aware that the idea of mindful acceptance sounds exactly like one of those self-help bromides.  However, I think there are a few important differences between mindful acceptance and your typical self-help advice.

First, the idea of avoiding desire through mindful acceptance started 2500 years before the self-help industry ever existed.  The problem of self-improvement was not created by recent cultural developments, it’s just a very old problem of human nature in a new form.  And in my view, no one in 2500 years has arrived at a better solution than mindful acceptance of your current situation, yourself, and your existing flaws.

Second, you most definitely don’t have to purchase anything to become more mindful.  There are more than enough free resources on the internet to guide you to a much more mindful existence.  You don’t have to join a cult, or a religion, or even a club.  If mindfulness is just another form of self-help, it’s the worst kind possible for folks in the self-help business.

Third, if taught properly, mindfulness is never held up as a panacea or a cure-all.  There’s no illusion that your desires and suffering will completely cease.  Mindfulness does not let you spike the ball in the end zone of “success”.  Most self-help guides play down the limitations of their techniques, because limitations don’t sell books and seminars.

Most importantly, mindful acceptance can be usefully applied much more broadly than most self-help techniques.  Acceptance helps with even those things you have no control over.  There are simply some problems in the world that you can’t improve your way around.  Disease, catastrophe, and accidents, are just a few of the problems that no self-help guide can solve, although they may try.  Steve Jobs, for all his self-control, ambition, success, fame, and fortune, still couldn’t avoid dying of cancer at the young age of 56.  The practice of mindful acceptance will equip you to better manage (not solve) the hardest problems in life in a way that’s completely foreign to most self-improvement methods.

Taking the “Self” Out of Self-Help

Contrary to the roar of social media and the internet, not everything is about you and whether you succeed or fail.  The world will still revolve if you decide to expend all your intellectual and emotional energy on your goals, your feelings, your success, your failure, and your everything else.  The grapes will still ripen, and the planets will still wander.  And until your last day inevitably comes, you’ll still be here in the world regardless of all these desires and concerns for your future self.

Because you’ll be here regardless, why not nudge yourself out of the way and enjoy the view?  Mindful acceptance allows us to turn our mental gaze away from ourselves.  If you’re not so busy judging yourself all the time, you can turn your attention to other things, some of which may be more productive.

The Self-Improvement Myth

Theopompus also wrote that Silenus, in his drunken wisdom, told King Midas about a far continent called Meropis.  Among other things, Meropis was:

  • A land where there are two rivers, one named Pleasure and the other Grief with trees along the banks of both that bear fruit of contrary qualities.  Those that grow along the river of Grief cause anyone who eats them to shed so many tears that he melts into laments for the rest of his life until he dies.  But he who tastes from the trees growing by the river Pleasure loses all his desires.  Then he is slowly rejuvenated, going through the stages of life in reverse order and dying after becoming an infant.
Midas’s Feast in Honor of Dionysus and Silenus (by Valckenborch, Pushkin Museum). Silenus Reveals His Drunken Wisdom to Midas.

Eating the fruit from either the trees of Grief or Pleasure sounds less than ideal.  I’d prefer not to lament for the rest of my life, but I don’t want to grow into a baby either.

I interpret the myth as saying you have to choose one river or the other.  The self-improvement craze wants you to forever navigate the river of Grief consuming fruit that causes self-centered striving to improve, regret when you haven’t improved, and eventually, dissatisfaction with your accomplishments.  At least navigating the river of Pleasure involves ending your desires, which will free you from the miserable cycle of striving, and if Silenus is right, perhaps rejuvenate you.

Many scholars think that Theopompus was using Meropis as a parody to ridicule Plato’s earlier story of Atlantis.  Theopompus may have been showing that Plato’s story of Atlantis was too idealistic to be relevant for the real world.  More complex interpretations exist.  We may wish for a land where our decisions are as simple as navigating exclusively the river of Grief or the river of Pleasure.  But nothing is that clear-cut in real life.  We can try to avoid desire and stay on the river of Pleasure, but we may at times surprisingly find ourselves transported to the river of Grief.  We may choose to strive for improvements for a while on the river of Grief, only to find we’ve lost our appetites, and we gently return to the river of Pleasure.

We can’t completely eliminate all our desires and suffering.  Further, we have to pay at least a little attention to ourselves and where we are going, which is easy given the ready supply of self-concern in the world.  Yet, by cultivating mindfulness and acceptance, we can avoid much of the self-inflicted misery and pointless striving that is so often promoted by the self-help industry.

 

* Rest assured that Mindfully Investing isn’t making any money from you.  I put a few ads on my Guide to Personal Finance Blogs, mainly to learn how it all works and in an attempt to pay for some of the software I’m using on the guide.  But I’m well shy of the traffic levels needed to receive an actual payment from those ads, and I have no plans to try to monetize the primary Articles and Blog at Mindfully Investing.

2 comments

  1. Enoch says:

    I stumbled on your blog after seeing your comment on GenYMoney’s article on similarities between Meditation and Investing. I enjoyed this piece and felt like I was having a “Zen-like” experience from reading about the wisdom of the Greek gods to your take on the futility of New Year resolutions and quest for perfection. Good stuff you have here and I will surely be back for more. Cheers!

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