Shiny Happy People

In our quest for self-improvement, have we gone too far?

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Anoushka Matus

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Remember when “I’m OK, you’re OK” was the gold standard in self-improvement mantras? What a concept. These days, in a culture in which anything less than perfection is pathology (Feeling a little depressed? Can’t get it up? I have just the thing for you!), aiming for just OK seems, frankly, kind of lame.

In today’s instant-makeover culture, the comparatively quaint idea of “good enough” has fallen victim to the tyranny of self-improvement. Many of us have become, to use management consultant Tom Peters’ dead-on phrase, the “CEO of Me, Inc.” Enthralled by the idea of personal transformation, many Americans work tirelessly to coax out the sleeping giants that self-help gurus say lie within us. In our unending quest to be shinier, happier people, we shell out billions of dollars annually for books, audiotapes, seminars, pills, and plastic surgeries that all carry the same implicit promise—a better you!

The starry-eyed impulse toward self-improvement is as American as mom, baseball, and Biggie Fries. From Horatio Alger to Oprah Winfrey to the young guns of the dot-com boom, reinvention is an American birthright. Indeed, as several scholars have recently argued, the American ideal of salvation through self-improvement might even have a genetic component that can be traced back to our immigrant roots.

“For three centuries and longer, America has been a lure for those of the migrant disposition, ‘a certain kind of people’ for whom a love of competition, curiosity, and a willingness to take risks are instinctual and enduring talents,” argues psychiatrist Peter C. Whybrow in his new book, American Mania: When More Is Not Enough (Norton).

In other words, we are a nation of self-selected strivers. However, Whybrow cautions, the survivalist ethic that served us so well on the frontier is, in this era of abundance, making us sick.

“Americans are emerging as the first addicts of the technological age, driven still by some ancient instinct for self-preservation that in our time of affluence is misplaced,” Whybrow observes. “Ironically, we are better tuned physiologically to face the privations and dangers inherent in an unexpected terrorist attack than we are to endure the relentless propositions and stressful abundance of our consumer society.”

In our hurry to get bigger, faster, and stronger, do we even know where we’re headed? The contemporary impulse toward self-help, some say, at best breeds intense selfishness and, at worst, represents the Enlightenment ideals of liberal individualism gone haywire.

Others argue that we should revel in the individual possibility that democracy grants us. Like President Bush’s dreams of an “ownership society,” in which “every citizen [is] an agent of his or her own destiny,” the preening individualism at the heart of self-improvement is fueled by the presumed virtues of personal choice and endless options.

But as countless studies have shown, when we’re left to our own devices, not only do we tend to miscalculate what will make us happy, but personal satisfaction actually decreases as the number of choices increases—whether we’re talking about jobs or shoes or varieties of bread. Self-determination might fuel many of our aspirations, observes Hal Neidzviecki in his 2004 book Hello, I’m Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity (Penguin Canada), but it can cut both ways.

“The self-esteem industry places the emphasis on you, your desires, needs, expectations, sacrifices, willingness to work hard,” Niedzviecki argues. “This not only encourages us to consider ourselves capable of changing and taking control of our lives, but discourages any examination of the overall system in which we live our lives. . . . When we believe in the self-esteem mantra, we believe that we are always the source of our failures.”

Maybe that explains why, in spite of seven dozen Chicken Soup for the Soul books on the market (Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover’s Soul, for example) and a multibillion-dollar self-improvement industry, we’re still fatter, more depressed, and more in debt than ever before. Save for brief, albeit catastrophic, blips that rouse us from narcissism (9/11, the Asian tsunami), we are seemingly lost in our atomized worlds of self-perfection. And, ultimately, our single-minded pursuit of perfection might lead us farther away from that other all-American quest—the pursuit of happiness.

“Have no fear of perfection—you’ll never reach it” was Salvador Dalí’s more radical attitude. What if we actually embraced our flaws as the qualities that make us human? Self-determination and self-improvement are commendable, but maybe we should turn a more skeptical eye toward the unyielding march toward perfection. As the philosopher John Gray recently observed, “Belief in progress is the Prozac of the thinking classes.” Besides, if we all aimed for perfection, how different would we actually end up being? As we know from seeing The Incredibles: If everyone is super, then no one is.