Shiny Happy People

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

| May-June 2005

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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.”