In our current era of non-stop technological innovation, fuzzy wishful thinking has yielded to the hard doctrine of personal optimization. Self-help gurus need not be charlatans peddling snake oil. Many are psychologists with impressive academic pedigrees and a commitment to scientific methodologies, or tech entrepreneurs with enviable records of success in life and business. What they’re selling is metrics. It’s no longer enough to imagine our way to a better state of body or mind. We must now chart our progress, count our steps, log our sleep rhythms, tweak our diets, record our negative thoughts—then analyze the data, recalibrate, and repeat.
We are being sold on the need to upgrade all parts of ourselves, all at once, including parts that we did not previously know needed upgrading. (This may explain Yoni eggs, stone vaginal inserts that purport to strengthen women’s pelvic-floor muscles and take away “negative energy.” Gwyneth Paltrow’s Web site, Goop, offers them in both jade and rose quartz.) There is a great deal of money to be made by those who diagnose and treat our fears of inadequacy...We are under pressure to show that we know how to lead the perfect life.
The desire to achieve and to demonstrate perfection is not simply stressful; it can also be fatal, according to the British journalist Will Storr. “We’re living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills...People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”
If the ideal of the optimized self isn’t simply a fad, or even a preference, but an economic necessity, how can any of us choose to live otherwise? Storr insists that there is a way. “This isn’t a message of hopelessness,” he writes. “On the contrary, what it actually leads us towards is a better way of finding happiness. Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be, you can begin to free yourself from your demands.”
Those for whom the imperative to “do you” feels like an unaffordable luxury may take some solace from Svend Brinkmann’s book “Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze” ...The pace of life is accelerating, he says. We succumb to fleeting trends in food, fashion, and health. Technology has eroded the boundary between work and private life; we are expected to be constantly on call, to do more, “do it better and do it for longer, with scant regard for the content or the meaning of what we are doing.” Like Storr, Brinkmann condemns self-improvement as both a symptom and a tool of a relentless economy. But where Storr sees a health crisis, Brinkmann sees a spiritual one. His rhetoric is that of a prophet counselling against false idols. “In our secular world, we no longer see eternal paradise as a carrot at the end of the stick of life, but try to cram as much as possible into our relatively short time on the planet instead,” ... as Brinkmann’s title makes clear, standing still is precisely what he proposes that we do. Enough of our mania to be the best and the most, he says. It’s time to content ourselves with being average.
Brinkmann does offer some advice that seems immediately worth taking. Go for a walk in the woods, he says, and think about the vastness of the cosmos. Go to a museum and look at art, secure in the knowledge that it will not improve you in any measurable way. Things don’t need to be of concrete use in order to have value. Put away your self-help guides, and read a novel instead.