Alexandra Schwartz, The New Yorker:
Now that the champagne has gone flat and the Christmas tree is off to be mulched, it’s time to turn your thoughts to the months ahead. 2017 was a pustule of a year, politically and personally; the general anxiety around the degradation of American democracy made it hard to get much done. That’s O.K., though, because you’ve made new resolutions for 2018, and the first one is not to make resolutions. Instead, you’re going to “set goals,” in the terminology of the productivity guru Tim Ferriss—preferably ones that are measurable and have timelines, so you can keep track of your success.
Once your goals are in place, it might be smart to design a methodology that will encourage you to accomplish them. Charles Duhigg, the author of “The Power of Habit,” recommends a three-step self-conditioning process. You want to get to the gym more? Pick a cue (sneakers by the door); choose a reward that will motivate you to act on it (a piece of chocolate); execute. Bravo! You are now Pavlov and his dog.
Want to find a husband? Clean out a closet for the man of your dreams and imagine him hanging up his ties. Want to get rid of your glasses? Picture yourself acing your next vision exam and kiss those progressive lenses goodbye. In retrospect, “The Secret,” which sold more than twenty million copies worldwide, seems a testament to the predatory optimism that characterized the years leading up to the financial crisis. People dreamed big, and, in a day of easy money, found that their dreams could come true. Then the global economy crashed, and we were shaken violently awake—at least for a time.
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.
“In a consumerist society, we are not meant to buy one pair of jeans and then be satisfied,” Cederström and Spicer write, and the same, they think, is true of self-improvement. 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.
There is a great deal of money to be made by those who diagnose and treat our fears of inadequacy; Cederström and Spicer estimate that the self-improvement industry takes in ten billion dollars a year.
The good life may have sufficed for Plato and Aristotle, but it is no longer enough. “We are under pressure to show that we know how to lead the perfect life,” Cederström and Spicer write.
“We’re living in an age of perfectionism, and perfection is the idea that kills,” he writes. “People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”
Like reality television before it, social media frames human relationships as a constant competition for popularity and approval. Donald Trump, with his greed-is-good hucksterism and his obsessive talk of “winners” and “losers,” is in the White House.
Meanwhile, parents continue to feed their children the loving, well-intentioned lie that there are “no limits” and they can “be anything,” which leaves the kids blaming themselves, rather than the market’s brutality, when they inevitably come up short.
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.”
Is that what a man looks like?