DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY
Can anti-self-improvement guides be of any help in curing obsessive narcissism, wonders Mandy Sayer
About 50 years ago, Westerners decided they were not happy enough and began seeking fulfilment through self-help movements and spirituality. Gone were the brutal struggles of the Depression and World War II and the suburban certainties of the midcentury.
By the 1960s, especially in the US, the glass was suddenly half empty, even though most of the drinkers were not particularly thirsty. Encounter groups, humanistic psychology and psychoanalysis daisy-chained across California and beyond, suggesting to the mostly middle class that they could get more out of life if they just gazed with more focus at their own, unique navels.
Of course, the study of the self and its potential began with the Greeks and each of the four books reviewed here references Socrates and Plato. Selfie, by British journalist Will Storr, is a jaunty adventure through the history of self-improvement, from Confucius and Christianity to Silicon Valley. It’s also a cautionary tale about how the desire for self-perfection can be disastrous when combined with social media.
Many self-help programs are divided into seven steps and, in an ironic twist, Storr structures his anti-self-help book into seven chapters, with detailed historical research amplified by personal anecdotes.
The author freely admits he is socially withdrawn and a bit of an arsehole. In short, he has something at stake as he trawls through books, interviews experts and volunteers for various experiences that promise enlightenment, including living in a monastery and attending an alternative therapy workshop.
While Aristotle believed that all things in nature moved towards achieving perfection of their potential, Storr believes that, 2½ millennia later, the contemporary world grants us far more opportunities to compare ourselves with others and to feel like failures.
A particularly fascinating section of the book is his foray into the self-esteem movement of California. In the early 1990s, the state govern- ment funded a ‘‘self-esteem taskforce’’ to improve the general wellbeing of its residents. One result of the mission was that every child at school who participated in a sporting event won a ribbon for merely turning up, regardless of where theyplaced in a race.
The reasoning was that children with high self-esteem would display more initiative, which on one level was true, but the science also proved that children with boosted self-esteem quickly grew into narcissists, with little or no empathy for others. Hitler had high self-esteem. So does Donald Trump. Combine high self-esteem with social media and it’s no wonder some see links with escalating rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.
Even though the internet is essentially leaderless, our obsessions with status, popularity, moral outrage and tribal punishment can create perceived winners and losers out of any us, at any time, with the simple click of a button.
The emphasis on external reputation rather than inner values has been reinforced by plastic surgery, dental implants, phone filters, reality TV stars and celebrity diets. But what’s wrong with spending money on self-improvement if it boosts our confidence? According to Storr’s research, happy, productive people realise — even embrace — their limitations and are content to live within them.
Danish philosopher Svend Brinkmann echoes Storr’s findings in Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze. He argues that we are living in an accelerating world and have become addicted to the speed cycle of “keeping up”.
Like Storr, Brinkman also deliberately structures his book into a seven-step “program” to dismantle the misconceptions about what makes us content. One chapter, Sack Your Coach, discusses how gurus, life mentors and therapists help to create a religion of the self, in which the quest for personal improvement Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing To Us By Will Storr Picador, 370pp, $32.99 Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze By Svend Brinkmann Polity, 138pp, $28.95 Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day By Roman Krznaric Unbound, 286pp, $35 The Courage to be Disliked By Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga Allen & Unwin, 273pp, $24.99 takes precedence wider world.
Amusingly, Brinkman reverses many received opinions about happiness, and sometimes the text reads like a self-help book written by a tipsy Oscar Wilde. One chapter advises us to “dwell on the past” (to be able to view our suffering in a cultural/historical context, rather than through an individual one); another urges us to “focus on the negative in life” (it prepares us for future adversity); another counsels us to “suppress our feelings” (like Storr, Brinkman believes high levels of self-esteem can lead to narcissism, and even psychopathy).
Basically, the author has taken the philosophies of the 3rd century Stoics, such as Zeno of Citium, and applied them to the contemporary, digital world: happiness is not achieved by finding the inner self, but by accepting yourself as you are so you can co-exist with others peacefully. over the wellbeing of the