Is self-improvement just a cultish craze?
My best mate sent me an article last night that captivated me.
It outlined the thesis of Svend Brinkmann, a Danish psychology professor and author of Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, who believes society's relentless insistence on and pursuit of happiness has become an emotional and psychological burden, particularly in the context of a frenetic modern world. Personal growth and development is inextricably linked to our individual and communal searches for meaning in life, he argues, and cultish adherence to positivity to attain happiness makes us reject or ignore that which is painful, overwhelming or unbearable.
In short: happiness and positivity are not appropriate responses to many situations in life, and instead, our thoughts and emotions should mirror the context in which we find ourselves.
I can appreciate the logic of this argument. These days, there is no shortage of entrepreneurs and experts producing podcasts, blogs, books and businesses that offer help on your personal journey towards optimal, holistic health and happiness. I am one of them. And I certainly agree people should feel comfortable experiencing the full gamut of emotions, both for their own wellbeing and for greater perspective of life and purpose.
But where the good professor loses me is in suggesting positive psychology has engendered an environment through which anything less than happiness is unacceptable, and that which threatens our states of mind is wrong. I also disagree that the rise of positive psychology has been in tandem with increases in the rates of depression (greater numbers of diagnosed mental health issues can be explained much better, for example, by recognition and acceptance of such health problems that didn't exist before).
It is interesting, however, to consider Brinkmann's thesis in the context of the legal profession. Given our statistical tendencies towards competitiveness, perfectionism and pessimism, one could reasonably deduce that lawyers and law students will be too tough on themselves when it comes to self-care, and become overwhelmed by the need to be one person at work and then a positive, holistic being outside of the office.
This is an issue I've considered before, both in my first book and in subsequent conversation with the profession. Are we stressing ourselves out even more in trying so hard to achieve a work/life balance?
For some of us, this is indeed the case. The idea of going for an hour-long gym session after a hard day's work is as overwhelming as it is exhausting.
My response to this is twofold: one, any activities undertaken in order to achieve balance in your daily or weekly experience must be personally gratifying, so as to energise and inspire us in ways that other activities, that we think are supposed to do so, will not. Secondly, we need to ensure kindness â€“ both to ourselves and those around us.
This is where Brinkmann's thesis and mine find common ground.
The professor argues for a return to civic virtues, duty and ethical obligations to find meaning in our lives. It is more important, he says, to be a decent human being than to self-fulfil.
I, too, see enormous value in altruism and volunteering; being able to make a practical, tangible difference, even if only in a small way, to any issue with which you choose to concern yourself, can be an incredibly powerful and purposeful experience that strengthens relationships and better humanises those around us.
But such acts of kindness should, I think, be made to yourself as well â€“ especially if you are a lawyer.
We work so hard, and try so hard to achieve balance, health and happiness, then we are susceptible to self-flagellation if we do not achieve enough in those pursuits. Not being able to get to everything on your "to do" list does not indicate weakness or laziness. We need to give ourselves greater slack when it comes to managing and maintaining wellness. Having nights dedicated solely to trashy, reality TV while eating junk food is perfectly acceptable on occasion!
While I'm not on board with everything the anti-self-help movement argues (I, for one, think positive psychology and the pursuit of happiness can be life-changing for many people), we find common ground in advocating for kindness across the board. Giving time and effort to others, and giving leeway to yourself when needed, is an important personal allowance.
“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain