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Don’t bother with the self-improvement obsession – it won’t make you happy

Controversially, Denmark’s most feted professor of psychology is urging us all to focus on the negative and dwell on the past. Could it work, wonders Hattie Garlick

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By Hattie Garlick on

Do you have a juicer hiding in the darkest recesses of your cupboards? Is that yoga mat gathering dust under the bed and that sky dive still unbooked? If these question makes you cringe, I have wonderful news. As of this month, it officially could not matter less. According to a new book written by Denmark’s most feted professor of psychology, self-improvement is not just overrated, its current grip over us is damaging to both our psyches and our societies.

“This idea that the route to happiness is in never-ending personal improvement is just ludicrous,” Svend Brinkmann, author of Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, tells me.  “Popular culture is awash with it, yet we are more tired, stressed and depressed than ever.” The time has come, he says, for us to “stand firm”. Here, then, are his seven steps towards recovery from self-help culture:

Cut out the navel-gazing

“Self help’s central dogma is that we must consult and be guided by our inner feelings,” says Svend. “Which is all well and good... sometimes. But as a general philosophy it’s a terrible idea. Our only living Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, won his award by showing that our gut feelings, largely, lead us astray.” Instead, he suggests, why not try approaching big decisions the old fashioned way, “by consulting other people, especially more experienced ones, and employing reason”?

Focus on the negative in your life

If there is one other dogma Svend is determined to dismantle it is this: think positive.

“What if you are experiencing something objectively negative?” he asks. “Someone’s dying, you’re losing your house. You can’t tell someone that by simply changing their mind-set they can make it better. They can’t. It isn’t within their power.”

In his view, we need to protect our right to be critical about things which are, objectively, negative. “If you try to think exclusively positive thoughts about things which are not so, you are simply lying to yourself.” On the other hand, negative visualisation, (in essence, imagining the worst), is a recognised cognitive strategy for managing anxiety.

We need to give ‘no’ back its dignity – there’s nothing innately positive about change, nothing innately negative about staying still 

Put on your “No” hat

“We are constantly being incited to ‘grasp opportunities’ and ‘embrace new challenges’,” says Svend. In this cult of the new, we are constantly moving, making plans and gripped by a fear of missing out. “We need to give ‘no’ back its dignity,” he argues. “There’s nothing innately positive about change, nothing innately negative about staying still, and not all opportunities are worth embracing.”

On the other hand, stopping to catch your breath and assess whether the proffered change will actually make you more content... That does sound sensible.

Suppress your feelings

“This one makes some people angry,” admits Svend. “They’ve been fighting for decades for the right to express their feelings, so why would they want to suppress them?” Because, he agues in the book, we have arrived at an era defined by what sociologists call “emotional capitalism”. “You are expected to trade on your emotions,” explains Svend, “to be constantly displaying and sharing them in public.” In fact, suggests Svend, a key part of growing up is learning how to control your emotions, holding some of them back, or sharing them with select people.

Sack your coach

Or, if you don’t have a life coach, shake off the need to constantly “work on yourself”. Over past two decades, self-help’s most famous advocate, Tony Robbins, has tried to get us all to sign up to “constant and never ending improvement”. “The problem with this,” says Svend, “is that you’re never content with yourself or your situation.” In fact, the whole idea of “pursuing your dreams” concerns him.

“This idea that success is defined by doing and having exactly what you want, when you want it...” he muses. “It is shockingly close to antisocial personality disorder … I am worried that we’re encouraged by this ideology to pursue our goals without examining their value, realism or impact on others.”

Read a novel – not a self-help book or biography

“Even though novels are fiction,” says Svend, “they’re much truer than any self-help book and most biographies.” Biographies tent to tread a well-worn linear route: this tragedy befell me, I had this set back and then – through grit and determination – I got my happy ever after. Good novels, on the other hand, depict the human state in all its messy, mistaken, troubled, failing and frequently heartbroken truth. “They’re much more consoling,” he says.

Dwell on the past

Be proactive! Live for the moment! Keep your eye on the prize! “We are forever being advised to focus on the future or the right now,” says Svend, “it’s become very unfashionable to look backwards and reflect on past experiences.”

Yet, our past experiences make us who we are. “We are defined by our roots,” he explains, “in fact, my book is a plea for rootedness. Putting down roots, connecting yourself to other people and to the past... It might not make you aspirational and flexible like our current culture wants you to be. But we really should re-dignify the stability it gives you.”

Stand Firm by Svend Brinkmann is published by Polity Books, £12.99.


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