Tuesday 23 May 2017

Forget self-help! We need to lower our expectations of ourselves to be happy

Over the years, thousands of self-help books have promised us the key to living happier, more successful lives, writes Tanya Sweeney, but now a new ‘anti self-help movement’ has thrown a spanner in the works. We talk to anti self-help author Svend Brinkmann about his belief that constantly striving to be better just sets us up to fail

The self-help books worth coming back to time and time again
The self-help books worth coming back to time and time again

Tanya Sweeney

Whether  you’ve read one or a dozen self-help manuals, the overriding message is always the same — if you put the spadework in and embark on a journey of inner exploration and self-improvement, you will be happy. You’ll always be a work in progress, and it’s up to you to ensure that you’re always growing if you want to get the best out of life.

Svend Brinkmann, a professor of psychology and qualitative methods at Aalborg University, Denmark, is providing words of sweet relief to those who’ve already had a bellyful of the self-help craze. He’s thrown quite a spanner into the works, too. At a time when everyone’s thoughts turn to having a happier and healthier year, his design for life is jarring: ditch the self-help manuals, stay still and don’t do very much.

Already a bestselling hit in Denmark, Stand Firm: Resisting The Self-Improvement Craze has received plenty of attention, as well as the ire of many in the wellbeing industry.

“At first, the reaction was, in a way, hostile,” he recalls. “It got a lot of press attention, and life coaches, mindfulness experts and positivity psychologists felt they had to stand up for themselves to defend their theories. I think they learned after reading the book that I’m not seeing what they do as a problem, but it’s about the symptoms of a deeper problem. It’s about sacking the individualist ideology that gives people the need to go and see life coaches.

“Much of what people do is fine and they don’t need to improve anything,” he explains. “I’m not saying that self-help books are bad, but for me, they represent a symptom of the problems. We are preoccupied with individualism and quick fix solutions: ‘If I follow these steps things will be fine’. This advice constantly directs the individual towards him or herself without considering the societal context.

“I have colleagues in sociology who are talking about our age as the age of depression, and if we look at the symptoms of depression there is constant self-blame: ‘I’ll never be good enough’. Our culture is all about acquiring new competencies; the mentality of ‘we’re never good enough’ is very powerful, but it needn’t be the only one.”

Accepting ourselves as we are is key
Accepting ourselves as we are is key

He’s right, of course: in almost every society, a self-starter — employees who show initiative, people who work out every day, clean eaters — are favoured well. But central to Brinkmann’s theory is that we should be happy the way we are; that lowering our expectations of ourselves is a good thing.

Constantly striving for thinner, cleverer, better or more enlightened ultimately sets us up to fail. And instead of looking inward for answers, Brinkmann suggests that we look at the culture of social acceleration we live in that has most of us stressed and depressed.

There’s something in his outlook: the secret to a happier life, then, lies not in finding your inner-self, but in coming to terms with yourself in order to co-exist peacefully with others. Once they indulge every feeling and emotion, a person starts to become infantilised, unable to deal with the vagaries of adulthood.

“It is a fundamental paradox that self-help literature, on the one hand, celebrates the individual, their freedom of choice and their self-realisation, and on the other, helps create people who are increasingly addicted to self-help and therapeutic intervention(s),” he writes. “It is claimed that self-realisation results in self-sufficient adults but it actually creates infantile, dependent adults who think the truth lies within them.”

With the emphasis firmly on happiness and contentment, we simply aren’t equipped to cope with the inevitable negatives of life; a shortcoming that itself leads to frustration and despair.

“We have a huge happiness industry, and it’s well intentioned, but something is never allowed simply to be bad,” says Birkmann. “We need to grow through loss, bereavement, crisis and trauma, and we lack an understanding on how to talk about the tragic dimensions of life, which are certainly there. It’s great if people can learn and grow from their crises, but sometimes things are just bad, and it becomes worse if we’re not allowed to just seem them as bad.”

Social media, predictably, features heavily in Brinkmann’s book as a mitigating factor in this age of depression: “In the book I’ve connected social media with the emergence of consumer society,” he explains. “The goal of the economy was to produce reliable, trustworthy products, but instead it produces desire in people to want more and more. We suffer from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and can never be content, and social media has intensified this.”

While professing to be an ‘anti self-help book’, Brinkmann at once satirises the very genre he is deconstructing. Written in much the way your average self-help tome is (tongue firmly in cheek), sample chapters in Stand FIrm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze include: ‘cut out the navel gazing’, ‘focus on the negative in your life’, ‘suppress your feelings’, and ‘dwell on the past’.

Brinkmann skates a gossamer fine line between satire and offering up his own happiness blueprint, and the delicious irony is that readers are hailing his as the best self-help book of them all.

Still, though… focus on the negative? Suppress your feelings? Surely this is sort of stuff that the mental health industry has been rallying against for years?

Considerable energies and resources are being spent so that young people, men in particular, don’t suppress their feelings and focus on the negative in their lives. Yet Brinkmann is adamant that a dose of stoicism acts as a much-needed palate cleanser in the face of social media, rampant consumerism and the obsession with ‘me’.

“I’m certainly not against the emotional side of human life,” counters Brinkmann. “It’s important to us as human beings, but we have an impoverished idea of what emotions are. My view is that our emotional lives are complex. Our emotions should be socialised, and not just expressed. There’s nothing wrong with repressing your emotions instead of constantly expressing them. 

“Emotions are important, and they can inform us of important things in the world, but they shouldn’t necessarily be something that is expressed all the time. Often, we need to censor ourselves. Trump, for instance, seems to have quite strong emotions, he freely expressed high emotions, and he appears to lack the feelings of shame and guilt that would stop him from expressing them.”

Brinkmann’s theories look set to irk the wellbeing industry for some time to come, yet there’s no doubting that his points cut through the swathe of self-help teachings. Rather, his viewpoint is refreshing, prompting the reader to pause for thought.

“People reading the book can understand that much of what they do is fine, and they don’t have to improve everything,” he surmises. “It’s the people who are so busy optimising themselves in all sorts of ways that might miss out on certain fundamental things in life.”

As designs for life go, it may just be brilliantly outlandish enough to work.

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