It only requires a casual glimpse of any best-selling book list to notice that the topic of self-improvement continues to be a popular one within today’s culture. Whether we’re talking about fitness, relationships, careers, or even spirituality, there appears to be ever-fresh insight to glean and incorporate into our lives: diets for maximizing antioxidants and limiting carbs, online listicles for balancing family and work, new podcasts and YouTube videos detailing how to negotiate, collaborate, and land that perfect career.
Around every turn, we are reminded of our need to improve our lives. As an article in The New Yorker highlights, we are bombarded with tools, insight, and programs for improving ourselves — and then, once improved, to do it again and again for higher and higher levels of improvement.
“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.”
The article continues: “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.”
In other words, we can’t escape the encouragement (or guilt-spurring insistence) to become better, faster, and stronger in every imaginable area of our lives.
We are bombarded with tools, insight, and programs for improving ourselves — and then, once improved, to do it again and again at a higher level.
Of course, our collective desire to grow and “improve” in life-giving and healthy ways is certainly a good thing. But at what point can our desire to be “better” go too far? How can we learn to balance the noble pursuit of improving ourselves without descending into a neurotic and incessant cycle of seeking that leaves us unhappy, unhealthy, and unfulfilled?
Improving Toward the Good
Aristotle, one of the greatest minds of the ancient world, believed that human beings are called to live a life aimed toward the good. He believed that our desire for happiness, what he referred to as “Eudaimonia,” can only be met by seeking out good virtues. By living virtuously — maintaining a life of discipline and sacrifice, striving for truth, practicing acts of benevolence, etc. — we can slowly build a flourishing life for ourselves.
According to the famous philosopher, when we strive toward improving ourselves in healthy and noble ways we are indeed working toward a more fulfilling and meaningful life. In other words, a well-lived life entails that we work toward improving ourselves.
Achieving wellness has no end point. There are always ways we can be growing as humans in the various dimensions of our lives.
PLNU kinesiology professor and integrative wellness program director, Jessica Matthews, DBH, has over a decade of experience teaching and counseling others on topics related to integrative health and wellness. Similar to Aristotle, she understands that applying our autonomy to work toward improving the many areas of our lives allows us to reach a greater level of flourishing and wellness.
“Wellness is an active process through which people become aware of and make choices toward a more successful existence,” Matthews explained. “This definition from the National Wellness Institute relates well to the topic of self-improvement in that achieving wellness has no endpoint. There are always ways we can be growing as humans in the various dimensions of our lives.”
We, therefore, have the opportunity to be active participants in growing and evolving toward a more flourishing form of life. As Matthews explains, it’s an incredible gift that we each have the ability to actively strive toward improving our lives and actualizing our personal potential. For this reason, the desire for and commitment to self-improvement understood rightly, is a necessary component of wellness.
The Pitfalls of Self-Improvement
However, our quest for self-improvement can be taken to the extreme in ways that hinder flourishing and wellness.
To illuminate how the desire for self-improvement can border on the unhealthy, it’s worth considering the phenomenon known as “body hacking.” Body hacking refers to the implementation of some type of technology for the purpose of pushing beyond the natural limits of the human body. For example, some individuals have been able to temporarily augment their night vision by adding a diluted dosage of Chlorin e6 to their eyes (a chemical that, taken in large amounts, can be harmful). The chemical is a chlorophyll derivative present in the eyes of deep-sea dragonfish that inhabit the darkest regions of the ocean. By introducing small amounts of the chemical to the human eye, one can drastically improve his or her night vision, being able to see over 160 feet away in the dark.
Of course, this is an extreme example, and most people would be hesitant about adding strange chemicals from a sea creature into their eyes for the relatively useless power of refined night vision. But this phenomenon of body hacking draws attention to a widespread reality within our culture: the quest for continual self-improvement often borders on the extreme and unhealthy.
Some individuals have been able to temporarily augment their night vision by adding a diluted dosage of Chlorin e6 to their eyes allowing them to see over 160 feet away in the dark.
The quest toward human (or superhuman) perfection can also be seen in the Esalen community, an organization that is committed to the “realization of human potential.” The organization offers a retreat to help push people to be their best selves, through “pioneering initiatives [that] offer personal, spiritual, and social transformation programs for residents, interns, and workshop participants.”
The problem with Esalen and many other advocates of unmitigated strategies for self-improvement is that there is often the implicit understanding that people can become whatever mold of perfection that they want to be. In other words, a mindset focused on incessant self-improvement can obscure the reality of our own unique and universal human limitations. There is nothing wrong with wanting to become fit and healthy, but what if our desire to reach such a goal entails an extremely restrictive diet that damages our health? It is good to maintain emotional and psychological well-being by pursuing leisurely hobbies and activities, but what if such pursuits hinder the well-being of those around you?
An article from The Guardian picked up on this notion of inordinate striving when it comes to self-improvement by discussing the “neoliberal self.” The creation of the neoliberal self through unwavering self-improvement seeks as its goal individuals who are “extroverted, slim, beautiful, individualistic, optimistic, hard-working, socially aware yet high-self-esteeming global citizen with entrepreneurial guile and a selfie camera.”
But what good is reaching a slim and beautiful physique if our spiritual life suffers? What good is professional success if it doesn’t result in meaningful work that improves the lives of others, not just ourselves? This is why it’s important to ask ourselves this question as we seek to improve ourselves: To what end is the point of my self-improvement?
This is the problem with self-improvement that goes unchecked — the goal becomes improvement for its own sake. But that isn’t what makes for a flourishing life. Self-improvement is only good when it leads to some tangible outcome that is aimed toward the good: better relationships, more meaningful work, a healthy body that enables one to serve others more readily, a strong prayer life that leaves us more generous and open-hearted.
Matthews explained that another reason many of us can become swept up by the idea of self-improvement for its own sake is because we are focused on our shortcomings and deficits. In fact, within the self-improvement industry, there are many who sell their products or services by drawing attention to some alarming “lack” in our lives that must be immediately addressed.
A mindset focused on incessant self-improvement can obscure the reality of our own unique and universal human limitations.
“That is how many products related to self-improvement are sold,” Matthews said. “They get us to ask the question: ‘What is wrong with me instead of what is right with me?’”
And if we feel that something is wrong with us that needs to be made right — and done so as soon as possible — we are going to buy this or that product or service in order to feel better about ourselves and remove this supposed “lack.”
Mathews highlighted another major pitfall when it comes to self-improvement.
“Oftentimes, whether we are aware of it or not, we adopt an all-or-nothing mentality to making changes in our lives. From a behavioral perspective, this is one of the most common cognitive distortions,” Matthews explained.
She brought up the example of exercise. Many believe that in order to improve our physical health we have to be working out for an hour a day, seven days a week or we might as well do nothing at all. In other words, we often perceive that we need to be “all in” in one area of our lives — career, family, health, etc. — in order to actually be “successful” with our self-improvement efforts. But this is untrue. For example, even exercising just one day a week would be an improvement in the health and fitness area of our lives. In short, we don’t have to optimize every single aspect of our lives at once, which, ultimately, would be impossible.
We often perceive that we need to be “all in” in one area of our lives — career, family, health — in order to actually be “successful” with our self-improvement efforts. But this is untrue.
Additionally, an all-or-nothing mentality can demand unbalanced attention to one aspect of our lives, severely removing attention from others. Matthews explains that, especially in the U.S., this can often be seen in our professional lives.
“I would say that one dimension of wellness that can be a bit off-balance is the occupational one,” Matthews explained. “Because of this, we see high rates of burnout, especially in the medical field. We see that this pouring into one dimension at the expense of neglecting others has negative consequences, and can greatly affect our emotional, mental, and physical well-being.”
If we are committed to working 80 hours a week to gain that promotion or land in the top one percent of our class — goals that may be good in and of themselves — might we be doing so at the expense of our relationships, emotional and mental health, or prayer life?
Matthews’ point is that though it is often necessary and advisable to focus on improving certain areas of our lives, any focus on one area will always affect all other areas of our lives as well.
“Our wellness is multidimensional, and all of the dimensions of our lives intersect. A focus on one dimension has a direct impact on another. We are made up of body, mind, and spirit, and these dimensions can’t be separated. And so when it comes to self-improvement, we need to ensure that as we grow and evolve in one dimension we understand the impact it has on the others,” Matthews advised.
Self-Improvement Rooted in Christ
PLNU biology professor Dave Cummings, Ph.D., has been open about his struggles with anxiety and depression, writing and speaking about them and what he has learned. He recently published a book about his experience and the wisdom and insight accrued.
On his website, he calls attention to the role that false expectation can have in our lives when we are not rooted in seeing the world biblically. When it comes to checking whether or not we have some unhealthy expectations about ourselves and our lives, he poses a simple test. He invites us to ask ourselves this question: I always thought by now I would have [blank]…
Maybe we thought we would be debt-free, married with kids, or have achieved more in our careers? Whatever the answer we give to that question, it usually reflects an unhealthy relationship to that aspect of our life that can not only lead to feelings of discontent but fuel us toward “remedying” it through immoderate striving. Again, striving to save more money to take care of debt or seeking education to expand career options are great and noble pursuits, but when our happiness and identity are contingent on whether or not we achieve these things — and consequently strive toward them with a neurotic, all-or-nothing mentality — our quest for “self-improvement” in these areas of our lives will leave us restless and unfulfilled.
I always thought by now I would have [blank]…
Cummings provided additional insight from Scripture on how to cope with our temptation to strive endlessly toward improvement.
“In the book of Matthew, Jesus says, ‘Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourself treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is there your heart will be also.’ According to Jesus, the secret to contentment is to take this view and adopt eternal priorities,” Cummings said.
Cummings is reminding us that when we set our aim on earthly goals — greater wealth, better levels of fitness, increased popularity — we are limiting our worldview. It isn’t that striving for these things is wrong, but when they become ends in and of themselves — ends that will, one day, fade — we will find ourselves unhappy and have adopted an unhealthy approach to self-improvement.
Cummings also offered good advice for those of us struggling with perfectionism, even if that perfectionism has to do with our commitment to the faith.
What are the ‘shoulds’ you tell yourself about yourself? Those are your self-expectations. Would you hold someone else to those same standards or are you harder on yourself than everyone else?
“Are your self-expectations fair, reasonable, and Biblical? Are you a perfectionist who only tolerates the very best from yourself? Listen to your self-talk, the way you talk to yourself throughout the day. Do you use the word ‘should’ throughout the day? Like, ‘I should be a better Christian? I should have the self-discipline to study the Bible every day or I should be able to overcome this temptation?’ What are the ‘shoulds’ you tell yourself about yourself? Those are your self-expectations. Would you hold someone else to those same standards or are you harder on yourself than everyone else? God’s expectations of you are fair, reasonable, and certainly Biblical,” Cummings explained.
We may have good intentions in desiring to be a more faithful Christian or a more service-oriented minister of Christ’s love, but when we become overly committed to improving ourselves, without God’s grace, to reach some impossible state of perfection we will encounter discontentment. And this can breed deep-seated resentment and despair, even though outwardly we appear to be striving for the “right” things.
“Contentment is one of the most important spiritual disciplines a Christian can learn, without it we see everything in life through jade-colored glasses, the opposite of rose-colored glasses,” Cummings explained. “Without contentment, we tend to be pessimistic, suspicious, judgmental, unaccepting, unloving. We feel like the world has cheated us out of something that’s rightfully ours. Contentment clears the way for love, joy, and peace.”
An easy way to foster negative emotions is to compare our lives to that of others, allowing jealousy and envy to spur our desire for self-improvement.
“The problem with comparing ourselves to what we see or perceive in others is that we often only see one aspect of somebody’s life,” Matthews explained, pointing to how this can especially be the case when it comes to the filtered photos and comments displayed on social media. “Sometimes people are comparing themselves to what they see people posting online, and that usually does not represent the full picture.”
Contentment is one of the most important spiritual disciplines a Christian can learn, without it we see everything in life through jade-colored glasses, the opposite oF rose-colored glasses.
Similar to what Cummings shared, this can then lead to negative self-talk about us not being worthy or lovable, and therefore needing to strive toward some greater level of being — some illusory goal that we think will make us happy.
One practical way to avoid this is to become aware of the negative and untrue things that we tell ourselves based on what we perceive others doing or what we perceive we lack.
“It is powerful to have a sense of true awareness in the ways that you think about yourself. When we do this, we often realize much of the self-talk that runs through our minds we would never say out loud to another person. These thoughts are often not positive or productive, so just becoming aware of the way in which we think about ourselves and our lives is important, as it directly impacts the way we feel and the way that we act,” Matthews explained. “Seeing ourselves from a place of strength and opportunity instead of dwelling on our perceived deficits is also a powerful first step. When we start to see ourselves from what is good in our lives and from the unique strengths and gifts that we bring to our work, family, or schoolwork, we can then figure out how to optimize those areas of our lives for a greater sense of well-being.”
Seeing ourselves from a place of strength and opportunity instead of dwelling on our perceived deficits is a powerful first step.
Self-improvement can be rightly ordered when we start with the truth that we are loved by God as we are. That our desire to improve ourselves and our lives, and the means available to us for doing that, are gifts that he offers us in order to obtain greater human flourishing and wellness. Ultimately, we are invited to engage in self-improvement throughout our lives as a response to his love and grace in our lives — not for the purposes of “earning” the love of God, others, or ourselves.
“We need to have a shift in our perceptions and recognize that we are created in God’s image and that there is nothing lacking in our lives,” Matthews explained. “We are these beautiful, multifaceted beings who have the opportunity to take intentional action toward cultivating greater Christ-like character.”