How Our Obsession With Self-Improvement Is Harming Us

Recently, psychologist Maytal Eyal has observed what she calls an “epidemic of self-hatred.” Both within her work as a therapist and in her wider community, Eyal noticed how the weight of self-criticism and self-loathing wears on people’s souls. “It’s become sort of normalized,” she says. “And when people feel that way, they want to buy products to self-improve.”

A consequence of the cultural obsession with self-improvement is the hyperfixation on the self. From elaborate skin care regimens to the culling of “toxic” friends from your social circle, some will go through extreme lengths in the name of self-preservation and betterment. However, we’ve collectively overcorrected when it comes to the impulse to self-correct. When there’s always a new ideal to strive toward, a new workout to try, a new home renovation project, a new way to hack bodily functions, it can be hard to feel adequate, sufficient, enough. Very real socioeconomic, racial, and health factors impact a person’s ability to feel fulfilled, too. When a society marginalizes people based on their income, background, or abilities, it’s extremely easy to feel like we don’t measure up.

Regardless of your financial circumstances, living situation, or mental and physical health, inescapable psychological functions motivate us to strive for more. Taken too far, these compelling responses can also lead to overconsumption. The barrage of modern marketing and social media-driven comparison only furthers the desire to, well, desire. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to better your life, but there are ways to counter the innumerable pressures — both internal and external — urging you to spend or labor or improve to reach your full potential.

Why good things never feel satisfying for long

While all animals are compelled to survive, we as humans may be unique in the lengths to which we’ll go to better that existence. The motivating drive that tells us to seek out food when we’re hungry or to find shelter when it’s raining is primed to find other creative life upgrades. A non-peer reviewed study found that when people were asked how certain objects and experiences, like their phone, their pets, and love, could be different, they consistently thought of ways these devices, creatures, and emotions could be better.

“The reason why we went from hunting and gathering to living in skyscrapers is because someone had to imagine all of the improvements,” says the study’s co-author Adam Mastroianni, an experimental psychologist and author of the science newsletter Experimental History. “It really does seem to be something very intrinsic in the way that humans work and that they’re always imagining how things can be better than they are right now.” There is likely no limit to what people could dream of improving, Mastroianni says, considering how they imagined ways of bettering the experience of love: “They’re like, ‘Oh, there could be more of it,’” Mastroianni says.

What allows us to strive for more is our ability to constantly adapt. Known as the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation, we have an incredible capacity to acclimate to both positive and negative life events, settling at a base level of satisfaction after objectively good and not-so-good things happen. Hedonic adaptation is why buying a new car feels spectacular for a few weeks and then gradually less so until we realize we need something else to spark ecstasy again. Perhaps accidentally, a niche population of dopamine fasters recognized the phenomena of hedonic adaptation and denied themselves stimulating or enjoyable experiences as a means of staving off habituation for more mundane experiences.

Another factor that fuels our wants and desires is comparison. Not only do we compare ourselves to others, weighing our success and happiness against theirs, but we can juxtapose our current circumstances with what we could want in the future, says Rachit Dubey, a postdoctoral research fellow at MIT Sloan School of Management.

Paired together, hedonic adaptation and comparison mean the goalposts are constantly shifting. Achieving the goal or purchasing the item is just the start of the cycle. When the novelty wears off, we look for the next thing that might bring us self-actualization. Maybe our coworker or best friend or neighbor has that next thing. “Then you go on to get that new, next shiny thing,” Dubey says. “Then you get habituated to it, then you do some more comparisons, and then you want something else. So this is the cycle of habituation and comparisons that can lead to this drive of always wanting more.”

This cycle of longing almost never feels good. In a study, Dubey and his colleagues programmed virtual robots he calls agents to act like humans, meaning they got used to positive rewards they received and compared themselves to other agents. Habituation and comparison allowed the agents to achieve more in their virtual world, up to a certain point, “but at the cost of their internal happiness,” Dubey says. If the agent’s aspiration levels were left unchecked, their performance actually diminished.

There isn’t much that differentiates having a goal and seeing each accomplishment as a step toward a larger pursuit, Dubey says. Because social comparison can motivate people to get a promotion or buy a mansion, there is little preventing us from constantly striving for more if we’ve already had success on a smaller scale. Even the most well-meaning goals can be taken too far, like turning a joyful hobby into a soul-sucking side hustle.

Wanting more in a modern world

The instinct to improve our circumstances is a functional one in a society where resources are scarce. The problem arises when those who objectively already have enough — and ample time and money — are constantly marketed endless goods and opportunities. Then, habituation and comparison fuels unhappiness, Dubey says. Having enough money to cover necessities and conveniences is shown to make people happy, research shows, but earning much beyond that may be detrimental to life satisfaction. “People can go from miserable to fine fairly easily,” Mastroianni says. “It’s going from fine to great that gets really hard.”

In the pursuit of “fine” to “great,” we chase products. Through no fault of our own, we fall prey to messaging from social media users, algorithms, and expert marketers, urging us that this shampoo or this rug will shift the scales toward enoughness. “This is how the marketplace continues to work,” says Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor of communication at Cornell University, “which is by amplifying our inadequacies and insecurities.”

Baked into these social platforms is a natural ecosystem for comparison. In the past, people weighed themselves against celebrities in the media and those within their immediate social circles, Duffy says. Now, we can compare ourselves to the idealized version of millions of strangers online — who may be perpetuating an aesthetic trend inspiring us to buy in order to participate.

Where we falter is believing that more money, more things, better things, better selves will ultimately make us happy. “We’re obsessed with buying the serum so our skin looks really good, we’re obsessed with getting the new piece of equipment so that our body looks really good,” Eyal, the psychologist, says. “But we sort of lost the plot.” In one sense, the quest for self-optimization may be a means of asserting control over our lives when war, climate change, and political polarization wreak havoc around us, she says. All the wanting, though, leads to overconsumption, Dubey says.

The hedonic treadmill has implications beyond individual happiness: Attempting to fill an imagined (often by a savvy advertiser) void with more products or swapping out perfectly adequate tech for the newest version taxes our already fragile planet. Dubey argues that we can strive for a better life, for something more, without consuming.

How to get off the hedonic treadmill

Feeling enough and having goals are not mutually exclusive. Goal-setting is shown to increase performance and motivation, research shows. However, “not all goals are created equal,” says Tal Ben-Shahar, the founder of the Happiness Studies Academy and a professor at Centenary University. Instead of setting goals based on accumulating things, we should work toward personal growth and development, Ben-Shahar says. This requires deep introspection to determine what we value. If we don’t stop to consider what we want out of life and wind up following the status quo as a result, we may become focused on fulfilling someone else’s idea of success. Determine whether a goal adds to happiness or detracts from it, Ben-Shahar says, whether it is truly attainable or out of reach, and whether it is something we actually want or something we observed someone else achieve. These may not be easy questions to answer, but they’re worth considering.

Another mindset shift involves moving away from feeling like we are at a deficit, Mastroianni says. If we perceive our starting point to be below baseline, we’ll never climb out of that hole. This line of thinking assumes those who have different jobs than we do, or who live in different locations than us, or don’t have the social connections we do cannot live full lives, he says. “I ask myself this question a lot,” Mastroianni says, “if I don’t get to live a life that I think is valuable, who does? Who has more than me?”

To gain more perspective, many experts and researchers suggest expressing gratitude and appreciation for what we already have. Gratitude prevents us from habituating to the new car or the new job or the new relationship, Ben-Shahar says. Taking a few minutes over dinner or before bed to share or to journal about what we’re grateful for reminds us of all the ways we’re enough, instead of how we don’t measure up. “To avert the impact of hedonic adaptation, we continue to appreciate,” Ben-Shahar says, “so that we can experience both mindful and heartfelt connection to whatever it is that we’re appreciating.”

Considering how habituation and comparison function — and how the culture of consumption ratchets up those experiences — it’s hardly surprising how difficult it is to feel satisfied. But, according to Ben-Shahar, it would serve us well to find the balance between appreciation and aspiration.

“Good enough,” he says, “really is good enough.”

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