Alexandra Schwartz, Improving Ourselves to Death, The New Yorker, January 15, 2018
All told, this is a bleak picture. If the ideal of the optimized self isn’t simply a fad, or even a preference, but an economic necessity, how can any of us choose to live otherwise? Storr insists that there is a way. “This isn’t a message of hopelessness,” he writes. “On the contrary, what it actually leads us towards is a better way of finding happiness. Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be, you can begin to free yourself from your demands.”
This sounds suspiciously like self-help-speak, Storr acknowledges. He is quick to say that he isn’t encouraging anything quite as clichéd as self-acceptance.
Through the WI Lens
A whole industry is booming around the theme of self-improvement, but we posit, like the author of this article, that we’ll just get fed up with celebrities, apps and other devices telling us how we can learn to be more efficient, more focused, more effective in the pursuit of happiness and productivity. The constant desire to improve is stressful and can become a source of anxiety (it’s no coincidence that the epidemics of anxiety is the highest in the countries most obsessed with ‘personal optimization’: the US and the UK). At one stage, the self-improvement business and the billions of dollars of revenues it generates will flounder. Simplicity will prevail again: we’ll stop counting and analyzing the data to enjoy life as it is. From a business perspective, this doesn’t mean that the companies helping us to live a better life (clinics, high-end wellness resorts, etc.) will disappear, far from it. What it means is this: average will be just fine. This may be the underlying trend propelling affordable luxury to new heights.
“On such fragile foundations are built the first steps towards a more ethical kind of business, and who knows what virtuous circles might result?”
“Scientific evidence recently emerged that, contrary to earlier beliefs, Covid-19 can be spread by tiny droplets that we breathe out when we respire, called aerosols.”
“Economic wellbeing is part of the story, but it is also about finding less stressful lifestyles, in which healthy diet figures as a meaningful measure of success.”
“The industry has every asset needed to be a guiding light in the shift toward personal health priority. Will that become a prevention legacy, a ‘phoenix rising’ from the Covid-19 ashes?”
“Looking at the bigger picture, putting the measures in this order represents a lost opportunity that the pandemic could have offered for a cultural pivot pivot towards getting people more focused on their health, a powerful statement of intent.”
“Employment is necessary to fulfil our most basic human needs such as food and shelter. Any significant increase in long-term unemployment will spell a retrograde step for human wellbeing like no other.”
“All roads lead to a wellbeing anchor, whether that be economic/financial, physical, mental or emotional: all contribute to a progressive and inclusive cosmopolitan world. The answer should not be a choice of one or the other but of a joined up and compassionate solution for society, business and individuals.”
“The paradox is that we continue to do this in spite of recognising that striving to become ever-more productive is an intrinsically unhealthy behaviour, leading to stress and too often, a sense of failure.”
“The same broad-sweeping structural racism that enables police brutality against black Americans is also responsible for higher mortality among black Americans with Covid-19,” Maimuna Majumder, a Harvard epidemiologist working on the Covid-19 response, tells Vox.
The take-out from this? Wellbeing cannot exist at a more elevated level without our basic needs being met.