On The Self Help Paradox

Time again we hear how scientific research has revealed ways we can be healthier, productive, happier, energetic, attractive, successful. Though in such appeals to make our lives better we implicitly admit our lives are inadequate as they are. In such appeals we create a long-term search and formulate goals to find solutions to many problems; the trouble is that many of life’s problems are irresolvable. Were indeed never problems until we imagined one could ‘fix’ them. As writer Malcolm Bradbury wrote in an obscure—and to be fair, lame—television play: “maybe one reason so many people have so many problems is that there are so many other people with so many solutions”. Because contemporary humans evolved to live with few fellow humans, 150, named Dunbar’s number after the esteemed anthropologist that discovered the finding, humans have the itch to fix themselves because none of us has as much attention as we crave. Sure, you might say that Dunbar’s number would never apply in our modern world, yet data science has proven the number of friends one can have is the predicted one-hundred-and-fifty in online interactions also, yet the number of followers desired is exponential.

Everyone wants attention from more humans than that one-hundred-and fifty. Now we want an artificial amount of attention (artificial as in facilitated by machines) which explains the become-famous television shows, youtube aspirants, immodest musicians, and Instagram starlets, and over a billion bloggers. As with my nonfactual ‘everyone’ generalisation, our culture makes the desire to become famous, and a success, compulsory in the terms set out by our political economy. The reigning ideology is that of science prestige, meritocracy and individualist capitalism, to the point we value our personal status and consider choices as investments—the language we use is capitalist, from virtue becoming “value” and choices becoming “investments”, and disinterest becoming “boring”.

To be sure part of the logic of making choices for benefit has a natural basis insofar as it can be found again and again; everyone makes choices, and those are predictable by Game Theory. But the rules of the game are more created than discovered. Change the century, or change the culture and the scale of games and the rules vary remarkably – as in matriarchal societies or the slave trading states, for instance. You could say that comparison is silly because after all we live in this society and this century – but isolate some humans and raise them differently and you get different players in a different game. Perhaps a fairer one. You could raise children to not feel they are a disappointment for not achieving the improbable, and for the majority the impossible—to become a leader or an entrepreneur, for instance. Leadership necessitates followers, a leader needs to be exceptional, a statistical outlier from the average citizen. So all the ‘how to be a leader’ posts jar with statistical reality and instead set people false expectations that will be dashed time-again.

There is a reason that book-films like Fight Club and American Psycho resonate with popular culture audiences, especially with men. I say especially with men because they were made primarily for men and the suicide rate of men is higher, and the failures marred by the desire to impress perhaps a causal factor; there is a reason ‘loser’ is so common an insult. And men’s gender role is confused and pluralistic, as women’s roles have also changed. Still, there is a pressure to succeed and impress other men and women in annoyingly primitive ways: the anxious social fight rather than physical fight, growing larger bodies (if not impossibly taller) with cancer-linked supplements for Snapchat, Tinder, Instagram; buying expense leaden cars to gain social proof that you are a good potential ‘match’, a valuable member of our  community. Perhaps even that you can design your home like an IKEA catalogue like you are meant to redesign yourself in time you do not have because of a job you never enjoy. Working hard to pay for your egotistic but charismatic—the right mix of charming and manipulative—boss’s boss who does not work but invests, to holiday in Miami with his girlfriend.

As the secondary lead of Fight Club, Tyler Durden, says:

Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

Similarly, there is the song Fitter Happier by Radiohead, a song unimaginable for an American band to have composed for the reason such delusional hopes of success are so ingrained, so American. Consider the real-life dystopian and sanitary lyrics, like “Favours for favours. fond but not in love”.

Fitter, happier
More productive
Not drinking too much
Regular exercise at the gym, three days a week
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
At ease
Eating well, no more microwave dinners and saturated fats
A patient, better driver
A safer car, baby smiling in back seat
Sleeping well, no bad dreams
No paranoia
Careful to all animals, never washing spiders down the plughole
Keep in contact with old friends, enjoy a drink now and then
Will frequently check credit at moral bank, hole in wall
Favours for favours, fond but not in love
Charity standing orders on sundays, ring-road supermarket
No killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants
Car wash, also on sundays
No longer afraid of the dark or midday shadows, nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate
Nothing so childish
At a better pace, slower and more calculated
No chance of escape
Now self-employed
Concerned, but powerless
An empowered and informed member of society, pragmatism not idealism
Will not cry in public
Less chance of illness
Tires that grip in the wet, shot of baby strapped in backseat
A good memory
Still cries at a good film
Still kisses with saliva
No longer empty and frantic
Like a cat
Tied to a stick
That’s driven into
Frozen winter shit, the ability to laugh at weakness
Calm, fitter, healthier and more productive
A pig in a cage on antibiotics

You might think Fitter Happier, Fightclub and American Psycho are artistic exaggerations but disappointment and trapped feelings amid high expectations and anxiously-cautious individualism is endemic. It is how our system works as public intellectual Susan Jacoby agrees in The Age of American Unreason. 

We are promised equality but have unequal opportunities for unequal talents to acquire unequally available money. Meritocracy – the ideology that we succeed by merit – is an aristocracy of chance and trained intelligence; society remains still rampantly discriminatory. 8 men own more than half the humans in the world, more than 4.6 billion people. We are told we live in a classless society because the classes have become so large that the huge middle classes—blame themselves. The silver medalists of social immobility are not thankful for having what they have like the bronze winners are grateful. The taxi-driver immigrant can be happier than a shop manager. Especially if that manager has a neighbour or a classmate venture  a Big Time business hit, and plans a big move from this:

To this

But almost never from that to this:

To really be happy then is to give up on happiness, quit the majority of what you want and embrace your inadequacies. As novelist Zadie Smith wrote, “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness of never being satisfied”. The pursuit of happiness is to always pursue. Instead of seeking a high profile job seek to quench the desire for one, instead of a trophy partner seek to rid the desire for status symbols, instead of more things appreciate more by having less. Yes, it’s an old message from The Ancient Greek Stoics, Gospel and the Buddha, but it’s an old message for an ever-young problem. We’re all going to suffer, we’re all going to get rejected, we’re all going to fail and some less than others. But those ‘some’ have a different set of experiences, a different baseline to the third world problems and the first world and second world of others, so will still suffer in their mind, in their own way. And yes science can materially help us out but some problems have no solutions but are inevitabilities: Fate. We’re all going to die and it’s better to get used to that fact just as it is to get used to the limitations of an unluckily ugly body or horrible parents or ‘wasted’ time, instead of chasing science solutions like pills or science appropriated – profitable – emotional intelligence or reading Tim Ferris, we can do what we can to shape our destiny in the borders Fate gives us in the genetic, social, and economic lotteries.

So the cure for leading a good life, real self-help is not a list of points or objectives, nor the neverending search of research so much as to stop trying so damn hard — a revelation recorded among the top five regrets of the dying. “I wish I didn’t work so hard”. Most self-help is a symptom of collectivised other damage becoming internalised into self-damage, with another profiting to become a success by telling you how to help yourself become a success; a placebo treatment rather than cure, like massive pharmaceutical companies selling supplements for what has never ever been a disease.

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