I think the human brain is a truly miraculous thing. It has the ability to reshape itself based on behavior. This is how we grow skill. When someone practices the piano, their brain builds new and stronger connections so that their fingers can move more smoothly and effortlessly over the keys in the future. Basically, if you do something repeatedly, then your brain assumes that it must be important for your survival, so it organizes itself to be better at it. It is that simple.
Here’s the thing though – we don’t refer to practicing the piano as self-improvement. We call it practicing the piano. Our goal in this practice is to be more skilled at playing the piano. There are lots of things we can practice – golf, math, juggling, computer programming, Spanish, surfing – so that we can build our skills. In fact, if we choose to, we can expand our skillset until we die.
Here is the rub – can we say with any confidence that we are becoming a “better” human as we gain skill? If I can toss a frisbee, or I have the ability to speak Japanese as a second language, am I fundamentally better than someone who cannot? This all leads me to the first point that I think is missed in the self-improvement world: Practice builds skill – it doesn’t improve the “self.”
So, if you want to be more organized, by all means practice strategies to do so. If you think that getting more organized is going to lead to a life of “happily ever after,” I have bad news for you. This brings me to the second point that I think is often overlooked by the industrial happiness complex: Discomfort is normal – we are not supposed to feel good all the time.
Emotions – comfortable and uncomfortable – have a purpose. Feelings contain information about how we see the world and what is going on inside us. Emotions also help us discern what others are experiencing and how we might support them. Enter the final point: Life is relationship – being overly self-focused makes us lonely.
There is a vast body of research that points to healthy human relationships as the single greatest predictor of a long, healthy life. If, however, we spend all of our time focusing on improving the self, is it any wonder that we feel increasingly alone? If we are focused on experiencing happiness all the time, is it really that difficult to see why we feel anxious about our anxiety?
Maybe we could let up on our obsessive efforts to be happy & our incessant hopefulness about being a better self tomorrow. Maybe we could simply spend more time being kind & helpful today. Rather than striving for a fictitious life where we are always comfortable and a fictitious perfect future self that always gets it right and is deserving of everyone’s admiration, we can practice being hearty – being aware, accepting, compassionate, and purposeful. If we practice these things a little bit each day, then we will be more skillful at these things over time. We may find that we are a bit more present to the miracle of life. We may find that some other people benefit from our kindness along the way. We may find that more of our energy goes into tasks that matter and less into tasks that do not. That’s all. If you don’t want these things, then don’t practice them.
Living a hearty life is not about trying to improve ourselves. It is not about trying to be happy or comfortable. It is about living life fully and deeply – come what may. We can practice seeing what is needed around us and within us, and we can do what we believe will meet those needs. Sometimes it will work out the way we want and sometimes it will not. Sometimes this will be comfortable and sometimes it will not. Perfection and comfort are not the goal of a hearty life.
And here is the thing that no one wants to talk about – no amount of happiness or self-improvement changes the fact that all of this comes to an end. This life will be over someday (and, to add to the drama, we don’t know when). No amount of wealth, fame, talent, skill or straight, white teeth changes that reality. There is what is happening around you and within you right now and there is what you are practicing. How the heck do we work with that?
If you want to practice pursuing happiness, then do so – you will definitely get better at pursuing happiness. If you want to practice improving yourself, then you will find lots of strategies to do so on the bookshelves at Barnes and Noble. Of course, it may be helpful to ignore the evidence that the endless pursuit of happiness and the constant hopefulness that we will be a better version of ourselves in the future is making is miserable.