Submitted by Charles Knighton
It seems we are unable to listen to the radio, watch TV or read a newspaper without being urged to adopt some regimen of self-improvement (“The health of positive change” Sept. 7 Advocate) the most paradoxical feature of which is that self-improvement cannot survive without acceptance of imperfection and tolerance of failure. Devoid of this softening influence, a concern for betterment can easily turn into a narcissistic focus on oneself, or a self-critical perfectionism.
In the 1920s French psychologist Emile Coue argued that by reciting the mantra “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better” we could, by the power of suggestion, make it come true. Whether or not such techniques do work, surely it would be wonderful if they did? How could it ever be worse to be better?
The thought of, say, someone practicing air guitar 24/7 should be enough to challenge any assumption that too much improvement is a contradiction in terms. When it comes to being better people, some progressions matter more than others.
Consider the difference between what we might call the moral life and the flourishing life. To improve morally is to treat others better and have a more positive impact on the world. To flourish is for your life to go better for you: healthier, full of richer experiences and deeper relationships. In pursuit of this second kind of improvement we tend to focus on what provides the most gain for us; losing weight, learning a new language, controlling our tempers and so on.
What I find interesting is that people often justify these projects by pointing to their altruistic dimensions. When we become better, we become more interesting, more genial to be with, they say. Even with that most narcissistic of goals, personal happiness, people will cite evidence that happier people tend to be more generous, sympathetic and caring.
There is some truth to this: morality is usually food for flourishing. But to believe the two always go together is too optimistic. There are happy, fulfilled egotists and there are saints who make sacrifices for the higher good.
To focus too much on self-improvement is to risk directing our attention towards the merely self-serving sense of betterment and to relegate the moral dimension to second place. To regain a proper focus, we could drop the word “self” and simply strive for improvement, in all its varieties. And what might help us to do this is an improvement on Coue’s improving mantra: Every day, in a significant way, I’ll try to do better and better.