It’s no secret that the “self-help” or “self-improvement” movement continues to spread like wildfire. Goal-setting gurus like Tony Robbins, Rachel Hollis, Lewis Howes, and others are captivating audiences around the country with their admonitions to become better versions of ourselves—whether by making more money, losing weight, achieving personal goals, or fueling our careers.
And this isn’t all bad.
After all, it’s good to get a swift kick in the pants every now and then. Most of us can stand to eat a little cleaner, save more money, and cultivate healthier daily habits. Not to mention, messages from self-help or motivational speakers can catalyze positive, healthy growth in those who are feeling stuck, down, or mired in hardship—particularly when the speakers have been through trauma themselves, which gives them credibility in counseling others.
But the internet also teems with criticisms of some of these doyens of the self-improvement sphere. For instance, critics raked social media sensation Rachel Hollis over the coals after the release of her second massive bestseller, Girl, Stop Apologizing, claiming the book was loaded with plagiarized truisms and recycled platitudes. Other skeptics have written about why the self-improvement movement is lacking, from characterizing it as vaguely helpful and glibly unconvincing at best to exploitive at worst. What’s more, some have noted that many speakers, though touting their messages as universal, speak to a narrow demographic—typically white, middle-class professionals who have the luxury of being concerned with this brand of “self-improvement” in the first place.
Whatever the particular flavor of praise or criticism, there remains the undeniable truth that these messages are, somehow, lamentably lacking in substance.
I have recently grown weary of so-called motivational podcasts, books, and blogs. Not only do they all ultimately promote the same message, just packaged differently (you are in charge of your own happiness; you are the only one who can define success; etc.), but even if the words temporarily motivate me, I always feel this nagging sense of, “Well, now what?” Once I’ve created a vision board, mapped out my goals, and achieved them, I notice that I don’t necessarily feel any happier than I did before.
Why is this?
Perhaps it’s because none of these self-help gurus connect their messages to a “why”: that is, a deeper meaning beyond self-improvement for its own sake. While they are masterful at encouraging us to assess our goals, they don’t necessarily connect the goals to a greater, overarching purpose.
And where does this leave us eager listeners? Drinking all the green smoothies, visualizing all the success, and opening all the retirement accounts, but still left wanting.
Self-improvement as an end in and of itself is inherently frustrating and self-defeating.
Delving deeper, the first reason these self-help messages can feel a bit threadbare is the burning question of, “Where do we go from here?”
Once we achieve all our goals, to what should we turn our attention? To setting other goals? If so, we can easily turn ourselves into goal-setting automatons, never stopping to celebrate our progress or to simply sit back and enjoy our lives. When we do this, we can easily slide into a mentality that idolizes success as an end in and of itself. Rather than recognizing that we are whole human beings with diverse interests and capabilities, we may start to believe that we are defined by our success in reaching our goals. If our goals are all we live for, cheating on our diets one day or skipping one workout means much more than just a temporary—and perfectly human—slip: it invites us to pass harsh judgment on ourselves as not measuring up.
Psychology professionals suggest that healthy goal setting isn’t just about the goals themselves. It is a holistic endeavor, a view that recognizes that we are complex humans who will eat carbs and skip workouts and stay up later than we should having deep conversations with friends. We are not robots who are slaves to our carefully crafted, success-oriented routines. Instead of blindly setting goals, we are complex enough to dive deeper into the ultimate purpose driving them. What is the deeper meaning, desire, yearning behind our goals? Are we just exhausting ourselves chasing success, or are we truly connecting to a powerful, meaningful “why”?
Self-help messages state—or imply—that we are solely responsible for everything that happens to us, good or bad.
Emblematic of the self-help movement, Rachel Hollis proclaims in her first bestselling nonfiction book Girl, Wash Your Face: “You are in charge of your own life, sister, and there’s not one thing in it that you’re not allowing to be there.”
This is, well, patently false. What about someone who’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness? Or lost a job? Or had her identity stolen? Or who suffered the loss of a pregnancy?
Life doles out tragedy, and all the morning HIIT workouts and positive visualizations in the world will not alter that reality. It’s true that our minds are extremely powerful and that we can, in many ways, transform our circumstances by changing the ways that we think about them. But we can’t simply muscle through everything, nor should we demonize or invalidate the inevitable suffering that unites and equalizes us as human beings. At times, this suffering can even sharpen us in unimaginable ways and bring us closer to one another—much more powerfully and sustainably than any self-help mantra will.
A life focused only on making ourselves happy precludes the critical quest for something more important.
Self-improvement is, obviously, all about self-improvement: an endeavor that is almost always self-focused. Decades of positive psychology research suggests that this is not the path to a meaningful life.
In her viral TED Talk “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy,” author and happiness researcher Emily Esfahani Smith shares a well-reasoned account of why we simply need to shove aside our obsession with our own happiness.
“I used to think the whole purpose of life was pursuing happiness,” Smith states. “Everyone said the path to happiness was success, so I searched for that ideal job, that perfect boyfriend, that beautiful apartment. But instead of feeling fulfilled, I felt anxious and adrift,” she says. “And I wasn’t alone.”
Smith goes on to share her findings after five years of research on the forces that most impact human happiness. What she found was counterintuitive—that life is improving in every conceivable way, but people are more anxious, depressed, and lonely than ever. Smith goes on to explain that a lack of happiness isn’t what is causing this—it is a lack of meaning in life. Citing modern psychology’s definition of happiness as “a state of comfort and ease,” Smith proposes that what truly makes life meaningful is much deeper than that. Quoting the renowned psychologist Martin Seligman, she says, “Meaning comes from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself.” So while our culture is obsessed with being happy, those who truly seek out meaning are on the path to not only a more sustainable life with a purpose beyond feeding their own “state of comfort and ease,” but experience less illness, increased resilience, and ultimately, longer lives.
How, then, do we find greater meaning in life? How do we connect our goals to a deeper purpose, a greater “why”? Smith proposes that the answer lies in cultivating a sense of belonging. In her words, this means, simply, “being in relationships where you’re valued for who you are intrinsically.” This, she says, is something we can actively pursue. “True belonging springs from love,” she says, “and you can choose to cultivate belonging with others.”
There is nothing inherently wrong with listening to—and heeding—the advice of self-help gurus. But it is critical to keep them in their place, and not to assign them value beyond what they communicate. While it is certainly laudable to cultivate healthy habits and to strive to be a better version of yourself, remember that this, alone, will not make your life meaningful. Instead, choose to connect your goals to a greater purpose and to cultivate a sense of belonging with others. This simple practice has the power to make our lives infinitely richer than all the self-help mantras in the world.
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