This blog was born after I came to realise that my life had become A Bit Shit. I was staring 30 in the face, and I had none of the things I thought I was supposed to have: a fun, carefree lifestyle, a good career, a home of my own, a body I felt happy in. Instead, my life had become a miserable treadmill of credit card repayments, diets and dead-end jobs.
Things started to change after I received some unexpected advice from a mentor. He encouraged me to think about what I wanted from life and work towards those things; rather than continue on with my usual tactic of trying to make the best of what I had at the time. What I wanted was to change my life in nearly every way, and I wanted to write about it. So I did. My idea was to continue following the advice of other people, given I’d done a miserable job at finding happiness myself.
Thankfully, there is no shortage of books, products and articles that promise to change your life. I put my hands in the hands of the gurus: I life-hacked, I self-helped, I positive-psychologied. I blogged about some of them. I failed to blog many more. I worked every single day at becoming happier, thinner, better, smarter, richer, more productive, more successful, more confident. Every. Single. Day.
By the time the summer of 2016 had rolled around, I had spent a year working on ‘Living My Best Life’. When I began the project, I thought that the worst case scenario would be that I’d have wasted my time. I was wrong. The treadmill was still running. All I’d done was make it go faster and faster until I collapsed and fell flat on my face.
Some time has passed now, so I can talk about this with a bit of distance. I had a little bit of a breakdown. While I did make progress on various fronts, I felt no better for it. Ironically, trying so hard to be better made me feel worse. After a year of life-hacking myself to death, I came to realise that there are a series of toxic myths running through the world of self-development, even the most well-intentioned of them. Here is what I fell for after a year of life-hacking myself to death.
Myth #1: Changing your ways is simple, as long as you have the right knowledge
These days, we’re less likely to fall for snake-oil solutions. We expect anything worth achieving to be hard-won, and the modern gurus of self-help know this. Instead of effortless change, it promises simple ways to change, often using ‘science’. Just do this ONE thing – it might be hard, but you will change for good and feel great. (Usually because ‘Science!’)
The truth: Change is messy, complicated, and often unsatisfying
No-one has ever found a simple, foolproof, scientifically backed way to help people change their behaviour. Experts from UCL’s Centre for Behaviour Change have described a book identifying EIGHTY THREE different theories. I have improved various habits in different ways and it’s never been a linear process. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back (or three. When it comes to my diet, it’s often been three steps back). Sometimes, you know you’ve changed in some way, you can see the proof, but you don’t *feel* like you’ve changed.
Myth #2: The key to happiness is self-improvement
Ever since I started this blog, I’ve kept an eye out for anything described as ‘life-changing’. Nearly everything I’ve found has been about changing yourself as a person. Happiness, apparently, is the byproduct of fulfilling your potential as a healthy, successful and self-disciplined person.
I bought into this. I bought into this BIG TIME. I thought that if only I was better in every single way, I’d finally be happy. I just needed to reach my goal weight, find my passion, land my dream job, run a PB, write a book, get a distinction in my degree and pay off my credit card.
The truth: There probably is no key to happiness, but accepting yourself as you are is a good start
The undertone of all of this is that you’re not good enough unless you’re the ‘best’ version of yourself that you can be. Trying to become your ‘best self’ in every single way comes at a huge cost: you run the risk of becoming a boring, anxious fun-sponge. Let’s face it: nights in the pub with your friends don’t help you save money or get a flat stomach. You don’t get promotions or a first-class degree by prioritising fun. You cannot achieve ‘perfection’ without extreme sacrifice.
If your well-being relies solely on reaching goals and fulfilling your potential, as mine did, you’re also effectively locking your happiness away in the future. It’s not possible to *actually* reach your potential. Once you reach a goal, you then set a new one, and the process begins again. This is known as the hedonic treadmill: where you are constantly striving for happiness but never actually reaching it.
Myth #3: You have complete control over your own happiness
Both positive psychology and self-help gurus alike push the message that we have control over our own mindsets and happiness. This is positive… right? Isn’t good to have control over your life, right?
The truth: unless you have god-like powers…
I think it’s true that you have a degree of control over your mindset and your happiness. But believing that you have total control is dangerous. It implies that if you ever feel anything other than fantastic that it’s somehow your fault. Which leads you into a spiral of feeling even worse.
I recently read a book called The Happiness Industry which gave me a different perspective on all of this. It describes the pervasive influence of neoliberalism, an economic philosophy where competition in the marketplace is king. As individuals, we are taught to compete in the marketplace of people. We have swallowed the idea that we if we are not competitive, we’re worthless. If we’re not performing in some way, we’re faulty goods. It ignores the influence of circumstance, of wider society, of the hand you have been dealt in life.
As a result, we get ‘self-help’ which places your failures squarely on your own doorstep. We get judgey articles such as ‘If this CEO can read 100 books a year, why can’t you?’. We get judgey emails entitled ‘The seven diet mistakes you’re probably making’. We get judgey gurus dishing out ‘real talk’: giving up sugar isn’t as tough as having cancer, so put down the cake, you greedy bitch!
BUT: I am seeing signs that the tide might just be turning against the cult of perfectionism which had recruited me as a member. We have body positivity movements, mums embracing imperfect parenting, and have given ‘staying in and achieving sod-all’ a sexy Danish makeover. However, I’m still followed around the internet by ads for bullet journals, work-out regimes and words of ~wisdom~ from 27-year-old YouTube ‘creators’. It’s not gone yet.
Now, rather than trying to change my life, I’m now trying to focus on enjoying it. I’m unfollowing and unsubscribing from social media feeds and emails that pedal judgemental crap in the name of self-improvement. I’m deliberately spending time doing things that do nothing to improve my body or my mind. There are still things I want to achieve in life, but I’m trying now to focus on the substance of what those things are, rather than fixating on the end goal. It’s a process – as I said, change isn’t simple or linear – but I am getting there, one unproductive, enjoyable Netflix binge at a time.