The trap of self improvement

I have a confession to make: I think I might be happy. I’m not sure exactly when and why it happened, but the knot of anxiety that sat in my chest for years has disappeared. Obviously I still have moments of feeling a bit tired, or stressed out, or irritated about something. But underneath these surface emotions I feel bizarrely content.

I say bizarrely, because being a project person, I’m used to always working on something. But now, I seem to have lost my drive. I’m happy to just lounge around chatting to housemates or watching DVDs. And although I think I should feel bad about this lack of productivity, I don’t. Which makes you wonder what the point of so called “self-improvement” projects are if you feel better about yourself when you’re not doing any.

Because there are a couple of things that are acting as blockers to my happiness, and they’re both connected to an idea that is supposed to make you happy.

  1. I still stress out about food. I would love to eat a piece of cake, or an ice-cream, or a heavy meal without beating myself up about it afterwards, but I can’t. I put on a good show of non-disordered eating, but that’s because I don’t let myself buy any food that I enjoy enough to binge on. Because the mental anguish that follows eating half a box of chocolates isn’t worth eating the chocolate in the first place. Which is nonsense, because it’s not as though I dislike how I look or fear putting on weight. It’s because I’ve internalised a load of rubbish about how not eating chocolate makes you a better person.
  2. I stress out about spending money and owning things. While initially helpful in getting me to think about what I need (or don’t need) and what kind of life I want to have, all that minimalist blogs seem to do now is make me feel guilty for owning as many things as I do. Which definitely isn’t the author’s intention, but I always want to be the best at everything I do, so reading about people doing simplicity “better” makes me feel bad about myself.

But getting rid of things that do give me pleasure or depriving myself of things I can actually afford to buy is as likely to make me happy as eating less or making myself throw up the things that I do eat. It might make me think I’m in control in the short term, but it isn’t the answer to long term happiness. I’ve spent years on various projects, some of which have improved my life, but what I’ve realised is that that self improvement doesn’t make you as happy as self acceptance does. We don’t have to be always striving for something better. Sometimes, this is it, and it’s great.

To me, acceptance is about:

  • Spending all morning in bed reading without feeling bad about not going for a run or cleaning the kitchen.
  • Enjoying that second helping of pudding without worrying about what it’s doing to your body.
  • Writing blog posts when you feel inspired and not because you feel obliged to stick to a schedule.
  • Knowing that you have enough goal setting in your professional life without bringing them home.
  • Letting yourself off the hook. You don’t have to live up to anyone’s standards but your own. It’s okay to be that bit chubbier than you possibly could be, or for your house to be a bit messier. Happiness will make yourself and your surroundings a million times more beautiful.
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