How to Consume Self-Help Intentionally
The hedonic treadmill of self-help and how “bettering” ourselves can affect our happiness
When I first discovered self-help, I wasn’t actively seeking it, I just knew that I enjoyed learning interesting “life hacks” or new perspectives. It wasn’t because I was unhappy with myself, I just knew that there were areas in which I could improve. Soon, however, I began to consume self-help in replacement of actual progress or hard work. Instead of actively implementing tactics learned from this content, I would relish in the thought of change in the moment, then resort to my old habits.
In fact, the video or article I am most likely to click on when browsing youtube or another platform is related to self-help. There is an ever-expanding universe of productivity, habit, study, and workout inspiration videos in my recommended section. I am a self-help junkie. I’m in a constant loop of watching productivity videos, while procrastinating I might add, then not following the tips then feeling bad about myself then watching more self-help content to fill the void.
The crux of the problem is that self-help content fuels our perfectionist and aspirational tendencies. I am an ENFP (a Myers-Briggs Personality type), so I have quite large dreams, but I hardly ever follow through on them with motivation alone. I have found that, unless I have a system in place to complete a certain goal, I will not complete that goal.
Additionally, a lot of self-help promotes the idea that we are not good enough and that we need to complete the “10 habits of millionaires” every morning in order to accomplish what we desire. The issue with consuming too much sub-par self-help content is that the endless supply of tips and tricks that help you to become the “best version” of ourselves is overwhelming and not one-size-fits-all. We start to shift away from our true, happiest “best self” and move towards what we think is perfect. This will, ultimately, make us unhappy.
That’s because you can’t find happiness when aiming for perfection.
When you are constantly listening to what other people tell you will make you happy, you are not going to reach happiness. For one, this is because there is not a singular formula for success and happiness. In addition, happiness cannot be found by searching for it.
Similarly, you won’t be productive by indulging in productivity videos — no matter what you tell yourself.
Happiness won’t magically appear after watching Matt D’Avella or even after reading this article.
And it won’t appear after you achieve that goal (a little annoying human thing called the Hedonic Treadmill). We are constantly reaching for something that we think will make us happy, but when we get there it just… doesn’t.
I mean, maybe it will for a moment. Things like getting into your dream school, going on a vacation, and getting a promotion will definitely feel good. But then what? You start comparing what you have to what you want. You finally save up enough money to get a Toyota Camry and you finally make the purchase. It feels so good! After a while, though, you are starting to eye newer, more expensive cars.
I mean, it makes sense. No one ever achieved anything by hitting their first goal and then stopping. However, you will never find true, permanent happiness if you never enjoy the moment. If your happiness depends on achieving a goal, you will never be truly happy.
“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Cheesy, I know.
I can’t deny it — the destination is important, at least by society’s standards and our own pride. However, what I like to think my pal Emerson is saying in this overused 2011 tumblr quote, is that we must enjoy the moments — the small wins — not just the big ones.
The Comparison Game
In Mark Mason’s best-selling novel, he touches on this idea.
“The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience”
— Mark Mason
Your constant consumption of self-help content is a sign you don’t feel happy, that you desire for a more positive experience. And so, you are reading articles on “5 ways to become a happier person” and “Bill Gates Morning Routine” as if you will all of the sudden become a productivity God and will have no problems. There’s only so many tips you can receive before you have to actually go out into the world and try them for yourself.
OK, maybe you’re different and you take notes during the articles you read and then create a schedule to implement the new habits and then *gasp,* you actually follow it f o r e v e r. If you’ve gotten this far in the article, though, you probably relate to my story in some way — meaning, you probably struggle in finding actionable tips and relish in ideas of perfection.
Also, despite my annoying thirst for self-help content, I have done fine for myself. I have gotten into my dream college and I’ve made all As every semester — I am pretty happy. And yet, I still consume all of this content, which actually makes me feel worse about myself.
The comparison game — It’s like middle school all over again.
When I watch “how to be successful” videos or read happiness-related articles, I compare it to my past self, all with the grass is greener on the other side mentality.
It plays into our insecurities and makes us feel less than.
Nowadays, I find that I am consuming the most garbage self-help content when I am the most unsatisfied with my life. Why would I watch a video on how to get your life together if I feel like I have my life together?
Wading Through the Junk
Even the term “self-help” suggests that there is something wrong with you and that you need help. For example, during this quarantine, I have felt so much pressure to “glow up” and to be super productive. I now have the free time to do the things I’ve always wanted to do, but I just can’t seem to take the step from dreaming to actually doing.
I’m all about growth, but I don’t want to get uncomfortable. So what do I go for? The junk.
Every now and again, I’ll find an impactful book that is able to shift my perspective in some way, but the action of reading an entire book is a lot harder than skimming through productivity article. So, in laziness, I slip into my old habits — consuming things that are easy to digest.
Some self-help is like a Netflix series that you know is trash, but you just can’t stop watching.
You know your time would better be spent on critically acclaimed movies or documentaries that challenge your thinking and offer you a new perspective, but for some reason, Tiger King or the newest Hallmark movie seems more appealing. They are called guilty pleasures for a reason.
Most of the self-help articles out there are pure garbage. They are regurgitations or meaningless tips that contradict themselves. There’s a lot of empty advice out there. It’s like the sugar of self-help — It gives you a dopamine hit to make you feel good in the moment, but then you leave feeling guilty (and probably addicted).
Wait a minute — you might be saying — this article in it of itself is a self-help article isn’t it? And this girl uses way too many dashes. So is she saying that this article is garbage?
And to that I would say you’re right —
I use way too many dashes.
This is an anti-self help article, telling you to keep the self-help indulgence to a minimum. And, I don’t know, actually… be productive. I speak from experience: there are some tips I’ve read that have worked, but none of them have been the magical fairy dust that changed my life forever (especially ones found in certain sections of the Internet).
Consume in Moderation and with Intention
The same disappointing transformation has happened with self-care: it started with an emphasis on mental health and balance in the 60s, but has evolved into endorsements for Korean face masks and Lush bath bombs. The end goal of the “original” self-care was creating healthy habits, and during the Women’s Rights Movement, it was seen as a political act. The self-care movement took a turn down the wrong path and so did self-help. You might think this is pessimistic, but I feel that when you let just anyone create content, then you will inevitably get pollution.
There are some gems out there for sure, but a lot of individuals will write articles on productivity or make videos on how to be successful with the hopes of riding the wave of obsession for self-help. They do it make easy money or gain popularity, not to actually help you get to the root of the problem and find a permanent solution.
Like anything in life, you need to consume in moderation and with intention. Don’t pull out the entire bag of chips. Instead, dish a few good ones out onto a plate so that you aren’t mindlessly eating all of the junk.
Benjamin Franklin: A Founding Father of Self-Help
In Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, he gives us the means by which he succeeded — books. He imitated many of the identities and ideas that he admired within literature to fashion his American persona.
“It was about this time I conceiv’d the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection” (Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography)
In this autobiography, he also detailed his super-human daily routine and the thirteen virtues that we should all follow.
That sounds awfully familiar.
So he was a founding father of modern self-help?
“Imitate Jesus and Socrates” (Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography)
Now, there’s no way that isn’t sarcastic right?
Modern self-help is a reproduction of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. It’s all aspirational, but it’s not something you can actually achieve.
American culture is hyper-focused on productivity and maximizing your output. Like Franklin putting on this fur hat to be perceived as an embodiment of the “rugged American frontiersman,” we project an image of productivity and perfection so that we can construct our identity to fit the mold of what we are told to be. We have mastered the art of staying busy but not actually doing anything. It is all about how we are perceived, not about who we truly are.
We have to redefine what success means in order to be happy.
Instead of always looking for more, find happiness through gratitude. Notice and celebrate each small win. What I have found is that once you start to notice these things, your brain will start to help you along and remind you more and more to be grateful instead of it reminding you annoying things like how unsuccessful you are. It’ll turn into a positive snowball.
So then it’s all rainbows and unicorns from then on right?
Sorry to break it to you, but there will always be challenges you will have to face. Life will always find a way to push you down and there will always be problems in your life.
But if cutting out some productivity content and shifting your mindset can help you even a little bit, I would say it’s worth it.
I’m not saying to “just be happy,” I’m saying to stop searching for happiness because that will never make you happy.
“Problems may be inevitable, but the meaning of each problem is not. We get to control what our problems mean based on how we choose to think about them, the standard by which we choose to measure them.”
— Mark Mason
So, instead of mindlessly scrolling through self-help articles, be intentional.
Now just what does that mean?
Think of it as a self-help diet:
- Find self-help that challenges your thinking, contains actionable content, and relies on self-reflection.
- Narrow down your intake to a few creators you truly find valuable or that have been recommended to you by a trusted friend, and stick to them.
- Spend most of your time on books since they are the most likely to have been diligently created (a podcast episode probably didn’t take a year, but a book probably did).
- You can have a cheat meal every once in a while — but if you focus on consuming the whole foods that are the most “nutrient dense,” you are going to see a lot more progress.
And remember, if you are simply reading or watching the content and not actually changing your behavior, nothing is going to happen. The problem with indulging in self-help is that it makes you feel good because you’re comfortable. It’s not hard to sit on the couch and watch morning routines.
If you aren’t willing to get uncomfortable and break free of your old patterns, you will never grow.