A Danish Psychologist Discusses What Happens When We Constantly Seek Improvement
By Kamilla Lange
“Five ways to improve your life”, “The secret of success”, “How to boost your performance”.
Here’s an everyday experiment: Try counting how many messages telling you to get better/thinner/smarter/healthier you encounter in a normal day. When visiting the US, I am always struck by how the demand for self optimization seems to be everywhere.
I see it in Denmark too, but it doesn’t seem as pervasive. The Danes generally place great value at being content with what you are and what you have. Many of our classic stories are about people searching for change only to find that what they started out with is actually what they truly wanted in the first place. It was always right there.
I wouldn’t want to stop the American search for effectivity, betterment, and change. It is a great quality of American culture. It can be a strong source of hope and energy. I get inspired by it, and a little hectic. But I also meet people stressed out by the fever of self-improvement. I find myself wondering what the right balance is.
When we train our muscles, we need to balance exercise with restitution. Without restitution, exercising can become destructive. While well intended, the paradigm of self-development may actually get in the way of thriving. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard said: “Life is not a problem to be solved, it is a reality to be experienced”.
If you are always focused on changing yourself, you see yourself through the lens of “needs improvement”. You risk cultivating a feeling of inadequacy instead of contentment, and that seems to defeat the purpose. Striving can get you short fixes of satisfaction, but it rarely brings happiness in itself. It needs to be balanced with the ability to let go of changing anything, to take this imperfect human existence of ours and just be.
When I discuss this with my American students, they almost seem to see any easing of the push for self-optimization as heresy. Perhaps their worry is that they will become passive and disengaged. But every semester, together we experiment by deciding upon some imperfections that we are just going to let be. To find out what it is like to not strive for change, to be curious about where the energy goes when not directed at the future, better, self.
Most of them report that pressing pause on the self-optimization creates space for satisfaction and appreciation. Often the very things they were striving for in the first place.
But it is difficult for the students. They often have to fight to not warp the experiment into yet another self-improvement project. They struggle to find the skill and ability to just let be. They can’t really use the Danish stories and cultural values. So much is lost in translation, and it can be hard to identify yourself with Lars from Aalborg, Jutland if you’re Diane from Palo Alto, California. I wish my students had more American stories about letting what is be enough.
Kamilla Lange is a clinical psychologist, a mindfulness instructor, and an external lecturer for US college students. She is also the author of a book on mindful eating called Vind Kampen mod Vægten. She is based in Copenhagen, Denmark.