If you’ve spent any time at all in the burning crucible of internet self-help websites, you’ve probably come across at least a dozen people who’d have you believe that everything they have ever achieved has come through sheer force of will. That they simply decided to change on day, and did it, and that if you can’t do it too then you are weak and pointless. They’ll shave all the missteps and wrong turns out of the narrative, and tell you that self-improvement is a linear path that only an idiot stumbles from.
What I am here to tell you today is this: fuck those people.
Perhaps you’ve seen a film called Good Will Hunting. If not, I recommend it. Apart from Matt Damon’s magnificent takedown of that one guy with the ponytail and Ben Affleck’s amazing Boston accent (‘So this is a Haaavad Baaah’), the single best thing about it is the moment Robin Williams wraps his arms around young Will, holds him close, and repeats a single phrase until young Matt’s reduced to tears.
‘It’s not your fault.’
Well, internet, please think of me as a bearded psychologist, yourself as Will Hunting, and imagine my arms – please note all the chin-ups I do – hugging you as I whisper into your electronic ears. Because it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.
See, the thing is, whatever sort of self-improvement you’re into, it is easy to mess it up. Much, much easier than it is for you to succeed.
For starters, you have ingrained habits that are difficult to change – a Duke University study suggests that around 40% of your behaviour is automatic, and if those automatic behaviours are bad, you need to fix them before anything else can happen. Your friends and co-workers are likely to resist change, and having cake and pub invitations in front of you makes things even tougher.
But it goes much, much further than that.
Your caveman brain is basically set up to encourage terrible behaviour: back when berries were scarce and awful-tasting, sugar was a precious, scarce way of topping up your insanely necessary fuel reserves, and so your brain goes crazy for it – which isn’t great when it’s one of the cheapest, most widely available foodstuffs on the planet. Your body’s basically hard-wired to act as if food is hard to come by, when actually it’s everywhere.
And it goes further.
Broccoli is harder to monetise than crisps. Happy, satisfied people, are less likely to try to buy their way to happiness.Or, to put it another way, there’s very little incentive for anyone who has the money and resources to influence your behaviour to help you genuinely improve (or even enjoy) your life. Most companies rely on perpetuating needs, sugar is a cheap, addictive ingredient, and content people don’t tend to buy as much. Massive effort by marketing and advertising is put into making people discontented and unhealthy – not because anyone’s evil, just because of how capitalism forces businesses to evolve.
And the final thing?
Sitting down to have a serious look at your own life isn’t something most people are comfortable with. Now, it’s easier than ever to avoid it – you’re never alone with a phone, and messing around with Flappy or Angry Birds is much more fun than coldly evaluating where your life might be going wrong.
So accept my virtual hug, internet stranger, and breathe. It’s not your fault.
Does this mean you should give up, or even slack off on your efforts? Of course not. What it means is this: you should recognise that change is hard, and that things are stacked against you. That almost everything, from your stupid primate brain to the entire modern techno-industrial complex, is stacked against your efforts to live a better, happier, healthier life. So sometimes, it is inevitable that you will fuck up: you’ll eat the cake, or buy something you don’t need, or spend six hours playing some game that’s been hand-crafted and ruthlessly selected by app-store evolution to be as addictive as humanly possible instead of hitting the gym. Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s not your fault. But try again tomorrow, because it’s better than the alternative.
HOMEWORK: Watch this TED talk for more on how your ape brain operates, and if you fuck up this week, forget it and move on. Ate an entire birthday cake by yourself? Fine, it’s done. Move onto the next positive thing you can do. Missed the gym? Go tomorrow. Lose a step on your latest project? Get on with it the next chance you get. Just don’t be too hard on yourself. There’s no point.