Improving to Death

Alexandra Schwartz’s New Yorker essay on self-improvement movements (“Improving Ourselves to Death”) starts out breezily enough, but it turns grim pretty fast. The “death” in her title isn’t metaphorical.

She summarizes the experiment of Carl Cederström and André Spicer, who tried to improve one area of their lives each month for a year. They ended up lost and confused:

“In December, with the end of their project approaching, Spicer reflects that he has spent the year focussing on himself to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else in his life. His wife is due to give birth to their second child in a few days; their relationship is not at its best. And yet, he writes, ‘I could not think of another year I spent more of my time doing things that were not me at all.’ He doesn’t feel like a better version of himself. He doesn’t even feel like himself. He has been like a man possessed: ‘If it wasn’t me, who was it then?'”

That conclusion is cheery by comparison with the analysis of Will Storr’s forthcoming “Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, which begins with a discussion of
suicide.
Money drives the industry: Cederström and Spicer estimate that the self-improvement industry takes in ten billion dollars a year. (They report that they each spent more than ten thousand dollars, not to mention thousands of hours, on their own quests.)”
Money, and a lust for perfection: “The good life may have sufficed for Plato and Aristotle, but it is no longer enough. ‘We are under pressure to show that we know how to lead the perfect life,’ Cederström and Spicer write.”
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