When I first saw this article,
How to Get Flat Abs, Have Amazing Sex and Rule the World in 8 Easy Steps,
by Kate Bartolotta getting shared around social media, I was surprised. It’s not often that you see an article with a title like that getting play, unless it’s in one of those “sponsored post” boxes. But I saw more and more people sharing it, and I decided to click. After reading it I couldn’t believe the positive reaction I’d seen it get on social media. I was even more flabbergasted when I read some of the comments about how “insightful” and “thought provoking” this article was. At present, it has over half a million likes and hundreds of thousands of shares. Clearly, it had struck a chord.
But why? I could not fathom how this was being hailed as a great piece of writing, or somehow introspective. As I thought further, the article, and more importantly, the ecstatic reception that met it, really shine a light on Western society, and the state of journalism. To be fair, I think the article was well intention-ed and positive in its own way, but its trite steps to self help rang hollow to me.
The article starts off with some threadbare complaints about how society has become superficial, yearning only for washboard abs and better sex. While a legitimate complaint, it’s one that’s so old and tired that it’s ceased to be compelling. After an opening like that, you can expect a call to some “higher level” understanding or experience, and of course, the article delivers in the next few paragraphs:
“If you can read this, your life is pretty awesome…
Life might bump and bruise us, it may not always go the way we plan and I know I get frustrated with mine, but here’s the thing: You are alive.
Because you are alive, everything is possible.”
After reading that, I knew that I could expect the tried and true positive psychology of nearly all vacuous self help programs. It starts with a sense of limitless possibility. Of course this is good, I can’t argue against this state of mind. But beginning with this premise gets the euphoric juices flowing. “Yay, I can do anything,” you say. “If only someone could just show me how!” And of course the steps to changing yourself and living a wonderful happily ever after appear from the person that promises you the possible.
Step number one is called “Stop believing your bullshit.” It admonishes the reader:
“All that stuff you tell yourself about how you are a commitment phobe or a coward or lazy or not creative or unlucky? Stop it. It’s bullshit, and deep down you know it… somewhere along the line we tacked on those ideas about who we are that buried that essential brilliant, childlike sense of wonder.”
On the surface, it all seems so good. Who could not want to discover their child-like sense of wonder? That would be just mean! And therein lies the fallacious heart of this article. It’s about nothing more than unsupported good feelings. It’s like an enormous sugary drink for your ego. For a few minutes, it feels good, you get a rush. It all makes sense, yeah, I should feel good about myself! But the developed, inquisitive, human mind will always be left wanting from this egotistical nonsense. Because underneath it, there is nothing. Emptiness.
“Philosophies” like these are popular because they require nothing of the reader, or receiver of their wisdom. They tell us that we can be anything, but that we are nothing bad! But the truth is, some of us are commitment-phobes, or lazy, or even uncreative. Yes, it’s true, some of you are not creative. I know that doesn’t square with a worldview where everyone can be everything (unless it’s bad), but I can assure you it’s true. What’s more, we all have some of these vices from time to time. It doesn’t make us bad people per-se, but it would be oblivious to deny that we all have bad qualities, to a greater or lesser extent. It’s incredibly narcissistic and self-centered to think that we can just will ourselves into a better state of mind to fix ourselves. Later in the article, the author suggests: “Don’t take things personally. Most of the time, other people’s choices and attitudes have absolutely nothing to do with you. Unless you’ve been behaving like a jerk, in which case…” This is narcissistic gibberish at its worst. It suggests that negative feedback from others couldn’t have anything to do with you. You can be pretty sure though that a philosophy like the one espoused in the article would have you take all credit for positive feedback, because you’re so great! To be fair, she does add the cheeky addendum of “unless you’ve been behaving like a jerk,” but the flip way it’s presented tells the reader that his own poor behavior is unlikely to be the cause of negative feedback
I realized that advice like this resonates with a culture that really came into its own in Western society in only the past generation or so. It is the belief that everyone is special, and that everyone can be anything they want to be if they work hard and believe in themselves. While this is a nice belief, experience proves it to be utterly false. Not everyone is good at everything. Not everyone is as smart as everyone else. There is inequality in this world, but we deal with it in the wrong way. If your child comes home upset because he slapped together his project and lost the science fair to some kid whose dad works at a National Lab, how would you react? Should you tell your kid that he wasn’t lazy, even though he did his project in the last 3 hours before it was due? Maybe you should tell him he was at a disadvantage because the other kid had a leg up with the rocket scientist dad. Heck, maybe you should call the school and complain! That’s the kind of reaction this outlook on life invites. But wouldn’t it be more reasonable to confront your kid on his laziness, find out why he waited? Perhaps he could even learn from the winner, or even tap his expertise for the next project. That would be proactive. That would be progress.
And that’s the real failing of vapid “wisdom” pieces like this. They exhort us to do nothing but love ourselves for who we are, and ignore our bad qualities, or deficiencies, because they don’t exist! It may feel good for a while, but deep down, you know you have shortcomings. And that’s ok. In fact it’s so much more respectable and emotionally developed to recognize and work to improve those shortcomings, than to retreat into that “childlike sense of wonder.”
Many of us are afflicted with a yearning for childhood. Our memories of those halcyon days are burnished by time into glowing bronze jewels of times long lost. It’s certainly enjoyable to look back on them and reminisce. I know I do it quite often. But there is a reason we are no longer children. Children are not self-aware. That’s why they need adults to make sure they don’t run into the street or use the toaster as a bath toy. We can’t all be children, all the time, as fun as that might sound. Articles like this are really saying it’s ok to be oblivious. Becoming self-aware is an amazing experience. You will realize your great potential, but you will also realize your shortcomings and faults. I think that’s an integral part of being human, and more importantly, being a better human. You might stay happy if you tell yourself that you can do anything, and that all these faults are just in your head. But you’ll stay a happy child. I for one would rather eat at the big kid’s table. Yes, it’ difficult at first to reckon with your faults, and you never truly finish, but that’s part of being human. This positive psychology rubbish robs you of the very essence of humanity: growing, changing, becoming better than you once were.
And that’s why articles and “self-help” programs like this are so popular: they’re easy. You can just keep chugging right along, doing what you’re doing, but just change your outlook, and everything will be fine! Wouldn’t you like a fitness program that was so easy? It’s no coincidence that some of the most popular diet programs remember to tell you that you can keep eating cake and other packaged detritus. However, experience tells another story. I’ve never met anyone with an amazing physique who didn’t work his ass off. I’ve never met a very learned person who didn’t work his ass off. And I’ve certainly never met an honorable, self-aware person who didn’t work his ass off. “By their fruits you will know them.” It takes work to attain things of value. There is no way around this. As a side note, I’ve known plenty of people who attained enormous amounts of wealth without lifting a finger. This should give you an idea of the true value of money alone. If happiness, as so many philosophers have said, is the summum bonum, the ultimate good, then it follows that it should be the most work to attain. Consequently, any philosophy that tells you it’s easy to be happy, should arouse suspicion.
Articles like this are actually guides on how to hamstring yourself and hold yourself back, while masquerading as the key to taking the next step and becoming whatever you want. It even butchers what should be good advice, to practice gratitude: “Gratitude is the most basic way to connect with that sense of being an integral part of the vastness of the universe; as I mentioned with looking up at the stars, it’s that sense of wonder and humility, contrasted with celebrating our connection to all of life.” That sentence says nothing. It is meaningless. In fact, it is a perfect summation of this broken philosophy. It is composed of parts that sound nice: “humility, wonder, universe,” but there is just nothing there. It saddens me to see an article like this attain the popularity it has, because it is so intellectually and morally bankrupt. Worse, it’s dishonest. Happiness is not simply a state of mind. Real happiness, is a lot of work. The Greeks called it eudaimonia, which translates as happiness, but also, and perhaps more correctly, as “human flourishing.” So if you tell yourself you’re great, and that everything is great, you might feel something you can slap the label of “happiness” on. You can chug the energy drink, and feel the little rush. But you won’t be flourishing. In fact you hamper your flourishing by thinking like that. Real happiness requires work. It requires introspection, and most of all honesty. Honesty about what’s good and what’s bad in you, and the world outside of you. Happiness is truth, and you’ll only find that by digging.