Posted by: HAT | April 18, 2014

Dystopian Self-Improvement Syndrome

a graphic showing dopamine and serotonin pathways

Brain chemistry does seem to matter

Hi, Gang!

Sometimes I feel I should introduce myself “Hi, I’m Heather, and I’m a self-improvement addict.”

I noticed it again this morning as I was thinking about this blog. The instant I get an idea for a project, even a small one like this, “the Voice” goes into overdrive: “Here’s what you should do: …” itemizing the long list of everything that needs to be done that would fix the massive number of imperfections and turn them into perfections. Expand the bibliography, get rid of the lame notes or fix them or make them better, change the way I write, identify an audience, re-organize re-categorize and re-tag everything going back to day one, fix the sidebar, … You get the idea.

And I think, everything on this list is reasonable, I probably really should do all of these things. And I feel the desire so keenly, to make it good. I want so much to be good. And I get a rush of whatever that brain chemical is that mediates the sensation of “about to be happy.” (Dopamine. See Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York: Penguin, 2012. The fact that I could come up with this with a flick of the Nook is another bit of evidence in the self-indictment I’m preparing here.) That’s the high.

Maybe now I need to run out and buy a book about blogging.

And then one about reducing my credit card debt.

Like, from Amazon.

Maybe I need to read eleventy-billion other blogs and see what Other People are doing, so I can get some good ideas. Mainly about how Other People are doing way better than I am. Then I’ll need to spend a great deal of time noticing how I am not like Other People. [How do they know that much? Where do they find the time to write that much? How do these Other People get to be so … good?] Because I am just not that good enough. But if I would “just get busy” on improving myself, if I would “just work a little harder” and “just get with it” I am pretty sure, I think not completely insanely and I feel so keenly, that I could achieve something that would measure up, and then I could be as good as Other People. [The Dopamine again.]

Right up to the minute I crash, and recognize with complete certainty that the project is hopeless and I will never ever be as good as Other People, because it’s too late, and I’m just too far behind.

More brain chemistry is probably involved – serotonin? Time for chocolate? Did I mention I am always on a diet?

There’s a joke: When Mozart was your age, he was already dead.

I love that joke.

But here’s the thing: it’s clear to me that there is a perverse relationship between this addiction to self-improvement and the utopian subjectivity project. There’s a genuine utopian moment in the recognition of the gap between what is and what could be; and there’s a genuine utopian moment in the desire to close that gap, and in seeing the action that might be needed to close it. But that genuine impulse and motion towards “the better” gets twisted, somehow, and ends up creating more misery than happiness in the self-improvement addiction process.

The individualism of self-improvement is probably part of the perversity – though I can’t honestly say I think changes in individual behavior are trivial. I smoked about a pack of cigarettes a day for about 30 years, and then I quit. I haven’t smoked a cigarette in over 10 years. I really think that counts.

Besides, I am still enough of a second-wave feminist to remember that “the personal is political,” and to believe it. It’s not as if what we do in our personal lives is not part of the universal. And the constitution of subjectivity, whatever kind of subjectivity it is, utopian or otherwise, must be personal in the end. What kind of subjects would be impersonal? So individual behavior does have to change, and presumably does on the way to utopia.

What’s the difference between “personal transformation” and “self-improvement” – besides one sounding good and the other one sounding like what I need therapy to get over? And what’s the relationship between either of those, personal transformation or self-improvement, and the utopian project?


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