The “self-help” industry has been around for many years, but it seems to be growing ever larger. There are countless books, websites and courses on this subject. However, it’s hard to find anything which takes a fresh angle on the subject. One change is that increasingly the explicit language used is about “happiness” or “wellbeing”. But the focus is still, largely, the same – SELF. We read about “self-help”, about “getting what you want”, about “personal growth”. Has it ever struck you how often it’s about “me”!
There’s a change in the air however. Roman Krznaric writes about “outrospection” as a counter to the predominance of “introspection”. And Mark Vernon has recently written a book on “Wellbeing” which also seems to develop this way of thinking. Here’s a great review of his book on Mark’s own blog. The review is by John Armstrong, and he writes…
Losing weight, taking exercise and eating the right food, improving your looks, making a sea change or a tree change, simplifying your life: these are strategies for wellbeing and they are the stock topics of a million and one newspaper articles. But the avalanche of advice suggests collective desperation: we have to tell ourselves so much about how to be happy, and say it so often, because things aren’t going well. It’s striking that the kind of advice that’s given tends to target the body first: it’s all about how you look, how healthy, fit and active you are.
He goes on to say….
In this pointed little book, British philosopher Mark Vernon argues that we’ve been looking for happiness in the wrong places. He draws attention to two aspects of life that are deeply connected to living well: love and what he calls transcendence. Love involves caring profoundly for something apart from yourself, and doing so requires that you discover capacities for generosity and self-sacrifice. Love, in a curious way, is intensely unfashionable. That’s because love isn’t egotistical; it isn’t cool; it doesn’t focus on how sexy or hip one is; and you can’t possibly love another person for being trendy or famous or rich or wearing the right clothes. So real love is counter-intuitive in a shallow world. And that’s ironic because love is central to leading a good life, and to being happy. Our world is addicted to the idea of happiness but rejects a crucial way in which happiness isattained.
That particular sentence about love – “Love involves caring profoundly for something apart from yourself, and doing so requires that you discover capacities for generosity and self-sacrifice.’ – really struck home for me. I think “health” is a positive experience which has distinct characteristics, and one of these characteristics is “engagement”. When we are engaged with what lies outside us – Nature; other people; Art; community, and so on – then we experience “flow”, “happiness” and “wellbeing”. In that sense, “health”, strangely, isn’t really found inside a person, it’s found in the contextualised person, the connected person, not in a separate, discrete individual.
Even more of a challenge is what Armstrong writes about the place of suffering in life -
These are not in any way recipes for a painless life and that’s how it should be. Understandably, we seek to avoid pain. But much of what is important and valuable in life is inescapably connected to suffering. You cannot form a deep relationship with another person unless you worry about them, fear what could happen, get bitterly disappointed with yourself for letting them down or for causing them anguish or frustration. And eventually you will have to mourn for them or they will have to mourn for you. You can’t engage with the things that make for a good life unless you are able to cope with suffering. It’s the same with any worthwhile creative effort, with noble political hopes, with any desire to improve the world: worthwhile, valuable, but a hard road.
What this paragraph provoked for me was Wim Wenders “Wings of Desire” (remade in English as “City of Angels“) which tells the story of an angel who becomes a human in order to fully experience the pleasures and the suffering (ultimately, the mortality) of human life. It’s a great movie and is, I think, one of the greatest celebrations of what it is to be human.
There’s definitely something worthwhile and interesting here. What I like about it is a change of direction away from looking inwards, towards emphasising what we’re connected to which is greater than ourselves, towards looking outwards – it’s about becoming more loving.
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