American self-improvement cultures and the value of concentration

By John Linderman

Elm Staff Writer

As college students slowly start to enter the workforce and adult life, the discussion around self-improvement can feel like wildfire. Since we are entering a world vastly different than the one of our parents’ and ones before them, we have to craft our own tools to survive and thrive.

Self-improvement is the general umbrella term for strategies and recommendations to better everything from your productivity to mental health. The idea of self-improvement has become a product in the 21st century, like sugar or internet access. Like the latter, it may even be argued to become a public good.

The self-improvement industry is reported to be worth around $10 billion, including libraries of books, paid online courses, seminars and coaches. Even as free mediums like YouTube become more popular, the message remains strong: your personal life needs work.

What is the catch, though? Is there anything wrong with wanting to improve yourself? An exploration into contemporary American culture and psychology is required to find a fleshed-out answer.

American culture is obsessed with self-improvement. Besides being its own thriving industry, self-improvement has a history in our economy. Since nations increasingly value skilled human capital, there is an exchange in demand from hard labor to efficient, educated careers.

“Self-actualization is the next big market,” said Francis Pedraza at HuffPost. “With less of our time taken up by basic survival, our need to improve ourselves will move from the back-burner to the front.” For most of us, self-improvement is the easiest and most-accessible path towards Maslow’s self-actualization.

We may also be neurologically hardwired to lean towards self-improvement. It reinforces the idea, for better or worse, that what we have now is not enough. We are either not working hard enough, not having enough fun, or working in the wrong way. This mindset always highlights one large, hill of an issue between us and happiness.

Popular psychology, including Positive Psychology, the study of positive characteristics of the human life, is also wrapped in self-improvement, for better or worse. Martin Seligman, the one-time president of the American Psychological Association, is also the best-selling author of “Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness.” Yale University’s most popular course, the Science of Well-Being, promises to “increase your own happiness and build more productive habits.”

It is thus evident that the challenge of staying positive for as long as possible is as American as baseball or the office park.

Are we genuinely all unhappy? Or are we culturally and economically incentivized to keep searching for happiness like buried treasure? A large deal of Positive Psychology relies on invented novelty and how new tips and tricks can act like keys to a totally happy life.

Instead, I argue that the most liberating path amongst all routes of self-improvement is the ability to concentrate. This is because the sheer number of self-improvement strategies is dizzying, distracting, and counter-intuitive to what they aim to improve. Rather, practicing concentration, be it on our work or listening to friends, only requires acceptance of what we knew all along: the value of our effort.

One book on psychology that has been repeatedly cited, tested, and peer-reviewed is “Flow.” Author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines “Flow” as “A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.” Flow draws influences from meditation, and Eastern cultures’ aspects on personal fulfilment.

You can vary how you want to be a harder worker or better friend, and keep practicing concentration through periods of uninterrupted work, meditation, and time outside.  

Yuval Noah Harrari, author of the best-selling book “Sapiens,” argued that meditation reshaped his view on the anthropological history of humans.

“Previously the main problem with [general] information for people was that they didn’t have enough of it, and there was censorship, and information was very rare and hard to obtain. Now it’s just the opposite. We are inundated by immense amounts of information…” he said in an interview with Vox.

“Our attention is hijacked by all kinds of external forces. For me, not just in meditation, but when I work, I try to be very, very disciplined with my attention not to allow external forces to take control of my attention,” Harrari said.

Aligning yourself with your work and goals will yield far greater results than seeing how long you can go without having a negative thought. Having the ability to focus on our goals can refine them and bring them closer from dreams to reality. However, what’s standing between us and that is our ability to concentrate. It’s particularly difficult in a world grasping for your attention at every second, but it’s a tool that can serve you for life. Prioritize serenity over serendipity.

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