I agree with the basic criticisms of self-improvement.
You don’t need any of the common goals, status markers, or achievements promoted by the industry. In reality, you don’t even want them. We think we want the goals and material items themselves, but we really want the underlying feelings they provide.
It’s a tricky battle.
On the one hand, you technically don’t need to do anything to feel happy. You could just make a conscious decision to do it. Eastern philosophy teaches this ethos and claims that desire causes suffering.
David Hawkins, the author of spiritual books like Power Vs. Force, said that:
“The person who suffers from inner poverty is relentlessly driven to accumulate on the material level.”
On the other hand, it can be difficult to just conjure up positive feelings out of thin air. Goals and outcomes serve a purpose, too because you need to grow and evolve to reach certain outcomes.
Let’s take a look at some things you don’t technically need to live a good life and breakdown some of the underlying feelings that you really want in the first place.
Research shows that additional happiness levels off after about $75,000 a year. I’ve experienced it myself. I’ve moved up several tax brackets in the past five years and the money itself didn’t make me any happier.
I went to the mall the other day. I remember how I used to feel when I couldn’t afford much. I’d walk around and ‘window shop,’ feeling pity and the strong desire to buy what I couldn’t have. When I went to the mall the other day, I could’ve gone on a massive splurge. But I didn’t. I didn’t care. I didn’t want anything.
While money doesn’t make you happy, it does provide a few benefits and it does help you feel certain positive emotions:
Naval Ravikant provides the recipe for successful using money:
“People who live far below their means enjoy a freedom that people busy upgrading their lifestyles can’t fathom.”
You don’t need to be filthy rich, but making enough to live on through a profession or business you enjoy can change your life.
You’ve seen the cliches in the self-improvement industry about finding your passion “Do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
You don’t need to do what you love to enjoy what you do for a living. And passion doesn’t necessarily come from work you love but rather work that you enjoy because you get good at it.
Cal Newport makes this argument in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You:
“Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.”
He also said:
“If you want to love what you do, abandon the passion mindset (“what can the world offer me?”) and instead adopt the craftsman mindset (“what can I offer the world?”).”
Also, there are some other elements of what you do for a living that can lead to happiness and fulfillment without needing to have the passion and ultimate bliss:
There’s a popular quote:
When you’re 20 you care what everyone thinks, when you’re 40 you stop caring what everyone thinks, when you’re 60 you realize no one was ever thinking about you in the first place.
You don’t need everyone to like you. In fact, attempting to get everyone to like you leads to people-pleasing behaviors that cause you to be less likable.
You can’t entirely avoid reacting to the way others perceive you. You’re wired to notice and measure little social status cues because they were critical to your ancestor’s survival. But, you can overcome that wiring and understand that ultimately you decide what people’s opinions about you mean to you.
The best way to get other people to like you is to learn how to like yourself. People are attracted to people who are secure in who they are, independent of the opinions of other people. Ironically, the less you care about whether or not people like you, the more people end up liking you.
Does this mean that you should behave however you want and be rude, aloof, or dismissive? Not at all. You can be kind, generous, and open-minded without needing to pander to anyone in the process.
A corollary of the above. You don’t need massive levels of status or fame to be successful. We now live in a culture where we measure each other by numbers.
On the one hand, social media is a great place for communication and connection. On the other hand, it can cause us to focus on metrics that don’t matter as much as the substance of the content we put out there.
If you chase status, likes, and engagement to the point you have to become someone that you’re not to get fame, people end up liking the caricature of you, not the real you. Ask many famous people and they will tell you how much of trap fame can be:
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” – Jim Carrey
So, what can you pursue if fame isn’t the answer? Pursue building a tribe instead.
Seth Godin, the author of Tribes, put it well:
“The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there.
People will follow.”
Do I want every single human on planet earth to read my writing? No. Would I like to have a large audience? Yes. I already do. And I’m most proud of the fact that I have the right people in my tribe instead of having everyone in my tribe. I write about the subjects that fascinate me and also intersect with the interests of certain readers. I want to connect with like-minded people.
That’s what you ultimately want, too. You want to feel like you’re making an impact on others. And you can do that without the whole world knowing your name.
In general, you don’t need to live a magic, rockstar, dream fairytale life to feel happy and fulfilled. You could live that way and be happy, but it’s not a requirement.
Again, you really want the underlying feelings behind the glitz and glamour.
What are some of these feelings?
You want a sense of adventure. You can get that without traveling to 70 different countries on a private jet. There are many different ways to live an adventurous life that cost little to nothing.
You want to feel like your life matters. You don’t need a bunch of money and status to do that. If you live in a way that’s aligned and congruent, you’ll feel a sense of meaning. I’ve come across people with tons of money who aren’t aligned. I’ve come across those with ‘humbler’ professions and less money that are completely aligned.
You want a feeling of accomplishment, growth, and the pride that comes from following through with your goals. You can have that with a variety of different goals. I often think of the artisans and little shop owners who aren’t rich but have the satisfaction of knowing they make a living directly from their creative energy.
I don’t know you. I can’t tell you exactly which mixture of inner-work and worldly outcomes will provide the feelings you’re looking for. But I do know that going entirely in one direction or the other won’t help.
Yes, you don’t want to be in a never-ending chase for desire. But you’re also a human being with wants and needs.
At the end of the day, you’re the best person to decide whether or not you’re happy, fulfilled, and successful. Trust your instincts, make wiser decisions as time goes on, learn from your mistakes, seize the day every day. I’m pretty sure you’ll be pretty damn happy.