The beginning of the University of Connecticut’s spring 2021 semester effectively marks the end of my first ever college winter break. And given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, my break was not what I expected when I thought about having an entire month in between semesters as a naive high school student. Winter break in high school was always a mere two weeks or less depending on the way the holidays fell that year, with break work due upon returning to school, midterms coming up on the horizon and multiple large family gatherings sprinkled in. Thus, in high school I was dreaming of the days where school would essentially end for a month or so, allowing me to recharge and start entirely fresh in the new year. I thought I’d spend my free time catching up with hometown friends and visiting family that had surely missed me over the long fall semester.
Needless to say, none of my predictions were correct. Family gatherings were cancelled outright, and if I saw friends it was from both a distance and behind a mask. The month off became a confusing state of limbo – while I was grateful to have a break from Zoom classes, I simply did not know what to do with myself.
At this point, we’re a couple of weeks into the new year, taking a closer look at our current resolutions and what we personally want to work on. With an increasingly present pressure to be productive during a continuously mismanaged public health crisis, the goal of making 2021 better than the hellscape that was 2020 can seem unachievable. I’m sure I’m not the only one with self-improvement at the forefront of their mind, but is it possible to always be moving forward? Can someone work on themselves to the point of ceaseless evolution? The short answer is no, you cannot be self-improving 24/7, no matter how many inspirational quotes you pin on Pinterest or how many times you retweet “#NewYearNewMe” on Twitter.
A desire to improve is not inherently bad; it generally indicates an aspiration for “living well.” But the perfect life is subjective, and everyone’s answer is going to be a little different. Unfortunately, these differences of opinion on how to live your best life can lead to a bombardment of conflicting messages. All forms of media promote clashing ideas on how to be better in our education, health and fitness, relationships, mental health and career. Every single day, we see advertisements for the “perfect” product, social media posts about “life-changing” workout routines and television shows or movies that show many different types of “successful” characters we aspire to be like. These seem like subtle ideas of self-improvement on their own, but their culmination creates an obsession with bettering oneself. Thus, the urge to self-improve takes hold, and self-help becomes a driving force in one’s life, as we aspire to be the media we consume. Ultimately, Americans are left with a self-improvement market estimated to grow to be worth $13.2 billion by 2022, and articles from Forbes titled, “Millennials, Here’s Why You Are Addicted To Self-Improvement,” as if Forbes does not directly contribute to this cycle.
I’m not arguing against self-improvement outright. Moving forward and keeping your head up is good. Just as someone going bankrupt avoids looking into their affairs, if you never look back on where you’ve been and where you’re going, you probably aren’t doing enough inner reflection. However, the addiction to self-improvement is incredibly strong. I personally felt it over the winter break. When I did not actively have a goal in mind and tangible productivity in sight, I worried about my seemingly lacking personal growth. However, there is a difference between living up to one’s potential and forcing oneself to grow. The problem occurs when an obsession with self-help causes a lack of focus and satisfaction, impulsive decision making and feelings of shame, thus very quickly doing more harm than good.
For a healthy approach to self-improvement, consider a gradual plan with room for obstacles and the flexibility to understand that these things take time. Intent is important. If your only reason for creating a particular self-improvement goal is the idea itself of “improving,” it’s probably not a worthwhile goal. For example, aim to volunteer more, thus seeing improvements in your character as a byproduct of wanting to see your community thrive. And don’t worry if your winter break wasn’t full of life-changing goal achievements. Relaxation without deadlines looming over you is healthy.