Do you want to be happy or perfect? You may be thinking why not have both, by simply choosing to be perfect? After all, many of us believe that if we were perfect, happiness would automatically follow. Advertising supports this idea, pushing images of smiling customers who have successfully improved themselves into happiness.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve oneself, but I wonder about that. Improving never brings lasting happiness, only the need for more improvements. Once you start using the yardstick of improvement on yourself, you are cultivating dissatisfaction. No matter how far you get in your stretch toward perfection, there will always still be a little margin of non-fit left to fix. That’s because once you tell the mind to fixate on self-improvement, it won’t stop on its own. Once you start improving yourself, do you ever really feel done?
Improvement promises it will bring you happiness, but it requires an additional, sinister step: first you have to judge yourself as lacking. This is like telling children you will love them unconditionally as soon as they become who you want them to be. We tell ourselves the same thing: we can be happy and love ourselves as soon as we reject and fix certain attributes. This approach promises that, as we become more perfect, we will have more love and inclusion. However, love and improvement are contradictions in terms. If everyone has to be perfect in order to feel included, where does that leave most of us? For that matter, where does that leave love?
Instead of trying to improve yourself, why not take out the judgment and pursue growth and development instead. The difference between development and improvement may seem like playing with words, but it’s not. The terms you use shape your experiences and reveal how you feel about yourself as you are now. Pursuing self-improvement brings tension and pressure while self-development feels more organic and doable. We constrict internally when we try to improve, but we open up when offered development. If you feel you need improving, it may be a code word for seeking perfection by rejecting who you are now.
On the other hand, happiness comes from spending time on people and pursuits that raise our energy and give us a warm glow inside. You will be happiest when you’re developing aspects of your true individuality. Development means allowing the unfolding of your uniqueness into new and often surprising forms of complexity, integration, and richness. It’s definitely not the conscious goal-setting of the critical mind. Development—becoming more of who you were meant to be—feels fulfilling. You definitely stay yourself while life feels richer and increasingly interesting. But when improvement and perfecting become goals, you try to validate your worth from the outside in. You get fooled into thinking that being critical of yourself is the route to perfectibility. But this is a case where more pain means less gain.
The self-improvement mindset tells you that change is best accomplished through shame. To be fully accepted and admired, you must first dislike things about yourself. But this is a deadening pursuit, an accumulation of struggles that leaves you with nothing but a list of accomplishments. Self-improvement chases the dream of becoming perfect enough to finally be happy. But what you probably really want is the permission to finally stop feeling embarrassed for just being yourself.
What if—as Michael Singer advocates in his book, The Untethered Soul—you just decide that no matter who you are or what you do, you will stay happy? You can decide to be happy right now, no further improvements necessary. You can still work toward goals, develop your abilities, and realize your potential. You just won’t be doing it from a place of self-criticism or lack of satisfaction. Happiness will be found in the process of self-growth and enjoying relating to others, not in trying to improve yourself toward a perfectionistic ideal of what you should become.
Our conscious minds often don’t know what’s best for us, in the sense of what will truly bring happiness. Usually all the conscious mind can do is judge what we’re lacking and try to fix it with external tweaks. It’s far better to see yourself through your heart’s eye: as not needing improvement and not needing perfection. When you are totally aware and present with who you are right now, inspiration comes and development moves forward on its own. Happiness becomes the by-product.
That’s because as a human being, you are designed to grow and nurture what’s inside. When you love yourself and seek opportunities for growth instead of perfection, improvement soon starts to feel like more trouble than it’s worth. Try something different: start seeking your inner glow and letting that perfection go.