The Self-Improvement Fallacy: 6 Delusions That Keep You Chasing Happiness Forever

Admit it.

There’s a part of you that is reading this with the hope that I will give you the answer.

The answer to what, maybe you’re not entirely sure. But you can sense that it’s the answer you’re looking for. Something that will make you feel slightlybetter than you feel right now. Which is fair. You wouldn’t click on this article headline if you thought it was going to make you feel worse than now. Right?

Unfortunately though, we have a problem, you and I.

I’m not going to give you the answer you want. Frankly, you don’t need any more answers. Actually, you don’t need any more ideas at all.

But wait, isn’t this article just more ideas as well? No. Well, yes, but there’s an important distinction: my intention with this post is to subtractrather than add. By the end of this page I want you to leave you feeling a little bit lighter and more relaxed. Right after we cut a hole in the bottom of the backpack of beliefs you carry with you.

Let me be honest. As a writer and reader, I have been a repeat offender of the transgression I’m about to share with you. Likely more so than you.

I’ve easily read over 200 books on topics around self-improvement. I’ve also written 200–300 self-improvement related articles — myself!

Which is why I’m perfectly positioned to say what I’m about to say.

Self-Improvement is a fallacy, and I’ll tell you why.

All self-improvement boils down to one thing. The entire multibillion-dollar industry feeds itself on this principle: you are not ok with the present experience.

Self-improvement is an attempt to move towards a “better” state in which you will feel content with how things are. We call this state of being happiness.

If we watched a movie with a character who had everything we believed we might want (money, wealth, relationships, amazing experiences, etc) but that character was fundamentally discontent — would that be the happiness we want?

Of course not!

But herein lies the problem — we don’t need to improve anything to feel ok with right now.

“What’s wrong with right now if you don’t think about it?”

— ‘Sailor’ Bob Adamson

Let’s make it simple.

When we were young children, assuming we were healthy and living in a safe and loving environment, we were generally happy. Why? Not because we found the answer in some repetitive self-improvement book, or we went on an expensive yoga retreat, or we got a 20% raise at work.

It’s because we hadn’t yet accumulated all the ideas that get in the way of us feeling ok.

I know this because I used to run on the self-improvement treadmill all day, every day, and I never got where I thought I was going.

But when I started to strip away the following delusions, I could actually begin to feel the contentment I did as a child.

So without further ado;

Here are Six Common Delusions That Keep You Chasing Happiness Forever

#6. When I Figure Out Why I Feel [Down, Sad, Anxious etc.], Then I’ll Be Happy

This myth is debunked the second you see a baby smile. Do they need to analyse their emotions before they can experience joy? What about all the non-human apes; bonobos, chimps, gorillas? Do they need to figure out their feelings before they can run around with a grin? No, because happiness is something that is inherent in their natural state.

But not us. Not human adults. We’re intelligent and sophisticated. We sit with our thoughts, reflecting on our fears, our sadness, and our anxieties. Because on some level we believe that with just enough rumination we’ll get the magic answer that leaves us permanently fulfilled.

There is significant value in talk therapy, but not the value we expect. A coherent story might appear to release a bit of tension, until it doesn’t. Children fall over and cry, then they pick up their toys, and get on with whatever they were doing. They don’t analyse why they cried, whether they’re going to cry again tomorrow, if their crying means that they’re fundamentally deficient and should be banished to a life of time-out for the rest of eternity.

They just start playing again, and at some point, the residual effects of those tears vanish, and they’re blissfully content with the next moment. It’s not an unsophisticated approach to such emotional challenges, it’s very adaptive.

Children have less to worry about, yes. But that doesn’t mean their attitude is any less valid, it just means that it doesn’t come as naturally to us as adults. Somewhere along the way, we picked up the capacity to reason and reflect on our emotions. Now we think that the way to solve all emotional issues is to think our way out of them.

Related Beliefs

  • I’ll be happy when I work through all my past traumas.
  • I’ll be happy when I dissect every argument I’ve ever had with my mother.
  • I’ll be happy when I assess the symbolism in all of my dreams.

#5. I Should Be More Successful

There are two problems with this idea:

1. Many of us aren’t even sure what success means.

Success is defined as the outcome of an aim or purpose. If that is the case, how can I be more successful? I am not an outcome, nor an aim, nor a purpose. I am a process. The reason we even have the concept of success is for guidance. A successful ‘you’ is a location on a map, it’s a direction on a compass. Saying ‘I’ want to be more successful is like saying I want to be more north. But the earth is not flat, and you are not a single goal. Keep travelling north and you will keep having a north to travel to. Ad infinitum. Keep trying to BE more successful and you will keep having an idea of a successful you to move towards. Yet you’ll never quite reach it.

2. Why should we be more successful?

We think we should be more successful because of the misconception with our definition of success. We think success will get us somewhere. The second you think that ‘you’ are moving towards success, failure will creep up right behind you. That’s why upon achieving goals we often have an anticlimactic feeling “ok…what now.” It’s not because happiness was in the goal, or that it was hidden in the process of striving for a goal. It’s actually because in striving for a goal we placed ourselves in a structure in which we were allowed to stop thinking about happiness.

Related Beliefs

  • I’m not as successful as my [brother, mother, friend, work colleague, celebrity, athlete]
  • I thought I’d be more successful by this age
  • As long as I hit all my goals by 35, then I’ll be successful

#4. I Won’t Be Happy Until I’m My Best Self


This is another muddled idea that just ends up getting in the way. You hear other platitudes mixed in with this. Instagram captions might refer to it “Living my best life.” New age spiritual junkies use the term “Your highest self.” A silicon valley executive might even call it “Optimal functioning.”

Your best self, like success, is an idea. It’s a direction to travel in, a constantly moving target. It is not a place that you reach at a specific point in time.

What happens when you’re sick? When you age? What happens when forces outside of your control derail your ‘best-self’ plans?

This bullsh*t idea of your becoming best-self is not the benchmark by which you should choose to accept yourself. Your best-self is a noun. Your actual-self is a verb. In the stream of life, the points at which they meet are likely to be few and far between. Deciding that you can’t be happy with life until you are “your best self” is like saying an Olympic swimmer shouldn’t enjoy being in the water until they’re standing on the podium receiving a gold medal.

Related Beliefs

  • I need to live my best life
  • I need to live with NO REGRETS
  • I need to win, no matter what the cost

#3. I Could Be Doing Something More Important Right Now

Technically that statement is true. But so is “I could have been born an Emperor of Never-never land.”

Both of these statements have an equal material relationship to the present moment. That is, neither of them actually exist outside of our thoughts. The only difference is that you think that this statement might bring you closer to happiness, whereas you’ve been smart enough to accept the fact that you will never be emperor of Never-never Land.

Some people think that accepting that things are enough will turn you into a lifeless couch potato. That’s just a deficiency story taking another form. We don’t walk down the road to get milk and spend every step reminding ourselves where we are going and why. That would be torture. We can still move through life with goals and preferences without our happiness being contingent on them being met.

Related Beliefs

  • I should be more productive right now
  • I should be doing something more enjoyable right now
  • I need to make a REAL difference in the world

#2. Finding Happiness Is Difficult

We only believe that finding happiness is difficult because we still believe that happiness is something you find. You don’t find happiness, you only ever find fleeting moments of pleasure.

Lasting happiness is something that you uncover. Something that you reveal when you remove a series of beliefs such as those being presented to you here.

When you have a whole society looking in the wrong direction to find something, and a relatively small percentage stumbling across it, the perception of it being a rare jewel is likely to be written into the way of life. This is perpetuated by hollywood-esque narratives that are built into our popular culture.

A story is not an experience. Success is a story. My best life is a story. Fulfilment is an experience. And it doesn’t require fighting dragons, climbing mountains, making millions, seducing the boy/girl of your dreams, sacred pilgrimages or any other incredibly difficult fantasy.

Maybe uncovering happiness is actually quite simple. Like taking a deep breath right now and embracing the idea that this experience right now is enough. It may seemingly get worse in the future, or better, but that could be enough also.

Nah. That couldn’t be it.

Related Beliefs

  • I just need to achieve my life goals, then I’ll be happy
  • Finding peace of mind can’t be easy
  • I need to overcome my fears before I can feel ok

#1. I Should Be Happier Right Now

Which brings us to the last point. The deepest belief that gets in the way of your capacity for happiness.

The subtle but persistent idea that you should be happier than you are right now. Maybe no tool in human history has perpetuated this fallacy more so than social media.

Consider how crazy this is.

We open social media and look at 2-dimensional images of other people, intentionally curated by them. We then pretend that based on those pixels, we understand their 4-dimensional experience. And finally, we conclude that they have something that we don’t, and that something is wrong about our experience because of it.

It’s ok to want pleasure. It’s ok to strive for peak experiences. But these are moments that come and go. They mean nothing about our inherent value, how we should be feeling at any given moment, or our birthright to feel happy.

How about you? What ideas have got about the idea of happiness? Let me know in the comments.

Published by

Ben Fishel

Ben is an author, psychotherapist and the creator of Project Monkey Mind, a blog that looks at Psychology and Spirituality to find practical wisdom for the digital age. He holds an MSc. in Applied Neuroscience from King's College London and a Bachelors in Psychology from the University of Queensland.

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