By Vexen Crabtree 2013
Self-development consists of (1) knowing yourself, (2) improving your personal habits and social behaviour, (3) intellectual development and education and (4) physical fitness. The result of this is self empowerment, fewer mental and physical problems, happiness, success and longevity. Great improvements can be accomplished for free; it is a question of finding motivation and taking responsibility for your own life.
“How people live has an important impact on health. Whether people smoke, whether they are physically active; what and how much they eat and drink [effects] how healthy people are and how long they will live.”
Secretary of State for Health (1998)1
“Eat lots of fruit and vegetables, and live your whole life in every way as well as you can: exercise regularly as part of your daily routine, avoid obesity, don´t drink too much, don´t smoke, and don´t get distracted from the real, basic, simple causes of ill health.”
Health Doctor Ben Goldacre (2008)2
Our lifestyles are within our own control - especially as adults. Negative lifestyle choices which have a wide impact on our lives include things like smoking, eating poorly3, dropping out of school and education, performing poorly at work due to having the wrong attitude, recreational drug use, alcoholism (either constant, or involving binge-drinking) and lack of general fitness. Some improvements are mentally difficult and other ones are practically difficult - it takes a lot of practice to weed-out those cheap and unhealthy foods that saturate the shelves of supermarkets simply because the packaging and ingredients are designed by experts to make you think they're good, even when they're not. Many aspects of self improvement involve willpower - some of them, such as going into a library, involve just a change in choice and a minor exercise of the will. Others, such as giving up a physical addiction, are genuinely difficult. But no matter how easy, it is simply the case that practice improves performance. Many behaviours are excused on the basis of stress, poor upbringing or other external factors, but no matter what the source of our ills, we have to deal with them in a way that maintains our health rather than damages it. For example how we deal with stress is a factor in the likelihood of coronary heart disease4.
If you learn to take control of your own life and make better decisions on the minor things, it becomes progressively easier to make bigger changes. The key is to start on that path. And it is that start which most needs to be encouraged amongst people.
These problems may well embody the eternal problems of humankind, but in the affluent Western world where we enjoy a great many material advantages, it is a moral duty that we make maximum use of what we have available to us, and, that means avoiding the excesses of which we should all be ashamed of, as a culture. Given the inequalities between the developed world and the developing world, obesity is simply not morally acceptable.
“... he that tastes of every pleasure and abstains from none comes to lose all self-control; while he who avoids all, as do the dull and clownish, comes as it were to lose his faculties of perception: that is to say, the habits of perfected Self-Mastery and Courage are spoiled by the excess and defect.”
Please excuse me if I bludgeon Aristotle's language into something a little simpler, as we are getting unaccustomed to the multiple-threaded sentences which were once more common in philosophical language: Aristotle is saying, quite correctly, that over-indulgence in material pleasures is damaging to your character, just as, he says, is the pathological avoidance of anything materialistic. Self-mastery and courage are enabled by carefully selecting what to indulge in once the ability to abstain has been well practiced. Some more:
“Once more; it is harder, as Heraclitus says, to fight against pleasure than against anger: now it is about that which is more than commonly difficult that art comes into being, and virtue too, because in that which is difficult the good is of a higher order:”
Visible strengths of character are gained through self-mastery and social courage. Social courage is the ability to emplore others to take a better bath, and it is not the pointless bickering over issues of "respect" and "group solidarity" that you see so often televised with regards to macho street culture. No group ever benefits in the long term from having a community of people who toe the line (i.e., where people dare not announce unpopular opinions).
And what is unpopular? Too often, in the decadent central culture of many Western countries, unpopular means things that are pro-fitness, pro-education, pro-wisdom and anti-indulgence. Our instincts lead us astray and we need our friends on many occasions to prompt us when we're going too far, going against our health plans, or engaging in stupid behaviour. In asking why we need help in improving ourselves, we turn one last time to Aristotle:
“But in all cases we must guard most carefully against what is pleasant, and pleasure itself, because we are not impartial judges of it. We ought to feel in fact towards pleasure as did the old counsellors towards Helen, and in all cases pronounce a similar sentence; for so by sending it away from us, we shall err the less.”
We shall err the less, Aristotle says, if we learn to control our own short-term pleasure-seeking. He is arguing for a more long-term outlook in our personal lives, and, as any parent knows, that means teaching ourselves to delay immediate gratification in order to improve our lives later on. Sometimes you have to put down your toys and attend to your own education and self-improvement. And if you have a friend who throws a tantrum and resists this, then it is more the evidence that they have not yet started on the proper path to responsible adulthood. That person needs the help of their friends more than any other: and when no-one is available to help, then, you have a cultural and societal problem of the scale that we see in the UK and USA - the problem of trash culture.
The aim is not (as Aristotle also warns) to remove pleasure, but, to attain a higher quality of happiness in life. This higher virtue is gained after learning self-control and self-mastery. The aim of this state is to enjoy life more and to have a more meaningful life, and therefore avoid the traps of decadence, depression and that general feeling of malaise which no doubt surrounds many of the non-accomplishers of the world.
This "middle-ground" is the same as that promoted by Aristotle and the Buddha (quoted below), and is sometimes (in its more effective and visible forms) called hedonism. This is embraced not just by philosophers and enlightened beings, but by much more Earthly folk such as, for example, the Church of Satan:
“According to LaVey, the same reasoning leads us to the conclusion that drugs are bad for indulgence in that they cause an imbalance that, in the long term, reduces the pleasures of normal experience.”
The Buddha deliberated for a decade on how to improve the self, and his resultant Middle Way taught that physical fitness was as essential as mental dexterity and that they depended on each other. Uncontrolled appetites and extreme withdrawal from material goods both lead to a clouded view of the world (either clouded against reason, or, clouded against calm worldliness). In the words of the first century Ashvaghosha:
“When [the body] is worn down and exhausted by hunger and thirst, the mind in its turn must feel the strain, that mental organ which must reap the fruit. No, inward calm is needed for success! Inward calm cannot be maintained unless physical strength is constantly and intelligently replenished. Only if the body is reasonably nourished can undue strain on the mind be avoided.”
“Keeping fit can "reduce your risk of developing long-term disease, increase your life expectancy, and improve your quality of life in later years"8. It reduces the risk of coronary heart disease in particular and "can also help to lower your blood pressure, improve your cholesterol level, control your weight and reduce your risk of diabetes. Physical activity is also a good way of relieving stress"9. Keeping fit makes pregnancy easier, and complications less likely10. Exercise also aids mental health8,11,12. Research is showing that physical exercise allows the brain to retain its effectiveness longer into old age11,13 and even when starting after a life of sloth, exercise can help rescue the brain from mental decline, stimulating the growth of new neurones14. A healthy lifestyle, including physical fitness and eating sensibly, "can significantly reduce a person's risk of developing dementia"15.
Lack of physical fitness is not just to the individual's detriment, but has a negative impact on national economic efficiency and causes increases in national health costs. A lot of very expensive long-term therapies can be avoided simply by keeping fit in life. Exercise can be done for free in the home, with no equipment at all. Also with access to the Internet, it is easy to find many session videos to provide instruction. Finally, the Family Doctor Home Advisor gives some guidance: "Start by setting realistic goals. If you are not fit, begin exercising slowly and build up gradually"8.16”
Without self-knowledge, self-development is haphazard and intermittent. Spending time to reflect on what type of person you are, what stereotype you fit most closely, etc, will help you when you deal with other people. You need to know how other people see you and your own strengths and weaknesses. This essay mainly deals with improving weaknesses. Knowing your own strengths is in some ways less important than knowing your weaknesses. Your strengths won't make you fail, but your weaknesses will.
“The biggest weakness of all is not knowing your weaknesses and leaving them wide open for anyone to abuse at any time. If you value your friends it is advantageous for you to train their skills, too, so that those around you admire you, and those who are not your friends admire you, and those who are your enemies fear you.”
Reflecting on areas where you know you fail, perhaps writing them down, can give you more conscious awareness of them and help you manipulate situations to facilitate usage of your stronger/healthier points.
There are many differing areas that you need to know yourself. Confidence or intelligence in one area of life does not imply the same in another. For example being good at a martial art does not automatically make you a good fighter. Being good at debating in text is not the same as having the confidence and cool to do it in person. To some extent, letting confidence in one area trick you into thinking you're good at other areas is a real risk of success if you don't know yourself well enough. It is worth specifically testing yourself in different circumstances to see how you behave: all of us have funny quirks of character and it's better that we face them and admit them than ignore them and allow them to surface unexpectedly!
This element of self-reflection is related to the cognitive thinking error that social scientists, psychologists and critical thinkers call confirmation bias:
“We all tend to be uncritical of data that support our beliefs and very critical of unsupportive data. These tendencies are known as confirmation bias and they are pervasive, despite being well known and well understood. We recognize bias in others much more easily than in ourselves.”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!"
Robert Todd Carroll (2011)17
The acceptance of personal criticism is an essential part of self development. The best reaction to criticism is first to declare that it is true, and only later, to think of ways in which it might not be true. Spend time thinking about the negative things people say about you. Some of us do this incessantly, others do it reluctantly, and some do it not at all. It is of course that last group that need this advice most. Confidence is of no use if you cannot accept criticism. If you become impervious to the insults of others, whether they're nice people or not, then you can become lost, travelling long down a path to ridicule and failure. What normally propels people down this route is stupidity, the glow of success in an avenue of life, a failure of self-understanding but most of all, a failure of empathy when it comes to considering your own position with to regards to other people. Accepting criticism can be an essential part of getting to know yourself and your own weaknesses. You can't possibly improve yourself if you don't even know your weaknesses!
“If we want to change ourselves in some important way, it's best not to wait for insight or inspiration. Sometimes we need to act - begin writing that paper, to make those phone calls, to see that person - even if we don't feel like acting. Jacques Barzum (1975) recognized the energizing power of action when he advised aspiring writers to engage in the act of writing even if contemplation had left them feeling uncertain [...]: "If you are too modest about yourself or too plain indifferent about the possible reader and yet are required to write, then you have to pretend. Make believe that you want to bring somebody around to your opinion; in other words, adopt a thesis and start expounding it... with a slight effort of the kind at the start - a challenge to utterance - you will find your pretence disappearing and a real concern creeping in." (pp 173-174).”
Many people become more confident as they get older. Some go the other way. Confidence in itself is no panacea - without humility and wisdom, it is merely arrogance. The naturally confident need to learn to humble and humour themselves, and, all round, everyone needs to learn where it is appropriate to be confidence and egotistical, and where it is best to be submissive or unsure. Misplaced confidence is as damaging as habitual shyness.
The main step for those who lack confidence is to fake it. This means you pretend to be confident, or do some things in a confident manner. People learn to be confident in certain situations: Faking confidence means eventually you can snap into a confident mode in order to deal with situations.
Not long after being able to fake confidence you will find that there is no difference between faking it and having it. Once you know and feel the strength that comes from this you will have attained two important characteristics of any above-average person: Confidence and a lack of impractical self-consciousness. Combine this with the development of personal skills or an expertise of knowledge in selected areas, and you can make yourself a useful person. Being valued is itself a boost to confidence. For some people, it all starts with faking it. It is often a long and slow road, but, spending time researching self-improvement methods (without falling for useless and time-wasting fads), can help you along the route to wholeness.
The self-help industry of books include a great many of seemingly churned-out manuals, all of them with very optimistic and positive titles, but which have a serious reputation problem: they are considered to be some of the cheapest, most worthless, idiotic, nonsensical and least sincere of all published books. They aim at the desperate and the gullible and those who lack any critical thinking faculties (i.e., those who don't know any better). Fads and trends come and go every ten years, which is itself a testimony to their spurious nature. By the start of the last decade a trend saw self-help volumes phrase it all in terms of "emotional intelligence" - Professor of Sociology Frank Furedi writes that "texts on emotional intelligence and emotional literacy tend to be lightweight both theoretically and empirically. Most offer little more than homespun assertions in the language of psychobabble"19. An article in Philosophy Now by Philip Cafaro in 2004 summarizes all of these problems20, but, takes a different tact and the author examines 5 of the most popular and long-lasting self-help books from the 1970s onwards, and lists the 'cardinal virtues' that are promoted in each. These are:
Self-love, self-knowledge, adventurousness, rationality, selfishness, acceptance (of others and self), ability to love, discipline, sense of responsibility, courage, wisdom, imagination, reverence.
And a range of other traits are promoted:
Most of these are pop-culture virtues centered more on feel-good words than on good personal practices, although it wouldn't be right to dismiss any of above items. It would be a much better start on the road to self-improvement to read scientifically based books on social and cognitive psychology, such as "How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life" by Thomas Gilovich (1991), "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman (2011) and "Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!" by Robert Todd Carroll (2011) (and many others, listed on "Errors in Thinking: Cognitive Errors, Wishful Thinking and Sacred Truths" by Vexen Crabtree (2008). Also, some key philosophical novels such as "The Outsider" by Colin Wilson (1956) and, if you stick with it, books such as "Ethics" by Aristotle (350BCE) and "Utilitarianism" by John Stuart Mill (1879). It is not possible to read any of those books without learning the principles on which all self-improvement is based. But because they're not adorned with bright coloured covers and not plastered with happy-sounding, positive and business-oriented titles, they are not often found in the windowsills of common bookstores. The books just listed are not trying to be short cuts to improvement, which is why they are so much more effective in teaching people how to improve themselves, but it is also why they are not particularly widely read.
These programs come and go - the cause of their success is that when people are down or low, they will try anything. But as, in general, most people get better, and they try these schemes at a low point, it always seems that adopting a crazy fad does actually lead to improvement. This is an illusion, and a result of what mathematicians call "statistical regression". Skeptics and scientists who have researched these fads have found almost unanimously that they don't actually work, and, they certainly don't work for the reasons they say they work and in addition, some of them actually hinder self-development. There are no shortcuts, people.
Practice improves specific skills, not general abilities.About the only uncontested effect of cognitive training is that training in a specific area improves performance in that area but does not transfer to other cognitive tasks. Even learning to memorize long lists of numbers doesn't help one learn to memorize long lists of letters. [...] The authors found similar exaggeration behind Nintendo's overly hyped Brain Age software [and there is no point doing] Sudoku, unless your goal is to get better at doing Sudoku. [...] Practice improves specific skills, not general abilities. [...] Most of the folks claiming to have the key to unleashing your inner brain so that you can reach your mythical true potential are trying to sell you an illusion. Chabris and Simons call it the illusion of potential. Steve Salerno wrote a whole book about the sellers of this illusion, the movers and shakers in the human potential movement. He called it Sham. The stars of this movement include Richard Bandler, Werner Erhard, John Grinder, L. Ron Hubbard, and Tony Robbins. The programs go by many names. A few of the more popular are: est, Landmark Forum, neuro-linguistic programming, Tony Robbins seminars, Impact Training, MJB Seminars, Silva Mind Control, the Demartini Method, The Work (Bryon Katie), PSI Seminars, Mind Dynamics (the daddy of them all), Lifespring, Hoffman Quadrinity, and Complete Centering.”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!"
Robert Todd Carroll (2011)21
Is there any good news? Is there anything you can do to improve your mental powers? It turns out that yes there is, but, it is about as far from a fancy fad as you can get:
“...there are some exercises you can do to strengthen your brainpower. [...] If you were thinking of Brain Gym, think again. It won't help, nor will knowing your brain type. Neither will listening to Mozart or taking Procera AVH. Nor will using subliminal tapes or hypnosis. Your self-help guru won't provide you with much more than the illusion of control. The scientific evidence shows that about the only thing that consistently leads to improved brain function is physical exercise. [...] if you're leading an unhealthy life most of the time, even daily workouts at the gym won't help you much.”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!"
Robert Todd Carroll (2011)21
Human taste buds and our sense of smell are responsible for a portion of how we feel about food. We have instincts that tell us to avoid certain foods such as mouldy food, off milk and unusually coloured food. Our instincts also tell us to favour salty and sugary foods, because in our evolutionary history those ingredients were short in supply, hence, we evolved instincts to seek them out when we could. We must learn to override our instincts: we know what food is good for us, as educated adults, and it is now our choice as to what habits to choose to reject or indulge in. No longer are we tied to animal instincts, and in todays' world where sugar and salt are prevalent, our instincts must be actively resisted. This includes re-teaching ourselves to eat healthy food (sprouts! plain water! fruit and veg!), whether or not we "like" it. When it comes to normal foods, tolerance is the key to a better and less stressy life.
Most taste-opinions on food are a result of learning. We are intelligent mammals, capable of a much greater understanding of food and nutrition than any animal. Yet our capacity for learning often works against us: Western culture is infused with images of pop-culture celebrities on TV whinging and whining over food, displaying a horrible pickiness and self-centered fussiness which is a disgrace to humanity as many of us around the world go hungry. It is these species maladjustments that hold us back; irrationality is an edifice I like to sometimes chip away at, occasionally even on trivial fronts such as this one.
It's not just the over-pampered that display such behaviour - parents are teaching their kids the same things. Children have no right, and no excuse, to refuse ordinary food on account of not liking it. In fact, during meals I very frequently make a point of saying, "I don't really like this, but I know it is good food and I'm going to eat it anyway, so I grow up big and strong!". And many other similar lines. My gorgeous little boy eats almost anything. All it takes is good leadership, and he is already a better eater than quite a few adults I know!
It all comes down to self-reflection and self-training. I have had foods that I haven't liked, and I have weaned myself onto them, in small steps. Start by admitting that your dislike is irrational. Then, eat small quantities of the food in question, say, tomatoes. Mix it in with something you do like. Even if this is just once a week, it will only take a few attempts before you can eat ordinary portions without pulling funny faces, even if you still don't like it. With practice, your dislike simply and slowly evaporates, leaving only a vague memory. We can do this because we are intelligent adults: we know which foods are edible, and good. There is no such thing as "my stomach doesn't agree with it" - we all have the same enzymes and acids down there, and we can all metabolize the same foods, with a few well-known race exceptions. Such "gut reactions" are learnt, and they are under the control of our minds. We do have instincts that tell us to avoid certain food; mouldy food, off milk, etc, and obviously we have to adhere to those but in general when it comes to normal food, food tolerance is the key to a better and less stressy life. The default and ordinary state for 99% of all of us is that we can eat all foods with no problem. Yet it seems that most of the adult world in the West, spoilt for choice and ignorantly picky, think that they're in the 1%. Entire nations are being led astray by a cultural tolerance of intolerance. Our forefathers, who survived rationing, and the poverty-stricken around the world, and those of us who know better, are increasingly appalled at the attitude of the average Western person towards food. Perhaps, what we need, aside from self-development websites, is a clutch of high-profile good eaters, as opposed the celebrity chefs (and their love of salt, sweet and saucy foods) and cultural fussiness that we've become accustomed to.
Bath Anderson is one of the small percentage of people born with twice as many taste buds as normal. She is incredibly sensitive to the slightest tastes, and her employer who pays her as a food taster. She has insured her tongue for £1 million pounds as a result of its accuracy. She can tell apart foods that most other people cannot. She says that she used to dread recipes that contained peas because she disliked them so much. But, with the practical necessity of eating them, she says "I have discovered that if you try something enough, you can train yourself to enjoy it. This gives hope to parents of fussy children. [...] Keep serving them broccoli and eventually they'll learn to love it. I'm living proof". I must also add that hopefully this inspires fussy parents too! If the world's most sensitive tasters can take a deep breath and overcome their dislikes, then anyone can.22
Another example: extensive studies have been done on things like chocolate and wine; well over half of our appreciation of the differences between expensive foods in respected packaging, is purely psychological. In blind trials where you don't know what you're drinking, the cheap wines are rated the best. But with their packaging on the bottles, the cheap wines become voted worst, purely due to psychological effects of the packaging and expectation, not due to actual taste. This same psychology - over 50% of taste and enjoyment - causes our 'dislikes' of foods. These effects are malleable to our wills, if only we find cause to try to improve ourselves.
To gain control over your life, to increase your options and to give you more enjoyment of food in unpredictable occasions (both social and incidental), to improve your health, to practice methods of self-empowerment, and to improve the hold of rationality over irrationality, responsible adults must declare to themselves that they are no longer putting up with nonsense about not eating stuff on account of "not liking" it. It's time to grow up, to take control, to make yourself more practical, less self-involved, and make yourself a more reasonable mammal. The battle has to start somewhere!
Acupuncture and other methods of pain relief can sometimes appear to work, however, extensive studies have proven them to be the result of the placebo effect. In other words: the procedure itself doesn't work, but a kind of internal psychology is the cause of the relief. The most effective, self-reliant and hopeful method is to learn to control pain mentally without the use of deceiving external frameworks. Much research has found that your mental states effect your experience of pain. Scientists at Stanford University trained volunteers to control pain using mental exercises, and published their positive results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. "Dr Sean Mackey, who led the research, said the study's findings offered great hope for people who suffer chronic pain" and Dr Beverley Collett, president of the British Pain Society, said: "In some ways, this supports some of what we are already doing in pain treatment, using cognitive therapy to change how people think about their pain"23. Researchers at the Wake Forest University in the USA found that positive thinking is as powerful as a shot of morphine. Their results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Dr Coghill explained: "Pain is not solely the result of signals coming from an injured body region. Pain needs to be treated with more than just pills. The brain can powerfully shape pain, and we need to exploit its power." He said the findings underscored the potential of cognitive therapy for the treatment of pain.
Dr Ed Keogh, a psychologist and pain researcher from the University of Bath, said: "For some time now we have known that psychological factors such as expectations play a role in the perception and experience of pain.
Dr Beverly Collette, president of the British Pain Society, said: "Most people who work in pain clinics use cognitive therapy to help people manage their pain better."”
BBC News (2005)24
The psychologists London and Engstrom in a 1982 article in American Health point out a popular procedure for pain management when they highlight the role of mental relaxation. By imagining yourself in a warm pool listening to music whenever you feel pain you can condition your body to disassociate the pain from your emotions (as you would do during hypnosis, too)25. All the above research confirms one well-known fact of psychology: That depressed, stressed and unhappy people feel pain more acutely and more frequently. The trick is to understand the placebo effect and learn to intentionally control your own mental states, and the key to that is a little bit of instruction in meditation, a little bit of awareness of the possibilities, but above all: practice!
Something most of the above points have in common is that they nearly all start off with self-questioning, self-questing and self-doubting. Development relies on these qualities. Stubbornness limits them. You cannot be stubborn if you are in the habit of questioning everything, including yourself and your own motives. Your own actions, assumptions and character traits should be examined all the time. You should always be on the lookout for strange or illogical character traits and then challenge them. To be happy you need to embrace doubt, accept life as it is and accept yourself and face your weaknesses.
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(2012) Women and Heart Disease. Leaflet. Published by the British Heart Foundation, London, UK. There is no year of publication stated in the booklet, but its copyright notice states 2012.
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Peters, Michael Dr
(2011) Family Doctor Home Advisor. Hardback book. 4th edition. Published by Dorling Kindersley Limited, London, UK. Published for the British Medical Association.
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(1998) Our Healthier Nation: A Contract for Health. Government consultation paper presented to Parliament (CM3852).
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