Why Improving Yourself Isn't Always Easy
Why we have difficulty improving ourselves with self-improvement apps.
Posted Aug 15, 2018
A few years ago, I sat on stiff hotel sheets at a conference. During a much-needed break, I flipped back the lid of my laptop to check my social media. The first post was a picture of a high school acquaintance of mine. “R.I.P.,” someone had written: He had overdosed. I was aware that this social media app has a tool that lets you message friends and send them mental health resources if you see a post that seems worrisome. Now, as I reflected on the death of this acquaintance of mine, and the many posts he’d made that should have been warning signs, I wondered: Did this actually work? I would later ask myself: Do any of the new self-improvement apps actually work? The short answer is: We don’t really know.
When Software Ate Self-Improvement
Given the epidemic of unhappiness—for example, depression, anxiety, and addiction are all on the rise—we are in desperate need of good, scalable self-improvement tools (my favorite so far is this well-being survey that sends you a free report on how you're doing) to help us learn the skills that lead to happiness.
As a result of this need, more and more businesses are creating self-improvement apps. I used to believe that these apps were the solution to all of society's mental-health problems, but the longer I work at the intersection of happiness and technology, the more I wonder if technology is really helping us improve ourselves. And there are a couple of big reasons why.
1. Self-Improvement Apps Aren’t Built by Experts
Those of us who study self-improvement tend to be a bit on the nerdy side—we only occasionally venture outside the research lab into business or technology fields. As a result, self-improvement apps are rarely built by the people who actually have expertise on happiness, well-being, or mental-health. Instead, these apps—or wristbands, brainwave sensing headbands, and other technologies—are built by engineers, business people, or whoever else can get the money to build the technology, because it certainly ain’t cheap.
Why is this a problem? It’s a problem because humans often “don’t know what they don’t know”. This phenomenon of thinking we understand something when we don’t, also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, is terrifyingly common in the field of self-improvement. Most people don’t think they can fix a car, or mend a broken arm, or a cure a physical ailment, but a surprisingly large number of people think that they can fix unhappiness, even if they’ve never formally studied self-improvement in their lives.
Why do people think they can help you improve your happiness? It’s because the Dunning-Kruger effect is amplified when people know just a little bit about a topic—when they know more than nothing but are not experts. And these days, everyone knows a little bit about happiness. Because they know something about it, they mistakenly believe they know everything about it. So they try to help others improve themselves and end up doing a lot of damage along the way.
This problem is akin to having doctors who have never actually worked with a patient or mechanics who have never actually fixed a car. And the results are as you would expect. Best case scenario: you buy a self-improvement app and you don't improve. But worst case scenario: you buy a self-improvement app and end up feeling worse. And this outcome may be more likely than you think.
2. Self-Improvement Apps Are Based on Intuition
Adding to the Dunning-Kruger effect is the natural human tendency for people to believe we should "trust our gut," "go with our instinct," or "follow our heart." We hear people say these things all the time. But should we actually do it when it comes to self-improvement? All arrows point to No.
It turns out that we are notoriously bad at guessing what will make us happy. Because people don’t know what leads to happiness, self-improvement apps often promote happiness in ways that are counterproductive. For example, a lot of self-improvement apps heighten our self-focus by having us reflect on ourselves. Unfortunately, happiness derived from self-focused activities seems to be temporary, whereas happiness derived from focusing on others is more long-lasting.
Even more importantly, if you’re spending all this time alone on the app, your attempts to increase happiness are actually taking your away from your social life—potentially harming your happiness rather than helping it. Because most self-improvement apps require you to be alone with your phone (My Resilience and Well-Being Course coming soon to Brightsity.com is an exception), I question whether they can ever really be good for your happiness.
3. Self-Improvement Apps Don’t Focus on Your Unique Needs
Another problem with most self-improvement apps is the relentless marketing that tells you: If you do this one thing – mindfulness, gratitude, or whatever – you will be happier. And if you don't? Then you wont be happy.
This approach fails to take into consideration that if we use a self-improvement app for the sole purpose of increasing happiness or achieving some other outcome and not because we actually enjoy mindfulness, gratitude, or whatever, then it likely wont actually work for us. It’s super important that you discover and choose self-improvement activities you actually enjoy and want to do, and not focus on the expected outcomes.
It is only when you find activities that you like that self-improvement will start to come more easily. Yet, the majority of self-improvement apps do nothing to help you identify which activities are more intrinsically valuable to you and therefore effective for you. So you do the activities that you’re told to do, possibly feel annoyed when you do them, and end up no better off than when you started.
To make this situation even worse, some self-improvement apps take you in the complete wrong direction without even realizing it. How? By asking you to reflect on your experiences too much—for example by tracking your emotions, experiences, or thoughts. It turns out that the more we think about the reasons why we do the things we do, the less enjoyable these experiences can become.
At best, tracking our experiences just interrupts our ability to be present in the moment, fragmenting our attention and dampening positive emotions. For those of us who might be a bit more neurotic—uh hem, now I'm speaking from personal experience here—tracking experiences sends us into a full on downward spiral—Why am I not happy? It must be because there is something wrong with me. I’ll never be happy, and so on.
4. Self-Improvement Apps Capitalize on Trends
Yet another problem with self-improvement apps that I want you to be aware of is how they capitalize on trends. Unfortunately, the most trendy ways to improve ourselves are rarely the most effective. For example, these days mindfulness is probably the most popular self-improvement strategy. Is it the most effective? Evidence would suggest that it is far from it.
Don’t get me wrong; mindfulness has many benefits. But it turns out that when compared to other self-improvement strategies, mindfulness doesn’t work as well (or quickly) as other techniques. Focusing your attention on learning mindfulness can even harm your happiness in the long run because you could have been using that same time to build other more effective self-improvement strategies.
5. Self-Improvement Apps Are Rarely Tested
If we were testing the effectiveness of self-improvement apps, we’d have already identified many of the problems with these apps and hopefully already started working on solutions. But unfortunately, self-improvement apps are rarely tested.
“I don’t care,” one person told me when I suggested he test his program. This was not the first time, nor will it be the last time, that I will hear this retort. Among the many self-improvement-focused businesses that I’ve spoken to, most don’t have any intention of testing their apps, programs, courses, etc., to see if they actually work (but some do). Of course, I understand the reluctance to test these apps. It’s challenging, it’s time consuming, and the results may be discouraging. But it is important nevertheless.
If I were about to take a drug to cure a disease, I would want to know if it worked. If I were buying a car, I would want to see that testing showed it to be safe. And if I were choosing a school for my children, I would want to see evidence that children succeed there. We generally want to know whether the products we buy work, but for some reason we aren’t demanding this of our self-improvement apps. Until we do, the self-improvement apps on the market will continue to be sub-par.
Uncovering the Secrets of Self-Improvement Apps
Because the creators of most self-improvement apps don’t know the science of happiness, well-being, or mental-health, the best they can do is “treat the symptoms”. They tell you some combination of: eat healthy, exercise, mediate, spend time with friends, be more resilient, get outside, be productive, and oh ya, do all this while doing everything else you have to do just to survive. Is it just me or is being happy is starting to feel totally impossible?
"I have to do all that to be happy!? Well then I’m screwed," we might think.
It’s not that any of this advice is wrong, exactly. It’s just some random person’s guess about what might help you improve your life. And it’s a throw-everything-at-it-including-the-kitchen-sink approach. But it’s worse that that, because you’ve been told ad nauseam that you have the power to improve yourself and your life. And you blame yourself when you can't. I hope you see now that if you’ve failed at self-improvement in the past, it’s not your fault, and there are ways that you really can change your life.
To learn more about how to build happiness in the digital age, visit berkeleywellbeing.com.
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