There’s a scene in the 2017 movie “Lady Bird” that’s been on my mind, lately. In it, a mom (played by Laurie Metcalfe) and her high-school-senior daughter (Saoirse Ronan) are finally on good enough terms to go shopping for the daughter’s prom dress, when Mom says to the daughter, “I just want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.”
Her daughter responds, “What if this is the best version?”
This scene came back to me as I read about Dr. Svend Brinkmann, a professor of Psychology at Aalborg University, in Denmark. He has doubts about the benefits of “being one’s best self.”
Historically, Denmark has been considered a very happy place. In U.N. surveys of national happiness, Denmark comes in repeatedly at the top of the list — despite dreary weather and a long dark winter. By way of comparison, in 2016 the United States came in at no. 19. This, in spite of the fact that we have the “Pursuit of Happiness” actually written as a goal into our founding documents!
But Dr. Brinkmann is concerned because lately, there is a small but growing problem of stress and depression in Denmark, especially among young people. He thinks the Danes are becoming more like us…and their happiness scores are sinking, accordingly.
What are we all doing wrong?
According to Brinkmann, the culprit is the current fashion for something that is pretty much America’s actual pastime: self-improvement!
He even wrote a book bemoaning this trend — “Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze” —and it became a run-away hit in Denmark.
Rather than striving to be ever happier, Brinkmann thinks we should all do the reverse. In fact, he believes that the age-old secret to Danish happiness is simply that they used to aim for something far more attainable: namely, just getting by. That way, whenever things turned out better than “just okay,” they were happy!
It reminds me of my father’s approach to life. He was always telling us, “Hope for the best, but expect the worst, and you’ll never be unpleasantly surprised.”
The trouble is, it turns out that, even expecting the worst, there is still plenty of room for unpleasant surprises: Weevils in the breakfast cereal. Dog poop on the lawn (and you don’t own a dog). People at the movie theater selling you the “Senior Citizens” ticket when you never asked for one.
Fortunately, Brinkmann has a prescription for how we can all get our “groove” back. It’s deceptively simple: Just stop trying to improve yourself! Maybe you’re actually good enough, just the way you are.
It’s a brain buster: What would happen If we Americans decided to accept our flabby, mediocre, underwhelming selves just as we are? Our entire economy might grind to a halt! Who would buy diet supplements? Or gym memberships? And who in the world would do Yoga???
Surely Gwyneth Paltrow’s website GOOP would come crashing down if suddenly no one felt the need to “cleanse” their inside, expand their mind, or — according to rumor — steam their vagina! Where might we all end up if we decided to live a little less mindfully, rather than more?
Might we actually be happier?
If this is even remotely possible, I feel duty-bound to give it a try.
Shall I sign up for a course in Excel? Why bother? Instead, I could just continue accidentally blowing away entire sections of my spreadsheet when all I meant to do was Cut and Paste a subtotal.
Should I diet? Of course not! Which makes a lot of sense, because whenever I try, I get so ravenous, thinking all day about everything I can no longer eat, that I inevitably put on a few pounds instead. Better not to try at all.
As for not attempting to save money — Oops, maybe I went a little too far with that.
Still — Dr. Brinkmann’s point is that if we just lower our sights — forget about self-improvement, and try to be OK with ourselves instead— paradoxically, that approach yields more happiness in the end.
Ironically, Dr. Brinkmann himself was living a “happy enough” life when he wrote this book…and it made him into a media sensation, very much in demand for public speaking.
I look forward to his next book, where he details how he managed to overcome becoming a huge success.