Greetings and welcome to Lesson 3 of my ‘Introduction to Mental Fitness’ course.
Lesson 3 – why focus on self-improvement?
If you’ve read Lesson 2, you’ll know that prior to delving specifically into Mental Fitness, I want to talk a bit about the broader topic of self-improvement.
I’ve defined self-improvement as ‘any deliberate activity you engage in with the purpose of making yourself better, coping more effectively with difficult situations, or taking better advantage of opportunities that present‘. I view building Mental Fitness as a form of self-improvement focused on psychological aspects of health and wellbeing, hence why I am talking about self-improvement first.
In Lesson 2, I focused on the ‘deliberate‘ part of the definition.
I said that if we’re lucky self-improvement tends to happen naturally as a result of putting ourselves in new situations as well as when we are doing things we love. But we can’t necessarily rely on these happening. There is a fair degree of luck and good fortune involved in both finding growth-inducing situations as well findings things we love.
Hence, what I am really interested in, is the self-improvement that we engage in deliberately – that we make a conscious decision to do.
In Lesson 2, I put forward the argument that the psychological demands on us from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep are pretty intense. It is possible to get so wrapped up in meeting those demands that you fail to engage in those activities that will actually develop you as a person, and/or make your life better. Hence you should be deliberate in the choices you make.
But what about if you are happy to go with the flow and simply react and respond to things as they happen? Where would the motivation come from to try and make yourself better?
In this lesson, and a few of the upcoming ones I want to focus on the ‘why‘ of self-improvement, namely, why would someone go to the effort of trying to improve themselves?
I want to look at this ‘why‘ question in a few different ways, because what motivates each of us can differ. Also, people can be at very different stages in terms of their desire to make improvements. Just saying that self-improvement is possible is not necessarily enough to motivate someone.
In this lesson I address motivations for self-improvement by looking at a really common situation, that is, someone considering whether or not to exercise more regularly.
Why exercise is a good example to choose
Most people I know that I can bring to mind, have at some point in time expressed a desire to ‘get more exercise’. The reasons for wanting to get more exercise vary greatly and thus are a good illustration of some of the more common motivations for self-improvement.
I want to look better
We’re social creatures. We want to be accepted and liked by others. Rightly or wrongly, we often view our physical appearance as part of what will make people like and accept us.
Our physical appearance (or perceived physical appearance) also influences how we feel about ourselves. Certain body shapes and sizes are deemed as ‘attractive’ and we want to get our own bodies as close to these ideals as possible.
Exercise (along with dietary control) is a common way to modify weight and shape.
[Note: I am not suggesting this is a good state of affairs. Basing our self-worth on our appearance can lead to disordered eating and compensatory behaviours (e.g. excessive exercise). Many of the body shapes that are ‘idealised’ in the media are both unattainable and not representative of the normal distribution of body types. Whilst, taking pride in your appearance and health are desirable behaviors, you need to be careful that your goals are realistic and health-promoting, instead of self-critical and demeaning.]
So two common motivators people have for self-improvement includes social acceptance/ attention and feeling good about ourselves.
I’m getting old
The older I’ve got, the more the physical demands of life take their toll. Staircases seem taller, hills seem steeper and chairs seem lower. To cope with the physical demands of life, I need to be more mindful of keeping my body healthy.
For many, increasing their physical activity is a result of wanting to better meet the physical demands of life. They want to be able to continue getting around in the same way, but realise they need to put in more effort to sustain a level of fitness required.
Thus one motivator for self-improvement is to be able to continue meeting the demands of everyday life.
Going a step further, some people exercise in order to increase the range of activities they can engage in. People get fit so they can climb mountains, go on long hikes, run a marathon. People seek new and interesting situations and if those situations require new skills or abilities, they acquire them. Thus people self-improve in order to participate more fully in life.
I want to prove to myself I can do it
I know a few people who have run marathons. One of the primary motivators to do so was the desire to prove to themselves that they could.
There is something intoxicating about realising potential we didn’t know we had in ourselves. For example, one of the best things about doing a PhD was not the PhD itself, but the realisation I could push myself to that level and succeed.
Sometimes we pursue self-improvement to demonstrate to ourselves that we indeed can do it – that we can push ourselves to a much higher level of performance.
I don’t want to get sick
Illnesses can run in families, because of shared genetic and environmental reasons.
It is why doctors ask you about ‘family history’ of illness during health checks. Typically, if you have a family history of an illness, you are at elevated risk of developing that illness yourself.
Exercise is one of the key recommendations that doctors give to reduce the risk of certain illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
So the motivation for some to engage in exercise is because of a desire to reduce their risk of developing an unwanted physical illness. This applies to people who are trying to reduce their risk of mental illness as well, as many lifestyle changes benefit both physical and mental health.
My team is playing in the finals
Many people get their exercise by participating in competitive sports.
They get the benefits of exercise, along with the social benefits of being part of a team or competing against others.
Teams sometimes increase their training rate/intensity when they perceive they have a good chance of reaching the finals. They can see an opportunity to ‘win’ and increase their workload to accelerate improvements.
I think the same applies to individuals. Some people are motivated by the opportunity to compete at a higher level. This isn’t just in sport. Some people want to be the best at what they do, and the pursue self-improvement in order to achieve this.
For those in team sports, I also think the connection with other people is a strong motivator. Spending time with people you like, with common interests and shared goals is rewarding.
I’ve been unwell
There are a number of illnesses that respond positively to regular exercise and thus exercise is often prescribed as a treatment or adjunct to treatment. Thus people can reduce their symptoms and suffering through regular exercise.
I’d say that the human desire to relieve suffering outweighs our desire for generic positive wellbeing. We’re much more focused on fixing what is ‘wrong’ than trying to create more ‘right’. It could be because problems are easier to define and recognise than the more subtle goals of simply getting better.
Alleviating suffering therefore is, in my view, one of the most common reasons someone would pursue self-improvement.
I just want to feel better
Although I just said that we are much more likely to focus on alleviating suffering than pursuing the more ambiguous ‘wellbeing’, I can’t deny that I’ve talked to some people who exercise simply cause ‘it makes me feel good’. And, if I am honest, my lunchtime walk around the lake is addictive simply because it leaves me feeling refreshed and motivated for the afternoon.
Often, the desire to engage in exercise is simply for the good ‘feels’.
I think this applies to self-improvement more broadly. There seems to be an innate drive in people to just want to get better, even in the absence of any of the more specific goals described above. With that improvement comes a generic positive feeling and perhaps the pursuit of ‘feeling good’ is a complete goal in itself.
Yes, your desire for self-improvement is probably a mix
If you exercise regularly, the motivation probably comes from multiple places. You might be treating an illness, but exercise also brings you social connection opportunities. Or you love the thrill of competition whilst also getting fit and expanding the range of things you can do.
This is the same for self-improvement in any aspect of our life.
As we move through this course and explore the ways you can build mental fitness, i’ll get you to regularly reflect on your underlying motivations for doing so. Being able to articulate clearly ‘why’ we are pursuing something provides a mental buffer against those periods, during self-improvement, where we might fatigue or lose focus. Because, if you’ve ever pursued a program of physical fitness, you’ll know that your motivation and commitment gets tested regularly along the way.
Coming up in the next lesson…..
In the next Lesson, we again consider the ‘why self-improve?‘ question, but from a different angle – this time from the perspective of values. Values are expressions of who we want to be as a person, and can provide a strong motivation for self-improvement.
Have you ever tried to get more exercise in your life? What things motivated you to engage in exercise? Were there any things that motivated you that aren’t included above?
Grab a notebook or start an electronic Word document. Title it “Mental Fitness Plan” and then create your first sub-heading called ‘Motivations‘. Under that heading, write down what would motivate you to build your mental fitness. What outcomes would you need to get in order to continue to motivate you to build mental fitness?