It’s the end of January. How are those New Year’s resolutions coming along?

Maybe, in a fit of zeal, you filled your fancy new 2023 planner with an ambitious array of morning and evening routines, exercise regimens, meal plans, and cleaning schedules, all of which have long since fallen apart. Perhaps you opted instead to choose a nebulous-but-vaguely-inspiring “word of the year.” Or maybe you’re the type who disdainfully dismisses the notion that changes inspired by the flip of a calendar page can ever last.

Whatever your opinion of New Year’s resolutions, this time of year does raise some interesting questions. Can you, by sheer force of will, change your actions, habits, and—eventually—your character?

Liberal and conservative intellectuals alike often refer disdainfully to “self-help” books, whose sales generated approximately $14 billion in 2022. Their quality certainly varies, and many live up to the genre’s reputation as being formulaic or cliché. On the other hand, the popularity of such books speaks to a natural human impulse to improve ourselves. As Aristotle said, man by nature desires to know. More specifically, we want to know what is good, and we want to live it out. Most of us, however, could use some help figuring out how, exactly, we’re supposed to do that. So we turn to role models, religious traditions, and—in the modern era—self-help books. If you don’t mind a little historical anachronism, you could even think of Aristotle’s own Ethics as a sort of ancient self-help book.

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The Aristotelian conception of virtue as the result of repeated choices suggests that each of us does, in fact, have a good deal of control over the content of our characters. Most contemporary self-improvement gurus would agree with this premise. Some, however, take this too far, implying that we are each ultimately plastic, purely and entirely self-made. As we decide what habits to adopt or discard, it’s important to carefully sort through the advice on offer to see if it’s based on a sound vision of human nature and of what constitutes a good life. Thankfully, the Public Discourse archives can offer guidance here, as on so many other topics.

In this featured collection, I’ve gathered together six articles that can help you think more clearly about specific self-improvement practices, and about the psychological conception of selfhood that underlies our culture’s obsession with optimization.

Christian Detachment, Digital Minimalism, and a Rule of Life

I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for a good memoir-slash-self-help book. Lately, I’ve taken to listening to audiobooks about decluttering as I attempt to reduce the excessive number of toys my children have accumulated. (This is my favorite, if you’re into that sort of thing.)

Back in 2019, Haley Stewart penned a thoughtful essay for Public Discourse reflecting on the trend toward minimalism in a spiritual light. As she put it, “If our pursuit of simplicity is not informed by the concept of Christian charity, focusing on mere minimalism will come up short.” Rather than decluttering our homes for the sake of an improved aesthetic experience or easier cleaning, Stewart suggests that we focus on cultivating a healthy sense of detachment from our possessions, seeking to rid ourselves of inordinate attachments to physical things. This practice can help us grow in love of God and neighbor.

Minimalism doesn’t only apply to things, as the title of Cal Newport’s popular book Digital Minimalism indicates. In recent years, people of all backgrounds are realizing that they also need to reassess their use of digital technology. I’ve found books like Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family and Catherine Price’s How to Break Up with Your Phone very helpful in setting guardrails around screen time for myself and my kids. To understand why it’s essential to moderate your technology usage, I recommend Joshua Hoschild’s long-form essay “Technology and the Soul: The Spiritual Lessons of Digital Distraction.” Hoschild recommends that we channel Plato, asking ourselves “What does [the use of this technology] change in our soul? What appetites does it feed, and what does it starve? What powers does it exercise, and which does it allow to atrophy?”

First Aristotle, then Plato, and now onto another source of enduring wisdom: St. Benedict of Nursia. In her essay “Writing a Rule of Life: A Timeless Tool for Decision-Making,” Tsh Oxenreider turns to the father of Western monasticism for inspiration. She writes:

By writing down the details of what it meant to live in community, St. Benedict established both inwardly reflective and outwardly practical guidelines for daily life. His ancient text included the gamut of ideas, from why one should pray and what should be one’s motive for serving others, to when and how to serve in kitchen duty and the establishment of a shift rotation for someone to check in guests at the front door. In other words, it was both intrinsically spiritual and extrinsically pragmatic.

Oxenreider suggests crafting your own personal Rule, taking time out every ninety days for quarterly “Think Days.” This practice can help you define your particular vocation and how you ought to live it out in different seasons.

Psychological Man, Positive Psychology, and Human Flourishing

Long-time readers of Public Discourse might note that—in spite of the dependence on classical and Christian sources—there’s a certain concept of selfhood that’s taken for granted in all of the articles and books I’ve recommended. As Carl Trueman explains, today the self is understood as a “primarily psychological construction.” He goes on:

We think of ourselves in terms of our inner convictions, our feelings; we consequently interpret the purpose and meaning of our lives in line with this, seeing, for example, happiness in terms of an inner sense of psychological well-being. This is what sociologist Philip Rieff dubbed “psychological man” and what Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre call “the expressive individual.”

Reading Trueman’s explication of the triumph of the therapeutic can cast the quest for self-optimization in a new and uncomfortable light. As he observes,

The transformation of the self in western culture is not something that affects an externalized “them” as opposed to “us.” Every one of us is an expressive individualist now. So comprehensive is the revolution that we are all affected by it and all are at some level complicit.

At the heart of the psychological, expressive self is the notion that we choose our identities. And that is even true of the religious. There is a sense in which we now choose our religions as others might choose their gender or sexuality. My ancestors of six hundred years ago enjoyed no such choice. They would have been baptized, married, and buried in the same church, something they would have considered as natural and inevitable as the daily dawning of the sun.

Even if we critique its negative cultural consequences, you and I can’t avoid being shaped by the expressive individualism that defines our era. We naturally think of ourselves in psychological terms, whether or not we consciously seek out guides to self-optimization. For good or ill, our quest to craft personally meaningful and fulfilling lives is built upon the concepts Trueman describes.

In “The Gospel of Happiness,” Christopher Tollefsen reviews a book by frequent Public Discourse author Christopher Kaczor, who emphasizes the good side of this reality. Kaczor argues that Christians can learn a lot from the empirically based framework of positive psychology, and we shouldn’t be shy about doing so. As Tollefsen summarizes,

The practices of positive psychology can aid Christians in their classical practices and virtues. The struggle to pray, to be grateful, or to forgive is well-known to many. Positive psychology, with its empirical approach, can provide help in identifying the smaller “ways” by which we can make progress in a life of prayer, gratitude, or forgiveness.

Similarly, in an interview with me, Dr. Margaret Chisolm of Johns Hopkins Medical School offered a number of insights that can help integrate a psychological concept of selfhood with an Aristotelian understanding of virtue ethics. Drawing on the work of Dr. Tyler Vanderweele, a Harvard epidemiologist, she argues that “we have to have an understanding of a person, a whole understanding of a person, to be able to help them not only get over their physical health problems, but to sustain their well-being and actually flourish.” Such flourishing is not purely internal and subjective. Rather, by looking at the domains of family, work, education, and community, it recognizes the reality that our “selves” are not constituted in isolation.

Whether we seek guidance in self-help or psychiatry, it’s wise to evaluate all self-improvement practices in this light. Does this new habit, routine, or treatment help you to serve your family and community? Does it make room for commitments outside of yourself, including transcendent ones? Does it acknowledge the limits of human perfectibility and perhaps even encourage humility? If so, then it may be worth integrating into your life.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a playroom to declutter.