Once a West Coast phenomenon, self-improvement is big. Advocates of self-improvement strategies with journals, ice-baths, cold showers, and meditation have millions of followers. And it's a huge business too: the global personal development industry is estimated at $44 billion last year. But recent evidence indicates self-improvement can be a risk to our health. Studies show self-criticism contributes to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. This can even turn fatal: 56% of those who committed suicide exhibited a 'perceived external pressure to be perfect'. It is not even clear that self-improvement is really possible, after all who is the self carrying out the improvement?  

Should we conclude that the self-optimisation industry is peddling an illusion? Is a focus on pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps not only misguided but a means to squeeze joy out of our lives? Or is self-improvement a way to provide meaning and direction and find a profoundly better way of living?

Guardian columnist Jessica DeFino, Cambridge  film and literature critic James Riley, and professor of philosophy Nancy Sherman, ask if self-optimisation is achievable.

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