I think it was the press release for the launch of a packet of anti-anxiety stickers designed to “re-balance the energy frequency in our bodies” that finally snapped things into focus for me. “Too far,” I muttered to my reflection in the mirror before which I was standing, as I do every morning in order to try and corral the day’s worries scurrying round my mind so that I can clear the mental space needed to attend to the day’s work before me. “Too far.”
Not long after that, figures were released that showed the sales of self-help books to be soaring. And I understand it. I do. We are living in the age of anxiety and, in many ways, justifiably so. As the old saw has it – if you’re not worried, you haven’t understood the problem.
Or problems: Trump; Brexit; Trump and Brexit as symptoms of a deeper, even more intractable malaise arising from growing inequality, fractured social contracts between governments and citizens, and technology-induced alienation from and constant rage with each other; the actual roasting of the actual earth, and so on.
It is natural that we seek ways to stop ourselves sinking into despair and ways to handle our worries. But that instinct has been fed, nurtured and mutated in important, unhealthy ways by the lucrative economy that has grown up around it.
Self-help books are a perfect expression of the problem. The worst of them, which in this case happens to mean almost all of them, do not teach their readers to cope with the vicissitudes of life. They teach – implicitly if not explicitly – that we all have a right to happiness. They insinuate that life should be a smooth, unbroken path of shining contentment from cradle to grave, walked under rainbows and lined with thornless roses.
It has become normal to expect happiness and to panic when it does not materialise
And by doing so, of course, they create the perfect conditions for the perpetuation of unhappiness, because life has never, will never, can never be like this and when their paths inevitably deviate from the promised ideal, people feel a creeping sense of failure or rage (delete according to temperament) instead of responding in time-honoured and healthier fashion. Which is to say “’Kin’ ‘ell”, shrug, and trudge on.
It has become normal to expect happiness and to panic when it does not materialise. A friend who works as a school counsellor says she is spending more and more of her time reassuring the young people she sees that their fears and frettings are an absolutely standard, unavoidable fact of life, not symptoms of an embryonic disorder or mental illness.
It is failing to reach the invented standard currently being held up to them by society as achievable that is causing them the most worry.
An unachievable standard helps other parts of society, however. If self-help books were to teach genuine coping strategies they would, like diet books that worked, put themselves out of business. And the same goes for the rest of the ever-expanding anxiety economy.
It’s in nobody’s interests – not the manufacturers of soothing pillow sprays, meditation headbands (just like the Buddha used to wear), colouring books, salt lamps, weighted blankets (full disclosure – I bought one, I love it, and a stopped clock is right twice a day, ‘kay?) and of course energy-rebalancing stickers – to make something that actually solves the issue. Even my weighted blanket is just a snuggly sop. I still lie awake and fret. Mostly about whether my lungs are going to be able to inflate properly all night.
The anxiety economy preys on us – it pathologises normal dips in mood, tells us that normal responses to bad things are wrong
The wellness industry which, not coincidentally, rose in parallel with the anxiety economy, has already succeeded in dividing the world of food into “clean” comestibles (rare, organic, gluten/lactose/meat-free, needing much effort to locate and strip/juice/bruise gently/spiralise or otherwise prepare, and therefore requiring much in the way of social and financial capital) and, by implication, “dirty” (all the rest, including everything eaten without issue by most of the population throughout most of history) and separating us from our cash and our ease in the process.
But our mental health is more precious and more fragile, more easily affected by the things we put in and take out of it. The anxiety economy preys on us.
It pathologises normal dips in mood, tells us that normal responses to bad things are wrong, persuades us that uncertainty is intolerable and promises us new products that will restore our equilibrium. In promising balance for our inner worlds, they are in essence denying the human condition and setting people – especially the young – up for failure.
They, you, we must resist, resist. We’ll be happier in the long run.
This week I have been…
… at the most perverted thing that has ever been seen on the internet – a tweet from a man saying that he doesn’t have a specific side of the bed; he and his wife change at will.
Sometimes he likes to sleep near the door, sometimes the window. Whoever gets to bed first chooses, so his wife is obviously complicit in the depravity. Have you ever in your life heard of anything more unnatural?
You are an adult human, you have a side of the bed. Gender, sexuality, your favourite type of Revel – these may be fluid and evolve through time, but side of the bed?
That is fixed, immutable. It’s part of your core self. I cannot tell you how much the idea of someone not having one discombobulates me.
In a case of such extreme and surely dangerous behaviour, can we get them forcibly educated into righteous ways somewhere?’
… the new series of Fleabag and marvelling at how its writer and creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge has singlehandedly managed – through the storyline involving her anti-heroine’s attraction to a priest – to revive both the lost art of yearning and female viewers’ collective libido. For both of which, many thanks.
… the news that the destruction of a property tycoon’s £48m estate has been ordered, as it was built illegally on protected woodland. In this case, it was Chateau Diter, built on the French Riviera. I collect and hunch over these stories – the bigger and more Xanadu-like the property involved the better – like Silas Marner over his gold.
For, especially in the wake of the heartbreakingly anti-climactic Mueller report, planning laws seems to me to be the last bastion of hope. Justice cometh there occasionally at least, if not right soon.