Fear and Self Loathing

If the grass is perpetually greener on the other side, maybe it’s time to build a fence and shield gloating neighbours from view, argues Aimee-Lee Abraham in ‘Fear and Self Loathing’. 

New Year's Resolutions

We used to lurk nervously in the self-help section, wary of the stigma housed in its pages, fearful of contagion. We would lie through our teeth to cashiers, improvising tales of the poor uncle who needed a little help in the dating department, hence the caring birthday purchase of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. We blabbed needlessly about our friend’s body issues, enquiring about hypnosis and paleo and south beach, in search of the best solution so that her money (conveniently placed in your hands) wasn’t wasted on yet another fad.

That’s assuming we had the balls to venture into the self-help section in the first place, into the territory of the decaying and the desperate where those with pride daren’t tread. Especially judged are those not yet balding or menopausal but in need of self-help anyway. Of all demographics, students are the least likely to be catered for by the self-help industry. Students are in their prime, supposedly too young to have made enough mistakes to warrant a need to rectify anything.

The embarrassing nature of self-help means that the anonymity of Amazon is sought and coveted while shop shelving gathers dust. Having the solution to your problems delivered to your door in plain packaging is so much better than fumbling for change, red cheeked and apologetic.

Arguably, it’s more socially acceptable to walk down the street clutching a sex toy than it is to read anything in public with ‘self’ or ‘help’ in the title. Such material is to be reserved for lonesome nights.  It is best kept beneath beds, hidden in trustful nooks and crannies, shielded from view but easy to retrieve when sadness strikes. Ownership is a declaration that someone is truly losing their shit, descending into a pit of failure where the only hope remaining is the slippery grip of a smiling salesman attributed dubious doctor status from the university of life. He offers a helpful hand to pull you out of your own mess in exchange for blind faith and hard-earned cash.

Despite these negative preconceptions, it appears that things are changing, at least online. Self-help is so trendy it’s trending.  In virtual conversations and real life one’s, too.

The 100 Happy Days Challenge is a prime example of the previously private sphere of self-improvement gone viral. Its premise is this: participants capture something that made them happy that day, every day, for 100 days. The moment is shared with the world via a photograph posted to their preferred social media outlet and hashtagged to create a collective scrapbook of positivity that can be easily accessed and explored. The catalyst behind the cause is an admirable one, with creators citing the well-established correlation between the ever-increasing pace of modern life and worsening mental health epidemics in the western world as the inspiration. Being present in the moment and appreciating the human experience itself is said to be ‘the base for the bridge to long term happiness of any human being’. The challenge forces people to actively appreciate life through their obligation to document their day in a positive light. It asks those involved if they can ‘manage’ to be happy for 100 days straight. Doing so is an apparent challenge considering the 71% drop-out rate, with ‘lack of time’ presented as the main reason people threw in the towel long before the 100 days were up.

It’s no coincidence that the project has seen publicity and participation rise dramatically throughout January. As far as seasonal pressure is concerned, January is the indisputable King of societal expectation, followed closely by February and its connections with Cupid. There is a reason why self-help, scoffed at for eleven months of the year, is temporarily accepted post-Christmas. As soon as the N.Y.E hangover haze has drifted into the distance, we crave change. We look at ourselves in the mirror and see internal and external flaws carved into flesh. Inspired by the birth of the baby lamb, in awe of leaves and light re-appearing, we emerge from comas of wintry discontent and soar forwards into spring. Until we hit a wall.

We tell ourselves with unsupported conviction that this year will be our year. At last we are going to take control. Our bodies become temples, our minds sponges and our hearts healed. These goals are facilitated by an array of apps and websites and recordings designed to keep motivation high. Our smartphones and laptops transform before our eyes into strict but caring maternal figures, reminding us regularly to eat our greens and brush our teeth.  Just as we once cringed when lying to our parents or being scalded for naughty behavior, we develop a loyalty to these apps and feel remorse when we do not meet their demands. Trust me when I say that there is something bitterly disappointing about having to reset your ‘days since’ app back to the start just because the exam period led you to consume your body weight in chocolate milk. However fantastic and nostalgic, the slip was still a cardinal sin that violated the ‘clean diet’ my 2014 self promised to follow religiously. Otherwise angelic behavior maintained is meaningless once you get sucked into the vortex of self-improvement. Any violation of the rules feels polluting and unfixable. Normally, such black and white thinking would be deemed worryingly disordered. At certain times of the year, though, it’s expected and encouraged. This is why resolutions fail in 78% of cases, according to leading psychologists.

Seasonal pressures breed all-or-nothing mentalities, desperate to keep up with the moulding and morphing of our peers into better people, we make commitments that just cannot be realistically sustained. Seasonal pressures also cause us to take on more than we can manage. Instead of gradually reaching individual goals, we try to magically conquer them all simultaneously.

What make us truly happy? Typical 100 Happy Days snapshots are as diverse and as the people participating. Feet are frequently featured. Feet bathing in bubbles, toes entwined with those belonging to a lover, feet walking alongside a beloved canine’s paws, dancing shoes, flashbacks to muddy festival feet, toddlers on tip toes, clean socks gratefully received after a stressful blister-ridden limp of a day. The list goes on. The humble cup of coffee can be viewed through a kaleidoscope of Instagram filters, slurped and sipped from a vast array of crockery and clutched by hands of all shapes and sizes.  Escapism through literature, music and film act as survival aids. The simple pleasures are the most documented, and the apparent greatest bearers of joy. This is nice to see. Britain is mocked for its unusually high population of miserable moaners and its airborne cynicism so a dose of positivity cannot be a bad thing, right? Surely indulging in a bit of cheerfulness won’t reduce us to saccharin sops?

Generally speaking, happiness encouraged and shared is a wonderful thing. In a world plagued by war and poverty and suffering, genuine snapshots of happiness provide a much-needed breath of fresh air. Even if that happiness is derived from the menial or material.

While the sentiment should be applauded, there are problems with the concept of 100 Happy Days. It provides an ideal platform for the army of Facebook narcissists to do their very worst. Under the protective positivity umbrella, people are free to brag and boast to their hearts content without fear of responsive criticism. Any objection is met with accusations of bitterness or negativity, rendering the doubtful silent. We are forced to either tolerate the stream of soppy snog-shots and their accompanying nauseating paragraphs or we can remove ourselves from the situation by going cold turkey and leaving the world of social media altogether. That is arguably the only available escape route. Facebook braggers are usually just mildly irritating, inspiring an eye-roll here and there, causing no real damage. Viewed by vulnerable eyes however, Facebook bragging can fuel problems and catalyze self-destruction. None of us, regardless of our mental wellbeing, are exempt from its effects. Stephen Llardi is a psychotherapist who has run several long-term experiments in which long-term, terminal cases of depression were beaten through patient’s lifestyle changes alone. In ‘trading face time for screen time’ we are contributing to our own demise. This is not revolutionary; depression is, according to Llardi, absolutely a disease of civilization, emerging rapidly following industrialization and reaching its peak following the online revolution as people grow more and more isolated despite friendship group expansion. Competition and comparison are major contributing factors and they have more opportunity to influence us as social media usage continues to grow. In hunter-gatherer groups, we all had a unique place in the community, a job that only we could perform. Now we are constantly competing for a small number of jobs and forced to watch as others succeed when we don’t. Sat alone at night, the myth that everyone else is out having the time of their lives can perpetrate consciousness and grow into feelings of inadequacy.

100 Happy Days claims that those who failed the challenge couldn’t spare the time to be happy. Think about that for a moment. What does that say about our culture? Why is it that failure to post photos consistently indicates an inability to enjoy life? Social media is slaughtering spontaneity. Everything is documented and edited and nothing is a true representation. Beautiful moments are interrupted by a need to capture them. Valentines day, just past, should have been a mere excuse to spend time with someone you love and enjoy their company. Its commercial value dictates and distorts it into something grotesque as couples fret over the reception of their gifts and plans, confronted by endless images and whispers of peers who have truly outdone and overshadowed their efforts. Meanwhile, singletons struggle to get through the holiday alive.

How do we overcome seasonal pressures to out-do our grinning peers? We should be urged to escape the constraints and expectation of maintaining an online persona and instead encouraged to spend more time walking around in the bodies we are so very lucky to occupy. If you succeed in doing this, please tell me how.  I’m off to cry myself to sleep because Emma went to Paris with Tom. All I got was a grainy and distorted Skype date with a boyfriend who flew away to Scandinavia just before the most romantic day of the year.




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