I’ve read a lot of lifestyle fluff pieces over the years, and they’ve succeeded in one thing: making me feel guilty about almost everything.
They come up on my news feed on a daily basis. A 500-800 word piece, backed up by scientific research that I never bother to check for validity. The message is always the same. ‘You’re doing something wrong in your life. Here’s how to fix it’. Except they invariably don’t help me fix whatever’s wrong with me. In fact, I didn’t even know something was the matter with me until I read the article.
When it comes to feeling guilty, I’m perfectly capable of doing that myself. Today, I have already felt guilty about the following:
- Doing too many grind quests while playing video games
- Not hoovering the floor because I instead opted to take out the recycling
- Not properly acknowledging the workmen working in my flat’s corridor
- Calling the elevator while it was on its way down, thus slowing the other passengers’ journey
- Not writing enough
- Not reading enough
- Not standing enough
- Addressing someone by the wrong name. I feel awful, despite the fact that I’m unlikely to ever meet this person again
I don’t need help to feel guilty in my day to day life. My inner monologue has got that down to a fine art. Regardless, every time I see an article promising to help me improve my life, I click. I can’t help myself. (I feel guilty about this, too).
The issue du jour seems to be ‘mindfulness’, i.e. setting time aside to focus on nothing. It’s gained a huge amount of traction over the last 12 months, as shown by typing the word into Google Trends:
As you can see, we’re at peak mindfulness. The Guardian recently published two pieces on the subject (here and here) in the space of one day, while The Independent featured this quote from Jarvis Cocker in their Quotes of the Year 2014:
“It’s interesting that most gadgets are called ‘iPhone’ and ‘iPod,’ with that ‘i’ prefix, which is ego. But most creativity is not ego-led – a lot of it comes from the unconscious. So if you’re always checking your email or updating your Instagram profile, you’re not just looking out the window, daydreaming. You’ve got to let the subconscious in – that’s my main message to the world.”
It’s a really nice sentiment. Maybe I would benefit from not constantly pumping nonsensical lyrics into my ear, or looking at photos of cats, or watching fail videos. In reality, I already give myself lots of quiet time. But thanks to the onslaught of lifestyle articles about mindfulness, I now believe that I’m unable to tear my eyes away from a screen. I’m chained to my smartphone and I’ll never be creative again. Never.
This is how I see myself.
Here’s a thought: what would happen if these articles were effective? What if every piece of advice was absolutely indispensable and our lives were improved beyond measure? Lifestyle editors would be out of a job, for one thing. Why would people keep visiting these sites if they felt their lives were perfect?
Let me borrow a trick from the lifestyle editor’s playbook and support my arguments with some scientific studies I found on Google:
Guilt is a powerful factor in modifying behaviours, but perhaps not in the way that you’d expect. A study has shown that people are more likely to eat copious quantities of cake when they are made to feel guilty about eating lots of said cake.
[A]nticipating shame from giving in to temptation results in self-control failure due to a focus on the tempting stimulus
Also: Constantly thinking about not being on the internet might be counter intuitive. As you try and focus on avoiding the internet, you place the internet at the forefront of your mind. Another study has shown that people were more likely to be inclined toward having a cigarette after seeing a ‘no smoking’ sign.
Our model suggests that public health campaigns which explicitly discourage the consumption of unhealthy substances could in fact trigger that very consumption.
(Disclaimer: I have done absolutely no validation of these studies. I know bugger all about statistical analysis or scientific method. It goes without saying, of course, that lifestyle editors must be far more rigorous as they never give such disclaimers.)
It’s January and business is booming
Ever wonder why there are so many lifestyle pieces out there, and why often they’re offering contradictory information? I have a theory. They’re not supposed to work. You read an article and feel guilty about something. You decide to cut it out of your life. Then you spend all of your time thinking about whatever you’ve banned yourself from having/doing. In your mind, it becomes a guilty pleasure and you inevitably crumble. Now you’re miserable because you failed. Desperate to see if there are any other ways for you help you out of your mini existential crisis, you end up going back to find more lifestyle articles. The web traffic keeps coming in, as does the advertising revenue. Ad revenue makes the editor happy, which leads to them commissioning more lifestyle articles.
Maybe some of the advice works for you. If so, I’m glad you were able to find something that worked. Me? I’m going to improve my life by completely cutting out the bullshit lifestyle articles. Take my advice: do the same.