Self-love and life hacks are destroying everything around you

Before I got out of bed this morning, I scrolled through my Instagram feed – which is an endless series of pictures of women doing yoga in idyllic locations.

Today’s sage advice, “Open your heart to you” featuring a woman holding the Ustrasana pose (she looks like a capital ‘D’) under what looks like a giant loom used to weave cotton.

After my morning “me time” I make myself a superfood smoothie mostly involving kale and spinach before planning my day using the Pareto principle

I list all the ‘issues’ facing me today and how by focusing on the positive, known as the Pollyanna principle, I know I can overcome them.

I am a total embodiment of what many in technology circles call a ‘life hacker’. I am constantly looking for ways to improve my personal efficiency, my personal happiness, my personal space and well, anything else about me that could be feasibly tweaked.

I know I’m far from alone in this incredibly selfish pursuit. A crude search for “self love” turns up more than 38 million results. Everything from “10 wonderful ways to practice self-love,” and “a seven-step prescription for self love” to, “30 ways to practice self-love and be good to yourself” all lie in wait ready to help you be a better you.

Over the past 10 years, the terms “self love” and “life hack” have been searched for in ever increasing numbers as this graph from Google trends points out.

But this surge in wellness hides a far more sinister and problematic idea for those who preach and practice it. In our benign pursuit of self-improvement we are ignoring problems both big and small that are threatening to destroy the very systems (and people) we have come to rely on.

By turning in on ourselves we’re ignoring everything around us – and before you say it, clicking and sharing things on social media is not engaging with the wider world. It’s merely a skewed form of self-grooming in which an already captive audience applaud your ability to show them things they approve of.

Self love and life hacking has become an ideology of the West that we’re all sleepwalking into. But first, a history lesson.

The opportunity to study with a true teacher is a blessing in life. A guru is a dispeller of darkness, a light in the world. Every single person who has experienced the transformational power of practicing yoga according to the sacred method is forever changed. The yoga tradition is just that, a tradition, built upon a transmission of knowledge that is imparted to the student through direct contact, study and ultimately surrender. Only by first becoming a student and submitting yourself to the rigors of study, only by giving yourself over to the fire of purification, only by showing up with devotion, reverence and respect will you be steeped in this ancient tradition. No amount of reading or thinking can prepare you for the life changing impact a true teacher can have on you. Everything changes. The direction of your life shifts, for the better, but you may have to be willing to give everything up, to surrender, to submit, to learn, to yearn for a teacher. The simple yearning for a teacher is perhaps the beginning of a true spiritual practice because it is the humble heart that says, I simply cannot do this on my own, will you help me please? 🙏 . It is to honor the tradition of Ashtanga Yoga as a lineage-based practice build around the concept of Parampara that we founded the #journeytoindia scholarship with @yogisheart 💗 I am so excited to announce that thanks to your generous donations we raised enough money to send two aspiring Ashtanga Yoga practitioners to study at the K.Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute with our teacher R. Sharath Jois in Mysore, India. 🙏 . Congrats to Paloma Tamayo of GUADALAJARA Mexico AND Indigo Monae of Evanston IL USA 🌟 . You can still donate to the Journey to India scholarship fund–Link is my bio 🌟 . Thank you for making this dream come true!!! It’s all because of you that we are able make a difference and support the yogi’s journey. 🙏 . #practiceyogachangeyourworld #onebreathatatime

A photo posted by Kino MacGregor (@kinoyoga) on

Negative liberty

There are two types of liberty, according to philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Positive liberty involves citizens actively deciding who governs their society and how much power they should have.

Underpinning that premise, argued Berlin was that in order for people to be free, they had to be transformed. They had to become better, rational beings, and only the leaders knew how that could be created.

This lead to a terrible logic in all revolutions and was seen in the great purges of the Soviet Union, Pol Pot in Cambodia and the adductions and forced labor camps in North Korea. To free the people, they had to be forced into a new way of thinking.

Negative liberty on the other hand, is a society in which individuals are free to pursue what they want and nothing more. There should be government and laws to hold people in balance, but other than that people were free. It was a society with no ideals. It was a society in which people were free to indulge themselves.

This was a similar vision to what economists called Game Theory a mathmatical model based around poker in which all players are trying to maximise their outcomes at the expense of everyone else. Berlin said this kind of society was the only safe alternative to the horrors of positive liberty.

Berlin’s work was circulated widely – Tony Blair was a life long fan of his work and regularly used Berlin’s ideas in his policies.

While you might be asking, what in sodomy is an article on TNW talking about political science? This is an important thing to bear in mind about how and why we have all ended up with self-love as the predominant ideology of the Western world – and its consequences.

The application of negative liberty by many democracies in the West has seen the return of inequality and the collapse of social mobility. The consequence of this has been the silent return of class and privilege while we all focus on our downward facing dogs and how much we can bench.

I am just as much a part of this culture as you. I swear by the power of Bikram Yoga and have spent way too much on detoxes and ‘active wear’. But I have come to realise that by focusing on myself, I am neglecting others.

Selfie love

At the height of self love sentiment online – measured by how many times people Googled self love was February 2016 – the world appeared to be falling apart.

During those four weeks, the Zika virus was spreading rapidly, the shaky Syrian ceasefire collapsed, protests against Islam and immigration in several European cities become commonplace while dozens drown daily trying to make it across the treacherous straits separating Greece and Turkey.

Four mass shootings (in Hesston, Arkansas, Kalamazoo County, Michigan, outside a Florida nighclub and a sports bar in New York) rocked the US, Britain was careening towards a Brexit and Boko Haram made a point of turning executions and suicide bombings into a spectator sport.

Life is shit, unless you’re at a vegan festival

A coincidence? I think not. The harder and more terrifying the world becomes, the greater we feel the need to focus on ourselves. But that means we’re not really focusing on how much inequality and hatred surrounds us – and that we do have an ability to change the wider world, and not just ourselves.

Carl Cederström and André Spicer have brilliantly summed up this shift in their book, The Wellness Syndrome. In it they explore the idea of how wellness and mindfulness has come to dominate our lives.

They detail moments such as when ex prime minister David Cameron declared he was launching a “happiness agenda” for Britain, while systematically dismantling key pillars of society people rely on. Here’s one excruciating anecdote

Other examples include how workers in Amazon warehouses on zero-hour contracts (which makes up a large portion of a new social class known as the ‘precariat’ are reminded,“although they are in a precarious situation . . . are required to hide these feelings and project a confident, upbeat, employable self.”

Or how, according to a study in the Medical Humanities journal, during the longest and deepest recession in living memory (2008, to roughly mid-way through last year) the jobless were encouraged to treat their “psychological resistance” to work by way of obligatory courses that encouraged them to adopt a jollier attitude toward their own misfortune.

They were reminded with motivational text messages telling them to “smile at life” and that “success is the only option.”

At the heart of the wellness revolution lies an idea best summed-up by bestselling self-help author Louise Hay.

“If we really love ourselves, everything in our lives works.”

It’s this idea that if we’re overwhelmingly good to ourselves, good things happen.

But all of the evidence points out that your self-esteem rating does not predict the quality of your relationships or how long they will last.

High self-esteem won’t necessarily stop your children smoking, drinking, taking drugs or becoming sexually active at an early age.

In his book, Bullying at School and What We Can Do, Dan Olweus explored the idea that cruelty at school was the result of bullies having self esteem. But it turned out to be quite the opposite.

In study after study, people with high self-esteem scores may consistently rate themselves as more attractive, popular, socially skilled and intelligent than average but independent evaluations and objective tests just don’t bear this out.

In her excellent book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, the sociologist Jennifer Silva analyzes the ways in which our society, built upon the ideas of negative liberty has transformed us.

In it she interviewed dozens of young workers and found they had no faith in politics or collective action to address their problems or to give their lives meaning.

Instead, they deal with the traumas of everyday life by crafting “deeply personal coming of age stories, grounding their adult identities in recovering from painful pasts — whether addictions, childhood abuse, family trauma, or abandonment — and forging an emancipated, transformed, adult self.”

That is a terrifying concept. It puts an excruciating focus on ourselves being the source of all our woes.

It persuades us that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted, the problem isn’t to do with what the world is doing. It’s our fault. If we are miserable and or angry as a result of your identity being constantly battered by market forces (see: the reason why the Brexit happened) it’s down to you to change it.

Mark Fritz, one of the more bombastic thinkers in the self-help space claims in his book The Truth About Getting Things Done, “The biggest barrier to achieving the success you have defined for your life is never anyone else or the circumstances you encounter. Your biggest barrier is almost always you.”

Dr Maxwell Maltz, a cosmetic surgeon and author of what many call the birthplace of the self-help movement, Psycho-Cybernetics claims, “Within you right now is the power to do things you never dreamed possible. This power becomes available to you as soon as you can change your beliefs.”

Which is absolute dog shit. Because there are people who are hamstrung by their economic scenarios and geographic locations that can’t think their way out of poverty. There are systematic biases against them.

If you don’t believe me, read The Son Also Rises by Gregory Clark (book). He traced social mobility across many countries for nearly 600 years and guess what he found? The system is stacked in favor of the haves, and against the have nots.

By accepting the world is bad because you’re not positive is undermining our ability to look for collective ways to solve the seas of crises around us: poverty, injustice, corruption. These cannot be solved by a having a wall-to-wall positive social media feed.

A misconception

There is also a complete misconception on what self-love actually is. In psychology and psychiatry, self love or being kinder to ourselves isn’t about declarations of “I don’t need someone to complete me. I need someone to accept me completely”.

It’s a smaller, quieter, all together less seductive idea. It’s about acts of altruism, devotion, sentiment and helping others find meaning in a world that seemingly doesn’t appear to have much.

The importance of a community in determining someone’s health and mental well-being has been discussed for more than a century. Emile Durkheim in his suicide study in 1897 found that communities and an individual’s integration into that community was the determining factor in predicting someone’s propensity to take their own life.

In essence, what we need to be doing at times when the world appears to be a scary and difficult place is to build out communities and our collective capacity to change the world, rather than neglecting them.

If we abandon and surrender the communities that we once drew strength and meaning from, we are effectively voting for a world in which suffering and cruelty are acceptable as long as it doesn’t affect us.

So tomorrow, after my Instagram overdose and smoothie injection, I’m going to sign up to my local community centre and donate my precious time for nothing. Why? Well firstly, because I have no idea who the people are in my local community. Two, if the research is right, it’s the most radical form of self-love I can practice. And lastly, and more importantly, I don’t want to be the one who has to tell the next generation that the reason they have zero opportunities in life is because my generation just replied to huge problems with a collective ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

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