#53: Cope culture

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Good morning!

On Tuesday it will be officially two weeks since I received my second Moderna dose. Hmu if you want to make out.


A few weeks ago, The New York Times published a story about a mental condition known as languishing. “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling,” the headline read, accompanied by an illustration of a person holding a cup of coffee looking sad—but not too sad—with some oranges strewn around their feet. In the piece, the writer Adam Grant describes what he calls “the neglected middle child of mental health,” that iffy feeling on the spectrum between depression (bad) and flourishing (good). “It wasn’t burnout—we still had energy,” he writes of himself and his friends. “It wasn’t depression—we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless.” He suggests blunting the condition of languishing by reaching for what he calls flow, “that elusive state of absorption in a meaningful challenge or a momentary bond, where your sense of time, place and self melts away.” Some things that help him achieve flow are early-morning word games or a Netflix binge.

My brother texted me the article semi-jokingly when it came out. He actually sent it with no commentary at all, but the joke wrote itself. The piece is satisfying like a horoscope—it describes our special selves—and it is gently patronizing, relatable by design: to be somewhere, anywhere, between depressed and flourishing; to be alive; to languish! This must be the final boss of viral internet writing in 2021. A self-help piece that not only gives an abstract phenomenon a catchy name (internet catnip), but describes a mental health condition many will relate to and prescribes fixing it with Netflix. It’s an expert example of the Forer Effect, in which people see themselves specifically in intentionally vague language, filtered through a neoliberal lens, whereby individuals can solve social ills through changing our habits or using modern tools and products.

The piece, filed under the Times’ popular “Mind” vertical, embodies a new media tradition. The internet has always loved labels—woke, empathic, neurodivergent, Ravenclaw, INTJ, Virgo, cheugy—but combine this ontology with the increasing awareness around mental wellness/unwellness and a catastrophic pandemic, and the new crop of psychological conditions makes perfect sense: late-stage pandemic burn out, covid anxiety syndrome, pandemic brain. We are pandemic-depressed, pandemic-anxious, pandemic-distracted. Every day we’re offered new words for what we’re going through by corporate media, along with new solutions. And it’s not that I don’t find these diagnoses satisfying (I love to diagnose), but if there’s a limit at which point finding words to describe our experiences ceases to be illuminating and instead becomes an act of obfuscation, I think we’ve found it.

“It’s as though the haze of our inner lives were being filtered through a screen of therapy work sheets,” Katy Waldman wrote in The New Yorker about “The Rise of Therapy-Speak.” Her piece was about the risks of democratizing language formally used only by professionals, like the way “trigger” has come to mean a symbol for what to avoid rather than a signal for what to work through. I think it also speaks to our desire, as humans, to put our selves and experiences into boxes. As someone who’s been in therapy for years and taken more personality tests than I can count, I’m the ultimate sucker. But when we over-index on it, then extrapolate it outward for entire populations, who does it serve? In Grant’s piece, readers are led to believe their joylessness is an individual condition that can be addressed through individual action. What if it isn’t, and can’t?

Pop science

It’s easy to say this cultural embrace of labeling our neuroses only represents a productive destigmatization of mental illness, or to take the opposite side and proclaim us over-pathologized. But I think it’s more accurate to say both can be true at different times, and that, as an approach to addressing systemic problems, it may be inadequate. A few weeks ago, a diagram from a psychology textbook went viral for exemplifying this exact conflict. It looked liked this:

The original poster, Aaron Ansuini, went on to explain why he found the chart harmful: “Feeling worthless as a result of abuse… cannot and should not be reduced to maladaptive behaviour,” he tweeted. “Acting like our emotional states can be separated from our material conditions is ridiculous, in and of itself.” I agree with him. I also agree with some of those who argued the chart is meant to be employed with individuals in a clinical setting (i.e. to cope), and is not meant to be used to solve systemic problems. But as we continue to democratize and popularize psychological terms, these are often conflated, which is why I find Ansuini’s critique relevant. It’s also why, when the New York Times reports on a languishing America, the individualized solutions (puzzles over breakfast) start to feel incomplete. 

These kinds of self-help pieces might feel less compromised if there were more reporting on policy failures that are impacting mental health, but it’s sorely lacking. In an episode of media podcast Citations Needed, called “Mental Health During A Pandemic: How US Media Spins Societal Failures Into Personal Self-Help Journeys,” critics Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson explain the two ways mental health crises tend to be covered in the mainstream media: “awareness mode” or “self-help mode.” The former consists of straightforward reportage regarding increases in conditions like depression and anxiety. The latter consists of “hacks or tricks” for how to individually solve them. But as Shirazi explains, a third option is glaringly missing: “Actionable, proven political solutions to mental health crises that operate under the radical assumption that social problems may require social solutions. Nowhere in any of these articles is the idea that socialized medicine, guaranteed income, free childcare, student debt relief, or rent and mortgage cancellations, may be the best and most rational ‘hacks or tricks’ to actually improving the mental health of people at scale.”

Obviously mental illness cannot be completely addressed through policy changes, but as Adam Johnson points out, we have “decades and decades of data showing that basic social welfare very clearly improves mental health.” Unfortunately, we are instead conditioned to view those suffering from mental illness as inevitable—”losses simply factored into the moral framework of the world.” We receive all kinds of signals that this is the case: tips for hating our jobs less, sign-up deals for teletherapy, ScreenTime notifications. In this way, as far as systemic change goes, the liberal media’s commitment to “hacks and tricks” as a solution to addressing mental health crises feels not so different from conservative media’s “thoughts and prayers” for addressing things like gun violence. The focus tends toward the magical thinking of the individual. 

Last week, The Times published a followup to Grant’s popular piece on languishing: How to Flourish. “[A]fter a year of trauma, isolation and grief, how long will it take before life finally—finally—feels good? Post-pandemic, the answer to that question may be in your own hands,” writes Dani Blum. “A growing body of research shows that there are simple steps you can take to recharge your emotional batteries and spark a sense of fulfillment, purpose and happiness.” The suggestions range from “celebrate small things'' and “do good deeds,” to “finding purpose in routines” and something called “Sunday dinner gratitude.” Maybe the Times isn’t talking to the millions living in poverty, or uninsured, or unemployed, or saddled with student debt, or in fear of getting fired if they take a vacation. Where’s their article?

Invisible forces

“Capitalist realism” is a term that critic Mark Fisher came up with to describe the phenomenon whereby people are so committed to the inevitability of capitalism—and its lack of alternatives—that capitalism itself is rendered invisible. We simply accept it the way five-year-olds accept the existence of the tooth fairy. We accept the competitive job market and the concept of unemployment; we accept the 40-hour work week and the existence of billionaires. We become so inured to the strictures of capitalism we forget they’re all up for debate. And the result is a political and media apparatus that continually emphasizes individual actions and market-based solutions over preventative, structural change. So instead of reported pieces about which policy failures have led to increased suicide rates, we get things like this: “A Rare Pandemic Silver Lining: Mental Health Startups.”

“Capital makes the worker ill, and then multinational pharmaceutical companies sell them drugs to make them better,” Mark Fisher wrote. “The social and political causation of distress is neatly sidestepped at the same time as discontent is individualized and interiorized.” Fisher calls this “the privatization of stress.” As in: “The privatization of stress has been part of a project that has aimed at an almost total destruction of the concept of the public—the very thing upon which psychic well-being fundamentally depends. What we urgently need is a new politics of mental health organized around the problem of public space.”

In a flattering light, our growing affection for naming modern emotional experiences like burnout resembles a response to an over-individualized society—our attempt to collectively grapple with a widespread issue. Yet this coverage rarely calls upon elected officials to address the traceable sources of people’s distress: poverty, unstable and unsatisfying work, inadequate healthcare, inadequate leisure time, a lack of economic mobility, a lack of community, a valid sense of powerlessness in the face of a corporate-run government that can’t seem to get anything done to materially improve people’s lives. As a result, these attempts to diagnose and treat our social ills may be well-intentioned on the part of the individual writers (I’ve been one), and may even be satisfying to read (they are for me), but without calls for systemic change, they are ultimately palliative. They pander to our desire to both explain our ennui in simple terms and feel empowered to fix it in three easy steps. They tell us everything will be okay if we just learn to meditate.

Self-improvement as an aspiration, or a subject matter, is fine. It will of course make us feel better to remember that abusive bosses do not reflect our worth as individuals. But that reframing does nothing to address the power imbalance that allows a boss to be abusive in the first place. To claim it could is just lean-in, girlboss bullshit. We have, as a culture, over-invested in what are ultimately coping mechanisms, and have stopped imagining what it might look like for the harm to never occur in the first place. We are a culture of cope.

“Our current historical moment demands a radical re-imagining of how we address various harms,” wrote abolitionist Miariame Kaba in her essay “Jailbreak of the Imagination.” “While we protect ourselves from their consistent and regular blows, we must also fight for a vision of the world we want to inhabit.” A world beyond coping. A world where depression and anxiety aren’t always around the corner because we didn’t read enough articles under the New York Times “Mind” vertical. Apps, hacks, and tricks will not save us. We may all languish from time to time, but a languishing America, or a languishing world, needs more than “Sunday dinner gratitude.”

1. This video essay by Grace Lee called “The Treachery of Language,” about David Lynch’s reticence to put his movies to words in interviews. “As soon as you put things in words, no one ever sees the film the same way, and that’s what I hate, you know. Talking: it’s real dangerous.” I wanted to cite it in my essay this week after Avi recommended it but ultimately had to kill the darling, so sharing it here!

2. “A Mystery to Itself,” by Rivka Galchen for the London Review of Books about the brain and our relationship to it—especially how much we still don’t understand (and yet behave as if we do). Another thing I thought I might cite.

3. The movie-length finale of Nathan for You, “Finding Frances,” about a Bill Gates impersonator looking for his long-lost love, which I never saw. Maybe the most ridiculous episode of TV I’ve ever seen. Bill Gates announced his divorce the next day...

4. A magnetic white board for our fridge so we can list what meals we currently have the food to prepare. Surprisingly therapeutic? Like a food to-do list.

5. “Burn All the Leggings,” by Amanda Mull for The Atlantic, which tracks shifts in sartorial sensibility following historical moments of crisis, and anticipates what might lay ahead for us post-pandemic.

6. At long last, the last episode of The Sopranos, which Avi and I started some time last year. Loved the finale a lot.

7. “Megan Stalter on Panera Bread and Pivoting,” by Alexandra Tatarsky for Cultured mag. A chaotic and artful profile that’s barely a profile.

8. Room With a View, a 1985 classic from my ASMR movie list. It didn’t give me ASMR but I loved the title cards and Helena Bonham-Carter’s face. A genuinely beautiful movie, every shot like a painting.

9. The symptoms and treatments for ”first bite syndrome,” which I swear I have...

10. “Big Chunks of Corporate Tax Cuts End Up in Executives’ Pockets,” by Jon Schwarz for The Intercept, which examines the common trope that corporate tax cuts lead to more and better jobs for average people (as their pedalers claim). Studies show the extra money merely pads the pockets of executives.

11. Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. I’m still deciding if I liked it but certain aspects of it are still on my mind, like the rare depiction of a selfish mother.

12. This tweet:

13. “Seth Rogan and the Secret to Happiness,” a profile by Jonah Weiner for The New York Times, because I love and admire Jonah Weiner’s profiles (this one didn’t disappoint).

14. My first stab at cooking tofu, which resulted in tofu so tough I could barely bite through it. <3

15. Far more replies to this math tweet than I can intellectually defend. For the record, I do it like this.

On the podcast this week: Pop quiz

My semi-regular and unhinged pop culture roundup, Pop Quiz, is back! This time with experts Amalie McGowen and Avi Bonnerjee. We discuss important goings-on such as Ben Affleck’s Raya debacle, Bill and Melinda’s divorce, Billie Eillish’s Vogue cover, and more. See you Tuesday!

Thanks for reading,

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