Self-obsession is creating a neurotic culture. Can we fix this?
In his latest book, Selfie, Will Storr explores the history of self-obsession, and wonders how we can fix it.
Jia Lijun loved a female walrus that lived at a Liagoning province zoo, so much so he decided he needed a selfie with her. So the businessman sidled up to the one-and-a-half ton creature. The walrus appreciated his affection and decided to give him a hug. The problem is a walrus hug is a bit more aggressive than the human variety. Both Lijun and the zookeeper who tried to save him were drowned to death by the enthusiastic marine mammal.
While this might seem to be an outlier in the billions of selfies taken each year, you have to wonder how we’ve become so separated from our environment—and so obsessed with fulfilling our every whim—that we’d think stopping in the middle of pretty much anything to take photos of ourselves is a good idea. While this addictive habit is many things, journalist and novelist Will Storr decided to investigate the origins of self-obsession in his latest book, Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us.
After writing The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, Storr began wondering what made us focused on our interior desires and hopes. For example, as he told me, why do people make decisions due to their biases and prejudices even when they don't help society, or even themselves? He knew tribal allegiances play an essential role, but the depth of our individualistic focus ran much deeper than even he suspected. This obsession, he posits, has resulted in increased suicide rates and numerous emotional disorders.
The book starts at the end of the story, in a sense. In the US, suicides recently hit a thirty-year high. A recent American freshman survey found more young students felt overwhelmed in 2016 than in 2009. Self-harm rates are jumping in the UK and US; eating disorders are also increasing. Steroid use is through the roof.
Storr believes the connective tissue between these phenomena is perfectionism, which he traces back to ancient Greece. He is not alone in this assumption. In her 1942 book, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, the classicist Edith Hamilton cited Greek culture as the first to idolize gods as humans; previously gods were represented by animals, animal-human hybrids, or elements. While Hamilton notes that Greeks transformed our perception of gods from fear to beauty, they also championed the human form—namely, a steeled body—as the ultimate representation of divinity.
The psychological ramifications of such a depiction were all but guaranteed. Emotionally volatile and highly reactive cultures followed suit, focused on the success of the individual instead of their group’s wellbeing. The foundation of this ideology, Storr writes, resides in an enduring need for self-improvement:
This idea—of the individual as a node of value that had the potential to improve itself—birthed the modern Western civilization of freedom, celebrity, democracy and self-improvement that we live in today.
Nothing was more indicative of this than the American self-esteem movement birthed in the nineteen-sixties. Storr points to Esalen, the famous retreat center located at the base of a cliff in Big Sur, California, as ground zero for the mindset fusing Eastern and pagan philosophies with alternative medicine, Gestalt Practice, and organic food. While many progressive ideologies grew from a soak in Esalen’s hot springs, this yearning for the perfected individual created the conditions for selfie culture.
You can’t separate yourself from your surroundings. Isolated individuals reared apart from their environment is a myth, as is the notion of a continuous and fixed identity. We are who we are dependent upon circumstances and location. The me typing at my computer is a different me than the one who will soon be getting into my car to navigate Los Angeles is a different me than the one who will arrive at the gym. This isn’t multiple personality disorder; it’s how our brains work, always in interaction with what and who we are around at any given moment.
Yet we have faith in a sort of fixed identity: I’m vegan, conservative, cynic, liberal, threads woven through every situation that often blind us to the bigger picture. Opportunities for empathy and understanding are thwarted. Each case offers an opportunity to stamp our demands on the situation, even when the situation requires listening instead of a soapbox.
These ideas are quite middle class, almost a spiritual procedure in that they go deeper than just mere pleasure. There’s this great idea in modern culture that people need to be authentic, that we all need to be getting in touch with our real inner selves and being real and true and honest with people and not giving any bullshit. And it begins with America, which is why California is so crucial to the story of the Western self.
Donning his anthropological hat, Storr researched the contours of Greek society—literally, as in the rocky coastlines. Unlike prior interdependent cultures, some Greeks made olive oil while others ran small businesses, fished, and tanned hides. Bartering too is tribal; small group success beat out national prosperity. Greece’s ecology fostered individualistic patterns of behavior, which helped influence their philosophy and mythology and, due to the stories they told themselves about themselves, identity.
Humans evolved in large part thanks to the awareness of our environment. Self-obsession puts the emphasis on us, making us oblivious to our surroundings. (Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)
We too are running such neurological and social hardware. In a prosperous America that survived the Great Depression and World War II, as beneficiaries of the Industrial Revolution and leaders in the Technological Revolution, our citizens turned inside to perfect what they felt could be utopian outside. A booming economy and the strongest military on the planet allowed residents to imagine our economy as a spiritual birthright and war as unnecessary, even as the protection offered by those soldiers afforded us an opportunity to thrive as never before. A filter bubble was constructed, one Storr believes Esalen encapsulated even as power struggles engulfed the organization’s leadership.
Esalen birthed the self-help workshop, Erhard Seminars Training (est), which continue today as the Landmark Forum—every fan of The Americans recognizes these emotionally gritty sessions—as well as the self-esteem movement promoted by California State Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, the man responsible for injecting scientifically dubious claims of the benefits of self-esteem into the public education system (and national mindset).
Storr spends an entire chapter tracing the fascinating story of Vasconcellos and his struggles first with himself and then fighting against an emotionally conservative legislature. The politician hid evidence that self-esteem was not all it was cracked up to be. By the time defectors were heard, it was too late: Californians, and by extension Americans, were enthralled with the notion that all of society’s ills were due to not loving ourselves enough. Money poured in to help us acheive this goal. As Storr writes,
Efforts to boost self-esteem hadn’t improved school performance at all. If anything, they’d been counterproductive. Neither did self-esteem help in the successful performance of various tasks. It didn’t make people more likable, in the long term, or increase the quality or duration of their relationships.
Much attention has been given to the denial of facts in American right wing and evangelical politics, yet liberals (and according to Storr, neoliberals) are guilty of the same. The intensive focus on the self is not limited to a political party and, regardless of social dynamics, biology wins out. “The people who took to selfie-culture with such ease were the children of the self-esteem generation," Storr writes. Parents my age, the same as Storr’s, are accused of too much coddling, which is turning out to be a measurable truth.
During our conversation, I mention selfies are not limited to millennials, though they take the brunt of the flack, an assessment Storr agrees with. This inward-focus is not to be foisted upon the youngest generation alone. If anything, as recent occurrences in Parkland, Florida and elsewhere have shown, a self-correction is happening, one that places less emphasis on the self. As psychologist Jean Twenge noted last year, some teenagers are becoming impatient with their parents’ inattention due to the elder generation's obsession with their phones.
In every age group, this drive toward perfectionism is prevalent, however. Los Angeles residents treat cosmetic plastic surgery as nonchalantly as a graphic designer touches up digital images. As I previously wrote, the number one increase for cosmetic plastic surgeries in 2016 was male teenage breast reduction. More and more teens are getting cosmetic “fixes”—229,000 that year alone.
But what is being fixed? Certainly not self-esteem, the very movement that was supposed to make things better. As Storr writes, low self-esteem equates to high neuroticism. His argument is not against self-esteem per se, only putting so much emphasis on it that it blinds you to everything else—that you become unhealthily obsessed with yourself.
Will Storr has written an exceptional history of what has brought us here. While not a prescriptive—thankfully, there is no “five steps to fixing this” addendum—he is not without hope. We just need a wider angle lens than our smartphones currently offer. We need to search beyond the edges of our selfies to remember a diverse world exists outside of the one formed in our own heads. What we sacrifice in self-obsession we gain in self-awareness—and the fact that the “self” is not an isolated but interdependent construct—which turns out to be a healthier option for ourselves and everyone around us.
If we want to inch towards happiness, then, we should stop trying to change ourselves and start trying to change our environment—the things we’re doing with our lives, the people we’re sharing it with, the goals we have.
Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion and creator of Clarity: Anxiety Reduction for Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?
While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.
"In the spring," the lead author Adriaan Dokter noted, "3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border."
In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?
Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."
The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.
What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.
Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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