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.

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Culture & Religion
  • English is a phenomenal language, but there are circumstances where words seem to fail us.
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Don't get me wrong. The English language has some very excellent words. There's petrichor, the pleasant smell of the first rain after warm and dry weather. Paraprosdokian—which describes sentences that end surprisingly, forcing the reader to reinterpret the first half—is both oddly specific and fantastic to say out loud. I'm even a fan of new inventions, like tweetstorm, even if I'm not a fan of the experience.

But English-speaking culture—like any culture—has a limited perspective on the world. Just like English, Japanese also has some five-star words that English could stand to borrow. The Japanese have an entirely different perspective on the world than many English-speaking cultures—as proof, it's tough to imagine that the politely reserved Japanese have a word for defenestrate, or the act of throwing somebody out of a window. Here's the top 7 Japanese words that we could use in English.

1. Ikigai

(Flickr user Raul Pacheco-Vega)

Literally translating to "life value," Ikigai is best understood as the reason somebody gets up in the morning—somebody's reason for living. It's a combination of what you are good at, what you get paid to do, what you love to do, and what the world needs.

We often find our ikigai during flow states, which occur when a given task is just challenging and absorbing enough that we forget time has passed, that "in the zone" sensation. But it's more nuanced than something that is simply absorbing or a passion; it's a fulfilling kind of work that benefits oneself and others.

2. Karoshi

Karoshi, or death from overwork, provides a nice contrast to the concept of ikigai. Japan's work culture is so over the top that dying from working too hard is not uncommon. This word covers a range of ailments from heart failure to suicide, so long as the root of their cause is in working too hard.

As another hardworking nation, the U.S. could stand to better appreciate the dangers of overwork. Americans put in an average 47 hours a week, which is demonstrably bad for our health.

3. Shinrin-yoku

(Flickr user jungle_group)

This word translates to "forest-bathing," which sums up the activity fairly well. It's getting outdoors to de-stress, relax, and promote well-being. While the concept is familiar, we clearly don't place enough importance on getting outdoors to honor it with its own term.

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4. Shikata ga nai

Used interchangeably with shouganai, this term roughly means "it cannot be helped." You can think of it as the Japanese equivalent of c'est la vie´or amor fati. It's the idea that one should accept things outside of one's control with dignity and grace and not implode from the pressure of having no control over a terrible situation.

This concept is a bit controversial. During the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many Japanese-Americans resigned themselves to their mistreatment, characterizing the situation as shikata ga nai.

On the other hand, when a tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, many outside observers commented upon the stoic way the Japanese carried on with their daily lives, an example of the positive side of shikata ga nai.

5. Tsundoku


While it's a little less high-minded than the previous words on this list, it's certainly one that I and others could use. A combination of tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dukosho (reading books), tsundoku is the practice of buying a book you swear you're going to read, obviously not doing that, finding a new book you swear you're going to read, and then letting these abandoned books pile up in your house until it's a certifiable fire hazard.

6. Irusu

Garden State (2004)

You're in a terrible, anti-social mood and don't want to see anybody at all today. Suddenly, your doorbell rings; you lie as still as possible in your bed (surrounded by the hordes of unread books you purchased), praying the unwanted visitor leaves. This is the practice of irusu, or pretending not to be home when somebody rings your doorbell. It's a very common experience, although maybe the modern-day equivalent is responding "Sorry, I just got this" hours after you actually saw a text.

7. Age-otori

Not everybody practices tsundoku, and I'm sure some extroverts are entirely unfamiliar with practicing irusu, but everybody can identify with getting a bad haircut. Age-otori is the feeling one gets after leaving a barbershop looking worse than you did going in. It's an ingenious word for the unique blend of regret, suffering, and shame you feel after you foolishly trusted your elderly barber when he said "Yeah, I can do a hard part."

Bonus words

While Japanese has some phenomenal words, there are some that the English language probably doesn't have need of. For example, a nito-onna is a woman so obsessed with her job that she doesn't have time to iron her blouses and so resorts to wearing knitted tops constantly. It's a wonderfully specific word, but its specificity probably doesn't translate to English-speaking contexts.

There's also the hikikomori, a mostly Japanese phenomenon involving modern-day hermits that don't leave their bedrooms for years and years. People like this exist in English-speaking contexts, but we generally characterize these as people suffering from anxiety, as loners, or hermits. In addition, part of what makes a hikikomori is the high pressure and highly ritualized nature of Japanese society, a feature that is mostly absent in English-speaking contexts.

So, write to our good friends Merriam and Webster. Let's see if we can pack a little more utility into the English language.

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