Illustration: Laurie Rollitt

EEverywhere I went on tour for my new book this winter, I saw people looking down at phones, headphones on, in their own little worlds. In everyone’s phones — mine too — were orders for groceries, clothes, takeout. And above our heads were ads for the latest workout craze, in which you stare at yourself in a mirror that talks to you.

And this was life before quarantine.

What’s ironic about life during the pandemic is many of us were, essentially, socially distancing ourselves already. That’s in spite of the fact that we are social animals who thrive connected to a community.

No wonder we’re all so lonely and anxious. And the solution, we’re often told, is simple: Treat yourself. Take some “me time.” Indulge in some self-pampering. But “self-care” is not the answer.

The great turning-inward

Where once there were small neighborhoods of extended families, now there are small families living far from relatives, with few confidantes. Robert Putnam, author of the famous post-community book Bowling Alone (2000), revisited the question of social groups in 2015’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. He reported that “both kin and non-kin networks have shrunk in the past two decades,” with non-family connections decreasing rapidly.

For decades, there has been a great turning-inward. We work long hours, often commuting long distances to our jobs in solitude or working in the gig economy without the company of co-workers. One-fourth of the labor market has no paid vacation days, and those who do receive paid leave often don’t take it. In 2018, we collectively left 768 million vacation days on the table. The United States was labeled the “no-vacation nation” by researchers at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Community affiliations have plummeted. A major one: communities of worship. Per Gallup survey data, from 1994 to 2019 the percentage of Americans who reported having “never attended” religious services spiked from 10% to 29%.

In-person social clubs are also a relic of the past. According to a 2019 article in Fast Company, only 10% of the Rotary Club’s 330,000 American members are under the age of 40. Freemasons have lost nearly 4 million members since the 1950s. And that’s just accounting for two of the many social organizations that were originally geared at white American men; for others, comparable losses delivered an even more consequential blow.

Venture-capital-driven attempts to bring back clubs (Soho House, The Wing, WeWork) offer more gender and racial diversity than old-school clubs, but attract a relatively narrow group of urban professionals who can afford thousands in annual fees.

Absent presence is making us sad

Amid worsening economic inequality, widening the chasm in Americans’ access to everything from quality health care to decent airline seating, there’s been a steady decline in hierarchy-free common spaces. In a recent column for the New York Times, Ginia Bellafante wrote about missing the casual conversations she used to have waiting in line at a coffee shop or the grocery store, underlining the cost of the shift toward online ordering: “We are losing a way to bridge differences in a world already collapsing from its stratification.”

Even when we’re together in the same room, we’re often tuned out. Professor Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia has found “subtle social costs” to the use of smartphones, which undermine “the important well-being benefits of face-to-face social interactions.” In one study, she found that taking our phones out in a waiting room leads to 30% less smiling. Screens also distract us so much that we are not only having less-satisfying interactions with others, we don’t even notice the interactions we’re missing. It’s called “absent presence.”

The insidiousness of “self-care”

Meanwhile, the “self-care” industry — exemplified by facials, exercise, bathing among candles, journaling — is through the roof. When we complain about feelings of unease, we are told by magazines, podcasts, and talk shows that the answer is “me time.” Women in particular tend to self-help their way out of hard times, as Andrea Petersen noted recently in her Wall Street Journal article “The Virtuous Midlife Crisis.”

Self-care perpetuates the idea that what each of us needs is specific just to us; remedies are for us to discover alone through the expenditure of effort and money. The self-care industrial complex takes a group of people who are lonely and tells them to do something nice for themselves. And that “something nice” usually involves buying stuff — and enjoying it alone.

In 1985, sociologist Robert Bellah identified a new religion in America: Sheilaism, defined as a penchant for saying, “I’m spiritual, not religious,” and cobbling together a DIY belief system from various sources, with no obligations or community support. What Gwyneth Paltrow calls “the optimization of self” has become a new national religion; the pursuit of wellness is its mode of worship.

Self-care has not only replaced religion; it’s also replaced proper health care. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our decades-long health care crisis, which has left millions of Americans without sufficient care, has corresponded to a rising reliance on treatments available from the local health food store, or ordered online, or purchased from a local crystal-bedecked studio.

One woman I know bought herself a three-pack of sessions in a sensory deprivation tank where, she tells me, she floats alone in a chamber while fantasizing about being in France. Another takes edibles and attends “gong baths.” Still another, to decompress from her stressful job, watches “improvement shows — self-improvement, home-improvement, all the improvements.” She likes seeing chaos brought into line.

When life gets complicated, we use self-care (this diet, that cleanse, this app, that strategic indulgence) to try to create a distinct experience of before and after. And yet, I’ve begun to notice that self-care often leaves me feeling empty. Wearing a fancy face mask while watching TV might leave me feeling more hydrated, but rarely much happier than I was before.

“Wellness” is now a $4.2 trillion industry. According to Quartz, “privileged women in the U.S. have created their own alternative health care system — with few of its treatments having been tested for efficacy, or even basic safety.”

Capitalism won’t hold your hand

Self-care also contains an implicit message: I have to take care of myself because no one else will. My government isn’t going to give me health care. My employer isn’t going to have my back if I get sick. It’s on my shoulders to care for myself.

“Where I think self-care falls short is twofold,” says Sheila Addison, a licensed couples and family therapist in private practice in Oakland, California. “One, our approaches to self-care tend to focus on capitalist actions: ‘Buy yourself something! Take a class! Have yourself a spa day!’ One issue with that logic is that, while buying things can feel good in the moment, that mini high tends to be fleeting.”

Then there’s the bigger, systematic glitch in the whole self-care apparatus: “If we are in a system that is unjust and exclusionary and harmful to people, individual change can only do so much,” Addison says. “It’s like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

The “self” in self-care is part of the problem

When I called Laurie Santos, PhD, professor of psychology at Yale University and host of The Happiness Lab, to ask her about self-care, she said, “It’s not so much that treating yourself is bad, it’s more just what’s the ‘opportunity cost’ of treating yourself? Slipping into a nice bubble bath is not bad in and of itself. It’s just that it might mean you’re not calling a really good friend that you haven’t talked to in a while, or connecting with your parents, or doing other kinds of things that can feel challenging but ultimately are good.”

She went on to say, “The very focus of this idea of self-care — the Parks and Rec phrase ‘Treat yo’self’ — causes us to be more self-focused. And what so much of the research in positive psychology suggests is that happiness derives from being other-focused, like doing nice things for others, trying to connect with others, being grateful for others.”

While I know some introverts who are only too happy right now for a command to stay inside, a recent article in Scientific American revealed that even many self-professed introverts are made happier by authentic, reciprocal social connections. We long to feel connected to others, and to feel as though we’re bringing value into other people’s lives. Deeply nurturing connections are rare in the world of paid care. There are exceptions, as in the friendly nail salon of Legally Blonde, but there’s still some truth in this line from Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel’s The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity: “When your mom dies, your yoga teacher isn’t bringing you a casserole.”

Now here comes the coronavirus. We’re being told to look at our own bodies with more scrutiny and to wall ourselves off from one another even more than we already were. And we’re being told once again, yes, to practice self-care. For the good of others, physically isolating is what we need to do for the coming weeks. And yet, what might be the emotional cost of going through the stages of plague dread alone? Loneliness in old people is already an epidemic in this country, as is anxiety in young people. Feeling lonely has a very real impact on health — the equivalent of 15 cigarettes a day.

In his 2018 book Lost Connections, Johann Hari explained that society doesn’t do a great job at the best of times at meeting our basic human needs: “We need to feel we belong, that we have meaning and purpose, that people value us and that we have autonomy.” After many years of deep depression, he changed his behavior in key ways. One was that where he once would have indulged his whims to feel better he now goes out of his way to do something for someone else. He found something more soothing than self-care: other-care. Helping others is far more likely to make us happy.

We might, in other words, be looking in the wrong place for inner peace.

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