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Is Self-Care Healthy Or The Ultimate In Millennial Narcissism? Yes


A recent NPR article notes the utterly millennial term “self-care” spiked in Google searches after the 2016 presidential election, but the Google Trends data it links to show the spike as part of a longer trend.

The most popular related searches ask for a definition of the term, a health-ish buzzword like “wellness,” “mindfulness,” and “self-help.” More Google searches yield piles of unintentionally humorous listicles explaining why basic human functions are crucial to feeling well. Things like “Make time to exercise.” “Don’t eat too much junk food.” “Sleep when you’re tired.” Apparently it’s much easier to read this sort of thing as an adult from the Internet equivalent of bumper stickers and fortune cookie sayings than simply remember what your mom taught you circa age eight.

Now We See the Anxiety Inherent in the System

Over at Slate, Aisha Harris explains why it’s suddenly popped as an it phrase: “It’s not that ‘self-care’—as the concept of consciously tending to one’s own well-being has become known—was invented during the election season. But in 2016, self-care officially crossed over into the mainstream. It was the new chicken soup for the progressive soul.”

As with all things selfie, NPR finds that millennials are driving the trend:

In 2015, according to the Pew Research Center, more millennials reported making personal improvement commitments than any generation before them. They spend twice as much as boomers on self-care essentials such as workout regimens, diet plans, life coaching, therapy and apps to improve their personal well-being. They’ve even created self-care Twitterbots.

Further, Yahoo reports a new study finds a connection between millennials’ high rates of “self-care” and their obsessive use of the Internet — it’s where millennials get solutions, including ones to problems they didn’t previously know they have. It’s become such a thing that, at The New Yorker, Yoko Ono recently satirized self-care with faux tips like: “Stroll along a row of shops, selecting pants for those who have wronged you. Throw away all of your own pants.”

Let’s stipulate that there is nothing inherently wrong with taking good care of your mind and body. It can be a way to steward the gift of life we’ve all been given. The real questions are: Why the drive to do this? And: In what context is this happening?

In different contexts and for different people the precisely same action could be for one selfish and for another good and necessary. For example, some occasional or regular “me time” can be perfectly reasonable for a mother of little children or the caretaker of an elderly family member or just about anyone. We all get tired. We all need rest and restoration.

But, being humans, we can and often do distort something good into something evil. Self-care can also be self-indulgent, or an excuse to excuse our personal embodiment of the narcissism rampant in our society. It’s a matter of prudence and context, or what nowadays we might call “balance.” Sometimes a glass of wine is a Godsend to help a burdened soul relax. Sometimes it’s the tipoff into oblivion.

Some Good Things about Self-Care

It would be easy to see only the negative side of this trend. A parade of Twitter images and articles about how people can and should spend time making themselves feel good seems patently trite and selfish. Nevertheless, perhaps the most striking thing is its naked acknowledgement that something is wrong with the world. Despite all our Instagram and Facebook photos, our deepest intuitions sound out suffering, a sense of disorder deep within ourselves and the world.

Self-care is, then, at least honest about the existential loneliness and pain bundled into the human condition. It’s at least not pharasaical. The conversation takes down the protective shields projecting confidence and perfection and acknowledges we’re fragile. People who promote self-care are willing to admit that, if not directly then at least implicitly. That’s an improvement on the self-righteousness and projected perfection we see all around.

Self-care also recognizes that humans are physical beings. We are a united mind and body, not a disembodied mind or mere animals. Our thoughts and emotions do affect our physical health, and vice versa. This is another improvement on popular philosophies that suggest humans are an either/or rather than a both/and — such as, say, transhumanism or secular atheism. In the former case, it undercuts the notion that a human person can continue to exist separated entirely from his or her body and “downloaded” into a robotic frame. In the second, it undercuts the idea that we are merely moving chunks of exclusively physical atoms with no transcendent purpose, existence, or meaning — i.e., merely talking beasts.

Third, the self-care notion acknowledges that some prevalent modern habits aren’t good for us, particularly tech addiction and otherwise filling our spiritual void with frenetic activity. It’s standard for self-care “how-tos” to tell people to unplug and slow down. Many folks I listen to and talk with increasingly have been talking about shifting our Internet use because we see and feel how it hurts us and those we love. Take New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s call for a “digital temperance movement,” or Cal Newport’s discussion of the habits necessary to “Deep Work” (featured several times here at The Federalist and a contributor to my own sanity). This is good and necessary.

Self-Care Isn’t All Lattes and Footloose Travel

But it’s not all good. The felt need for “self-care,” after all, directly states we’re not happy always or even often, and this sense is accurate. Long-term social science surveys indicate mental illness is increasing in America. Psychiatric research finds millennials are unprecedentedly prone to clinical narcissism, which is essentially the habit of preferring one’s own desires at others’ expense. Millennial-focused social scientist Jean Twenge describes narcissists as “bad relationship partners [who] can be difficult to work with. Narcissists are also more likely to be hostile, feel anxious, compromise their health, and fight with friends and family.”

In a related development, anxiety and depression has skyrocketed, particularly among the young. Twenge reports that “‘normal’ schoolchildren in the 1980s reported higher levels of anxiety than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s,” and this trend has only expanded. Research links this to, among other things, the rise in divorce.

Curiously, all this is happening at a time when life has never, on aggregate, been better for Americans. We are richer than any people in world history. Life expectancy has doubled in the last century. Our air is cleaner, our leisure time and disposable income more voluminous. Infant mortality is at a record low. We have electricity and indoor plumbing, for pete’s sake, and far fewer people have to work in physically demanding conditions.

When I tootle off to my air-conditioned, blissfully quiet desk to stare at a computer screen for a few hours and thereby conveniently supply quite a good living for our family, I joke to my husband, “I’m off to the salt mines!” It’s a grateful joke, that it’s so easy to live so well. Yet what we see in our comfy Western world not overflowing gratitude and joy at how comparatively easy our lives are, but anxiety, depression, nervousness, despair. We have millennials complaining about watching gory videos in jobs as Facebook screeners, rather than thanking their lucky stars they don’t live in the countries where these things actually happen, or that they didn’t have to themselves cut the heads off animals in order to have food, like my grandmother did as a child.

I’m not saying this job sounds pleasant. In my work, I too become despondent about hearing of the next sick and twisted thing someone came up with to get attention on the Internet for ten seconds, or the fact that we have to talk about James Comey until the end of time instead of getting our national debt under control so it doesn’t trigger a global depression. These are legitimate feelings. I’m saying it’s a crying shame nobody taught millennials some historical perspective, or helped them develop the inner resources to respond resiliently to relatively minor inconveniences.

Lost at Sea Looking for the Good Life

Sociologist Christian Smith has written poignantly about millennials’ unparalleled sense of adriftness and despair. He pins it on their parents and parents generation’s refusal to give them anchors, to pass on to them inherited truths that  humankind has long transmitted and serve as signposts to a fulfilling life. “American culture itself seems to be depleted of some important cultural resources that it would pass on to youth if it had them,” he writes. He says it’s not fair to simply blame millennials for their narcissism and nihilism and leave them lying there, bleeding, in the gutter.

I agree. Yet we millennials can no longer really can be considered children. We’re all adults now, and maturity means taking responsibility for our own actions and state in life, even if others have taught us bad habits and ideas. Our parents and their peers may not have given us the resources to develop the good life, but that doesn’t mean we’re stuck in a bad life. We can remedy our lack of character and self-awareness enhanced by screen addictions, overscheduling, and lack of alone time. All it takes is the will to do so.

We can engage with the millennia-old dialogue over what constitutes the good life and read the arguments for its various iterations in literature that has stood the test of time, in order to incarnate it anew in our own generation. We can chew over the concepts of acedia and Weltschmerz and thoughtfully apply them to our behaviors so our attempts at self-care do not merely perpetuate the problem by embodying indulgent, water-treading laziness rather than restorative, robust leisure that cultivates our minds and souls over a lifetime. Put simply: Ain’t no profuseness of Insta shots or craft times or silky lattes going to put things right in this world. You need way more than coffee or yoga, sister.

We can consider the proposition that anxiously becoming “less-stressed” is a cheap way to spend our precious, limited time on this earth, compared to the far more robust understandings of human potential and sources of enduring happiness. Modern social science only affirms the ancient knowledge that the foremost sources of a deep and abiding satisfaction in life are actually quite simple and haven’t changed much over centuries: family, work, community, and religion. A peppermint mocha might taste good for a few minutes, but consistently spending time helping others, especially in a deep commitment such as marriage or raising children, will bring you satisfaction for a lifetime despite its much higher price.

You may think otherwise, because you’ve been taught to think otherwise. But how happy has that belief made you?