by Katherine Doane
When COVID-19 first plunged the world into isolation, a new wave of self-improvement messaging swept through the internet like a wildfire.
At first, like a spike on a seismograph, hobbyists soared to new heights in hashtag counts and views. Breadmaking, painting, and home improvement projects enjoyed trending status for a happy couple of weeks, and the internet became a friendlier place for grassroots creatives. Maybe, just maybe, the pandemic had broken through the algorithm’s iron curtain, and small business owners and artists would finally be able to profit from global interconnectedness in the way they were always meant to be able to.
That was until self-improvement gurus stormed into social media with a seemingly endless armament of trendsetting cheat-codes. In a matter of days, my instagram for-you page was no longer a seething incubatorium of new creators, but a chillingly harmonious conglomeration of yoga routines, standing desks, and smoothie recipes. It was as if some faceless software engineer in the deep ranks of the silicon valley digerati had sat down at a laptop one night in March 2020, cracked his knuckles, and set about correcting the temporary deviance from carefully-scheduled influencer boom-busts, Martha Stewart stock market scandal-style. How did this shift happen, and how did it happen so quickly?
Hobbyists — arts and crafts creators, diy-ers, people doing what they could with what they had — were filling a new need for predictability and reassurance in our media diets, but self-improvement content could fill it faster. Like any trend, it was self-sustaining. I certainly played a role in saturating my personal audio-video enclosure with this endless betterment propaganda. Friday afternoon bakery visits became meditation classes, Saturday morning farmer’s market trips turned into 10k runs. Of course, the new wave of betterment content reinforced and validated my new habits, so the walls of my echo-chamber thickened.
The problem with the rise of self-improvement content during early lockdown was that it compelled us to isolate ourselves emotionally at a time when we were already isolated physically. When morning routine videos and “coronapreneurs” flooded into creative offshoots on social media, there was no room left to process the collective grief and anxiety that the pandemic had brought to so many. We were instead compelled to turn our grief into productive output, and retreat into the private sphere to process the pain of loneliness and personal loss. This new wave of content sneakily satisfied our need for stability by telling us that we could achieve normalcy and mental resilience just by working on ourselves, while creating new expectations for the kind of work we would produce with more time on our hands. When we failed to meet these expectations, self-improvement told us our failure could be overcome through further introspection, forcing us to withdraw further into ourselves and away from our communities. Twitter user Mr_Considerate’s description of a job interview in the second spring of the pandemic went viral: “I don’t want to alarm anyone, but I’ve just been asked in a job interview if I used lockdown ‘to pursue any passion projects or personal development,’” he wrote. “The market really does want us all to think we’ve just had a generous sabbatical.”
Before the pandemic, I was a regular at my local bakery. I knew the staff and whenever I stopped in, we would talk for a while about local news, college, or my dog, Seamus, who they also knew on a first-name basis, while I decided what to get. I went so regularly that I had once watched one of the attendant’s tattoos go from half-inked to fully shaded to healed over the course of several weekly visits. The bakery opened with PPE barriers and strict guidelines a few months after the nationwide lockdown. I went much less frequently when it reopened. The leisure time I once spent idling through downtown businesses was now time spent training, networking, doing homework. I realized the habits I had picked up from the self-improvement craze were sustaining the loneliness that physical distancing had imposed on my life long after those restrictions had lifted. Making pointless conversation with the bakery folks, falling back into the rhythms of small-town communality when global interconnectivity was crumbling before our eyes — that’s where collective healing was going to happen, and I had retreated into myself to do the work instead.
Maybe it was just my for-you page playing tricks on me, but if this tendency towards rat-race self-betterment was widespread enough to warrant coverage in the Guardian and Vox, its consequences were likely just as widespread. The expectation for pandemic productivity enhanced the “work or die” dichotomy of American consumerism to a — dare I say it? — unprecedented level. The only excuse for not operating at maximum capacity was catching a life-threatening illness. Otherwise, there was nothing about you or your life that could not be improved, monetized, or learned from.
I might be a few years late, but it’s worth restating how ridiculous this indoctrination was during a global crisis, so to anyone with lingering doubts: you weren’t supposed to learn anything from any of this. The narrative that the pandemic was just a generous staycation ignores the reality that COVID-19 took millions of lives, put hundreds of thousands out of jobs, and many didn’t have the luxury of staying home. The truth, contrary to the soothing affirmations of privileged instagram self-help gurus, is that we are not in total control of our lives. To argue the counterclaim is to ignore not only a worldwide outbreak of a life-threatening illness, but systemic inequalities and generational poverty. The pandemic wasn’t a chance to mine ourselves for more work or profitability. The only thing you needed to do during the pandemic was survive.