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New Year’s resolutions are a scam: Your anxiety makes the 1 percent mega-millions

Silicon Valley is betting big that wearable technology will keep us in a state of January neurosis all year long


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William Davies
January 1, 2015 3:00pm (UTC)

Somewhere between December 25 and January 2, tradition states that we should perform an existential U-turn. The season of goodwill, giving and family morphs rapidly into that of neurotic self-improvement and fitness plans. January is the month when we strive to confront some of our most disquieting questions: Who do I want to be? What do I wish to look like? Which of my habits do I hope to cast aside?

Marketers have always sought to ensure that our full range of ethical needs can be satisfied through spending money. Both altruism and egoism are fertile territory for selling more products and services. It goes without saying that Christmas represents a commercial nirvana. But there is also a particular affinity between consumer culture and that January dream of self-transformation.

Ever since advertising agencies first studied how to prompt specific emotions during the 1920s, anxieties about self-improvement have been deliberately cultivated by capitalism. The 'new year, new me' mindset of January is a rich opportunity for those wishing to sell us stuff. Our dietary pledges and lifestyle goals leave us vulnerable to the most idealistic advertising messages regarding who we might become over the next year.

Yet there are certain features of today's marketplace and culture that add an extra bite to the business end of self-transformation, which have only emerged in the last few years.

Firstly, things have become a lot more technological and scientific. In the past, New Years' resolutions were fundamentally ethical pledges regarding the life one would like to live. They were like marriage vows made to one-self. "I promise to be a person who doesn't smoke." "I commit to drinking more water." In the absence of any other party to be faithful to, such vows tend to dissolve relatively quickly.

Today, however, we live in the age of smart and wearable technologies, whose purpose is to convert self-transformation from an ethical project into a scientific one. In the process, we outsource much of the mental strain of self-control to machines. Technologies such as the 'smart cup' Vessyl, which "automatically knows and tracks everything you drink," provide data on what we've been putting in our bodies.

The 'quantified self movement,' which began as an experimental project of digitally tracking anything from one's nutrition to one's sex-life, has become big business, now that Fitbits, Jawbones and smart watches collect data on bodily behavior and movement. The chief innovations of the iPhone 6, released in September, were apps which monitor physical activity and health behaviors.

If Silicon Valley venture capitalists are even half right, the next five years will see a flood of new gadgets, wearable technologies and apps aimed at monitoring and reporting how we (principally our bodies, brains and credit cards) are behaving, from one minute to the next. In that respect, early-January neurosis -- am I being the person I'd like to be? -- is now becoming the normal condition of the digital technology user, throughout the year. Extensive new technological infrastructures are being built simply to nurture and answer that one lonely question, only now with quantitative data. Our anxiety is their revenue opportunity.

The attempt to reduce ethical or political questions to hard, quantitative data is far from new. As far back as the 1780s, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that governments should abandon their concern with 'right' and 'wrong,' focusing instead on what would produce increases in physical pleasure for all. What we see today, as our bodies become the object of constant measurement, is a drastic shrinkage and personalization of that same project. The benefit is that self-improvement comes to feel less arbitrary. The cost is that it comes to feel less meaningful at the same time.

New Year's resolutions have tended to be focused upon the body, be that via nutrition, exercise or temperance of various kinds. But as the data-miners get more intimate with our physical lives, the management of psychological well-being is also being rendered increasingly scientific. A new years resolution to be 'happier' would have sounded like wishful thinking only twenty years ago. Not any more.

The rapid growth of positive psychology and the neuroscience of emotions since the 1990s has generated an industry of consultants, gurus, economists and policy-makers advising employers and marketers on how to increase happiness in people. This is largely motivated by some hard economic imperatives, to increase the appeal of brands to consumers, and increase the productivity of employees in the workplace. The science of happiness is now at the center of both these ambitions.

But just as for physical wellbeing, this agenda also has its more personalized manifestations. The neuroscientist Paul Zak argues that happiness is like a 'muscle', which we must make time to exercise regularly, or it will grow slack. No doubt there are many people this January who are pledging to look after their emotions and brains better this year, just as there are others who aim to do the same for their physiques. On the other hand, if they find by February that they've fallen into bad habits, there is always Thync, a new consumer product which alters one's emotional state using neuro-signaling.

As self-optimization becomes a technological, neurological project, the question has to be asked: who really is the self being optimized here, and who decides what 'optimal' means? Those lonely ethical aspirations to 'be a bit more x,' or 'do a bit less of y,' have become the centerpieces of a whole new industry. Even our moods are no longer entirely 'ours,' once they're being tracked, monitored and analyzed, albeit largely with our cooperation.

As you set out on that first painful jog of the year, or forgo that glass of wine, you may find yourself wondering if there is an app, a wearable device or a brain exercise that could make the experience a little easier. There probably is. The question is how far into the arms of the new self-transformation industry you wish to throw yourself. And that's a whole different ethical quandary altogether.


William Davies

William Davies is a Senior Lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London. His book The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold us Wellbeing is published by Verso in May 2015.

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