Reports from the World Health Organization have shown that Americans are among the most anxious, depressed people in the world—and that was before a reality television star settled into the White House, bringing with him a percussive beat of mean-spirited executive orders, obnoxious presidential tweets and bare-knuckled attacks on civil society as we know it.
Marketers are experts at monetizing disquiet. In liberal hubs, where the affluent work and play, Trump anxiety is providing a boost in certain sectors as businesses cater to those hoping to reclaim a sense of sanity and wellbeing. Addled urbanites are heading to therapy in droves. Mental health practitioners report that distressed clients are willing to pay large sums just to talk about their political angst, citing everything from gastrointestinal symptoms to overwhelming feelings of powerlessness.
Others seek sanctuaries from the storm. “Nesting at home is the new going out,” proclaims one trend-watching website. High-end stores are offering “orglamic” designs that make the buyer feel trendily sustainable by purchasing luxury items for the home. Elle Décor advises readers that 2017 will go down as “a bright year filled with cheery colors, mixed patterns, and happy motifs—plus a few unexpected twists.” (You can say that again!) A shade called Greenery is the 2017 Pantone Paint Color of the Year, touted as just the cure for “a complex political and social environment.” Butterfly motifs, with their “buoyant, happy” vibe are also trending.
Having tense political discussions with your spouse? Separate master bedrooms are a new trend in upscale homes. Feeling nutritionally depleted? High-tech indoor gardening equipment, such as Urban Cultivator (priced at $2,500), allows you to cultivate artisanal greens without leaving your newly remodeled kitchen. Added bonus: you get to brag to dinner party guests who ask where the salad is “sourced.” Just don’t let them bring up politics.
Contemporary liberals are known for their ability to transform existential angst and hard-to-define guilt into a variety of discrete symptoms, from phantom food allergies to strange new trepidations such as “natural environment phobia,” a fear of engaging with nature. Now that the gluten-free trend has taken a beating, marketers turn their attention to other buzzwords that can be profitably worked into the American health vocabulary. Food brands touting inflammation-fighting benefits are on the rise, as well as medicinal beverages and superfood herbal libations promising cosmic calm.
An explosion of wellness coaches, personal training apps and wearable technology allows you to focus 24/7 on body/mind optimization. Getting drunk to kill the blues is very last year, say the marketers, so now some Angelinos and New Yorkers are offered alcohol-free party popups like “The Softer Image,” which features a “high vibe bar” with “rotating herbalists and chefs” to provide healing energy and nourishment that will not produce hangovers. The goal of the gatherings, say the advertisers, is simple: bliss. In Los Angeles, Integral Fitness offers a monthly Conscious Family Dinner in which alcohol is verboten, but “transformation, healing and empowerment” are happily on the menu.
Fitness cults are a tried and true way to tame the stress devil, and the focus now is on exercise not merely as a health-maintenance activity, but a cure for isolation. Instead of hitting the nightclub on a Friday night, city-dwellers can enjoy a “heart-pumping happy hour” at Barry’s Bootcamp, complete with a DJ to “drown out the pain.” Regulars refer to the sessions as “church.”
The WOOM Center, a “multi-sensory” yoga/meditation studio and café in downtown Manhattan, fosters a sense of community and womb-like bliss—at least that’s the theory. On a recent weekend, I tried it out for myself, assuming strenuous yoga poses in an overheated room as rainbow-colored digital bubbles pulsated on the walls, all the while ducking streams of sweat produced from the yogi beside me. This was followed by a lavender spritz and complimentary beet-juice tonic. Overall result: more nausea than nirvana.
Meditation is the hottest trend in self-soothing—it doesn’t require turning yourself into a pretzel and nobody will projectile sweat on you. Back in the day, you could drop a couple of bucks in the donation box at your local Dharma center and do your thing. But now meditation “consumers” can take their pick of high-end settings, lavish accoutrements and scientifically based programming. In New York, young professionals don athleisure wear for meditation classes at the trendy Standard Hotel in the East Village. Classes are hosted by a company called The Path, which (for $600 a year) promises you elite training with master teachers, fun social events and opulent settings for your journey inward. Mndfl, touted by Vogue as Manhattan’s “must-visit meditation center,” claims it simply “exists to make humans feel good.” I stopped by for a drop-in session and was greeted by an enthusiastic young woman who chirped about the books from various gurus available for purchase and proudly showed me a wall covered in actual living moss and lichen. I dutifully crouched on a zafu cushion in a somewhat cramped room as a guide offered pleasant banalities on “letting go” and mentally rowing myself in a visionary canoe. Unfortunately, just as I was getting there, the fart of a fellow traveler jolted me back to reality.
The hands-down favorite in my deluxe meditation tour was Inscape, a “multi-platform meditation brand” that operates both a gorgeous 5,000-square-foot Manhattan studio space with classes and has its own iOS app. Upon entering, you pass through a self-care-themed gift shop stocked with expensive soy candles and books by mavens of mindfulness like actress Cameron Diaz. As I settled into a natural-fiber beanbag chair sipping cucumber-infused water waiting for my class to begin, I had to admit, I could get very comfortable here. Sessions take place in one of two soothingly decorated rooms, with soft colored lights and macramé designs festooning the ceiling. There are no teachers, just a recorded female voice who guides your journey in soothing Australian-accented cadences. For my “Deep Sound” experience, I lay on a plush mat, supported by pillows as cosmic pulsations vibrated my body. I was sonically swaddled, and I liked it.
Trendsetters like Arianna Huffington have cashed in on all the free-floating anxiety by getting well ahead of the game. Last year, the internet doyenne exited her famous website to found Thrive Global, which delivers corporate training that promises to make America’s employees happy and well-rested. With a little more sleep and meditation, she wagers, workers can forget about job insecurity, our nightmare health care system and fading dreams of retirement. The Thrive Global store offers $200 pajamas and “biologically correct” light bulbs in service to this noble vision.
Human beings, marketers realize, have deep urges to huddle and soothe themselves. Through all the 24/7 Trump-invested cable news and vitriolic social media platforms, people are understandably trying to remember the basics of who they are and what they need. Trying out a fancy meditation studio is surely preferable to regressing into self-destruction via prescription drugs, but self-care doesn’t have to cost bundles; just about anyone can take a walk, listen to music, do deep breathing exercises, or hug somebody.
There’s a danger in turning solipsistically inward and relying on expansions of the market to counter the shrinkage of our social space, the destruction of our institutions and the despoliation of nature. The market ideology of competition, which roots us in crisis and struggle with one another, will not get us through this. No spa or superfood can release us from the grip of a distorted social order. We need something besides adult coloring books to reclaim our lives from alien markets and politicians.
The trend toward activism, for example, can combat feelings of powerlessness, and this doesn’t have to mean something as silly as “dressing for resistance” in a feminist T-shirt, as Vogue suggests. Volunteering can help restore positive social bonding that is more satisfying than relying on high-cost pseudo-communities.
When people are under stress, the default position is us v. them, and perhaps the greatest need is for liberals to stop embubbling themselves and acting as if entire regions of the country and populations of people are evil. Getting out of our small, self-reinforcing groups to listen to those whose lives have been decimated by the current system—like white, working-class Trump voters—will be a key ingredient in any social and economic transformation. Realizing that human beings everywhere are mostly pretty decent people just trying to deal with the vicissitudes of life is an existential tonic.
Liberals need to get a bit out of their comfort zones; otherwise the hucksters of happiness will be only too glad to peddle false cures for pathologies that will never be solved by a soy candle.