Illustration by Beth Nicol
It is no secret that today’s society is a pressured one. Whether it be to do well at school, in your career or in your social life; we are constantly striving to succeed. That may sound dramatic - as it is rare for people to feel the burden of these demands every second of the day - but we are all living with a weight on our shoulders: one we have just become acclimatised to.
The main reason this anxiety doesn’t dominate conversation is because it is somewhat of a ‘public secret’, a term coined by Plan C to describe “something that everyone knows, but nobody admits". Public secrets are usually "personalised...only visible at an individual, psychological level; the social causes of the problem are concealed.” (2014). No one wants to admit they are living under pressure as complaining or rebelling could be framed as a kind of failure, leaving us so acclimatised to living with and concealing these social demands that it has become the norm.
Who implemented this ‘public secret' in the first place? We have lived in a capitalist society for centuries, leaving us acclimatised to monetised pursuits, driven by the strive for success and for social status. Each phase of capitalism has a dominant affect – or public secret - that holds it together. Today’s dominant affect is anxiety. “All forms of intensity, self-expression, emotional connection, immediacy, and enjoyment are now laced with anxiety” (Plan C, 2014), and although most instantly blame themselves for their worries, it is the structure of our society that is causing us problems. Each phase blames the system’s victims for the suffering that the system causes, tricking us into thinking that the anxiety or nerves we feel surrounding our everyday existence are a personal problem, not one caused by the pressures placed on us. When issues of anxiety or low feelings are discussed at all, they are understood as individual psychological problems, often blamed on faulty thought patterns or poor adaptation. When feeling pressured to perform it is hard to admit anything real, thus turning these worries into shameful secrets hidden close to all our chests.
Unknowingly we feel the effects of capitalism every day, making the idea of breaking away from capitalist ideals – like hyper-productivity and ‘popularity’ - an extremely unnerving one. The anxiety is created and maintained by us all as we collectively hold and perform a capitalist ideal that does not serve us or, ultimately, society. This performative pressure placed on people by their social surroundings can lead to great unhappiness as they must mask their true identities and desires in an attempt to appease social norms. “Capitalism has encouraged the growth of mediatised secondary identities...which have to be obsessively maintained” (Plan C, 2014). Personal insecurities - usually encouraged by strongly implemented ‘social standards’- will lead people to masquerade as the versions of themselves that they feel are socially worthy. The performance itself is exhausting; never being able to rest, fit in or ‘be yourself’. When you think about it this way, it is obvious that we are not benefitting from this mindset, but ironically these ideals are maintained by those it destroys: us. Capitalism preaches individualism, but the needs of an individual are not important once basic necessities are met. Individual desires are instead treated as luxury.
When examining the idea of ‘sickness’ in a capitalist society and how it is constructed to juxtapose a ‘norm’ of hyper-productivity, it clearly reveals the faults of our society, leading to the conclusion that these faults are structural instead of personal as usually framed. In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fischer highlights that “by privatizing these problems...any question of social systemic causation is ruled out” (2009). By dismissing social causation and instead creating even more individual worry, society gets away with blaming us for its problems, making it unlikely they will ever be combatted on a larger scale, leaving the problem to those who suffer instead of the wider community.
Wellness has also been absorbed into contemporary capitalism, making it now a monetized pursuit. In writer and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s talk about her book Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Undermines America, she claims that positive thinking is now an ideology, one we are all forced to adopt (2009). Author Andre Spicer builds on this in his talk at the Hanken School of Economics, explaining the pressures that come from this demand to be well, which can backfire and make people even more anxious (2015). By marketing wellness, capitalism can profit from making people sick and then selling them ways to combat their social anxieties and socially induced disorders through the ‘self-care’ industry.
By creating a stark distinction between ‘wellness’ and ‘sickness’ and those ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the social regime, contemporary society can be placed at the root of a lot of mental health issues. The best example of which comes from marginalised communities, as their lack of privilege has obvious effects on their wellbeing. This can be seen widely in the daily discrimination faced by many as well as obstruction caused by prejudice. “Like depression, racism is a pervasive problem that affects all levels of everyday experience” (Cvetkovich, 2012) and thus shapes people’s everyday relations and experience. When examining the effect of society on mental health, the exclusion of such strong cultural definers like race and class leads to an incomplete analysis of the impact of social factors on one's mental health as they define so much of your existence. This readily reveals the link between social factors and mental wellbeing. It is also not uncommon for people's mental health to deteriorate facing troubles at work, money worries or social difficulties. Although external issues, it is always your problem. Contemporary society has turned wellness into a capitalist pursuit, but realistically it is capitalist society itself which is making people sick.
What to do? We are so used to existing in a social system that anything outside of it does seem a little ‘sick’, however wrong we know this observation to be. I think in understanding that capitalism promotes wellness and productivity but does not guarantee it, we can begin to take a step back from the constant stresses of success and realise these pursuits can be detrimental. By striving for wellness, it can actually hinder one's wellbeing and lead to a society constructed around false pretence as its members suffer in private. There is no quick fix to this, but it is so important that we become aware of our position and don’t become too entwined in expectation. Progression and success are of course important but realising that they are not a necessity may qualm some of your worries. Also know you are not alone in your feelings, and some of the secret stresses you face are all of our burdens to bear. Do well, but for yourself and not for the demands or expectations of others. We are all as nervous, all as unsure, all in this together.
Written by Isobel Gorman-Buckley
Arendt, Hannah (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. P.68-78
Cvetkovich, A. (2012) Depression: A Public Feeling. North Carolina: Duke University Press. P.1-26, P.115-153
Ehrenreich, B. (2009) 'Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Undermines America' [Lecture]. Harvard Book Store. October 15th. Available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvwyhSeLZT8 (Accessed: 10/03/20)
Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist Realism: is There no Alternative?. Winchester, UK: Zero Books. Halberstam, J. (2015) 'Zombie Humanism at the End of the World' [Lecture]. ICI Berlin. 27th May.
Hevda, J. (2016) 'Sick Woman Theory', Mask Magazine. Available at: www.maskmagazine.com/not-again/struggle/sick-woman-theory (Accessed: 10/03/20).
Plan C (2014) WE ARE ALL VERY ANXIOUS. Available at: www.weareplanc.org/blog/we- are-all-very-anxious (Accessed: 10/03/2020).
Spicer, A. (2015) 'The Wellness Syndrome' [Lecture]. Hanken School of Economics. January 21st. Available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FJNsPst9-E (Accessed: 10/03/20).