Performance of Self (is hard)

I have been listening to an audiobook called in The World Beyond Your Head and Chapter 9, The Presentation of Self, has really been sticking with me and I thought I’d share.

In the past, there were more trades people and a person would received his identity through his vocation. He was successful and viewed as successful by the amount of experience he had. He were respected as his professional and comforted by this identity.

Today, we have come to emphasize the individual and we are in charge of our success by “discovering ourselves.” A man is now responsible for his destiny…and any failure to measure up is also his fault. He is constantly trying to “become himself”…and the constant performance is tiring. This is the cost of being able to reinvent yourself all the time instead of having a trade you are valued for. We go through all this social sorting throughout life—classes, school, jobs, internships…—which also reinforces a social stigma of self-inflicted failure. We have created so many opportunities to be ranked and compare ourselves against one another. We have this an unrealistic ideal of how to be in the world and it’s depressing. Literally. The book connects this cultural movement with an upswing in depression.

I thought this was interesting because it has coincided with another podcast I’ve listened to discussing depression & suicide. One thing they’ve found is that people with harder lives don’t necessary commit suicide at a high rate, like one might guess. Twice as many white people than black people and a surprisingly high number rich people commit suicide in the US. In fact, regions with a higher quality of life have a higher rates of suicide. They gave an example of poorer groups of people plagued with disease, hardship, and high infant minorities with virtually no suicide rates. While not qualified, one of the researchers personally guessed that if you feel unhappy and there doesn’t seem to be an external cause like a job, family, or health, you might consider it an internal defect, thinking something wrong with you.

Something we all know from greeting cards & Disney movies manifests itself in the real life: You can be materially successful and miserable, or have simple means but be content every day.

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If you’re interested in the book, I don’t necessarily recommend it. It’s kind of dense and philosophical—but maybe that’s up your alley.

If you’re looking for ways to be happier, I would check out the short podcasts The Science of Happiness podcast where they ask folks to try happiness projects and then discuss the psychology behind it. 

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