Self-Help Isn’t The Solution; It’s The Problem

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. 

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The sober curious movement (or “new sobriety”—the branding comes in a variety of flavors) is less a coherent philosophy or sound medical advice and more of a marketing campaign, hawking self-help merchandise and thousand-dollar yoga retreats, along with run-of-the-mill solipsism. It is an online phenomenon, fluent in the language of Instagram, elevated by media-types who share similar well-to-do backgrounds and sensibilities. It is hash-taggable psychobabble meant to solve cosmopolitan ennui and stay-at-home malaise. Its fans are not only upper class but also ultra-fit, photogenic 30-and-40-somethings ready-made for television. 

Scratching the surface, you discover that the day-to-day problems of sobriety-curious enthusiasts aren’t what most of us would classify as problems. And as for solutions, it features primarily simple adjustments like not carrying into adulthood the same level of alcohol consumption you did as an undergraduate. I can’t imagine the people quoted in these stories as real; they are much closer to Arrested Development or Schitt’s Creek characters. Even that comparison might be generous. 

A reporter comparing “mindful drinking” (lots of terms for the same thing) to AA’s anonymity found, “No longer is the topic of sobriety confined to discreet meetings in church halls over Styrofoam cups of lukewarm Maxwell House. For these New Abstainers, sobriety is a thing to be, yes, toasted over $15 artisanal mocktails at alcohol-free nights at chic bars around the country, or at “sober-curious” yoga retreats, or early-morning dance parties for those with no need to sleep off the previous night’s bender.”

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This abstinence-lite fade is everywhere, extending well beyond flirtations with sober curious or “mindful drinking.” Its most exaggerated form comes via Silicon Valley, where a trio at one startup practices “dopamine fasting,” literally, a fast of everything. It is restrictive: no eating, no screens, no sex, no eye contact, no work (so not all bad), no exercise, no music. What inspired these upstarts to venture into this niche practice? They realized one day that they had a problem: their lives were too good. They were too successful, they had too much money, and too many willing sexual partners. As one write-up detailed:

Everything was going really well for the men of Tennessee Street. Women wanted to talk to them, investors wanted to invest, their new site got traffic, phones were buzzing, their Magic: The Gathering cards were appreciating. This all was exactly the problem. They tried to tamp the pleasure. They would not eat for days (intermittent fasting). They would eschew screen (digital detox). It was not enough. Life was still so good and pleasurable. And so they came to the root of it: dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is involved in how we feel pleasure. The three of them—all in their mid-20s and founders of SleepWell, a sleep analysis start-up—needed to go on a dopamine fast.”

My faith in humanity was restored scrolling through the first few comments, quickly discovering others also found the story to be absurd. Wealthy tech millionaires constructing non-problems to overcome might be the saddest Hero’s Journey arc ever imagined.

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From a societal perspective, self-restriction fads like dopamine fasting and being sober curious seem harmless but are actually quite pernicious. For starters, they are impractical for anyone earning less than six figures a year, who lives outside a major metropolitan area, or who answers to a boss, manager or supervisor. So, in effect, everybody outside a rounding error of the population. 

Apart from that, these ideas of self-help movements receive more coverage than they deserve. I’m open to sensory deprivation tanks for all and the option for “work fasting” (also known as an unpaid sick days or fireable offense for most employees), but expanding these ideas to all strikes me as unlikely as fully automated luxury communism. It also reinforces the notion social and economic problems aren’t actual social or economic outside of the individual. Ronald Pursuer’s McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, provides some insight into these overlapping issues of new-age feel-goodery, its hollow core, and how these things exist without facing larger structural concerns: 

Anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to change it is not revolutionary — it just helps people cope. However, it could also be making things worse. Instead of encouraging radical action, it says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live. And yet mindfulness zealots believe that paying closer attention to the present moment without passing judgment has the revolutionary power to transform the whole world. It’s magical thinking on steroids.”

Maybe I’ll end by adding what might not be obvious: I’m not opposed to or arguing against being sober curious, AA, or other forms of self-help for those that find it helpful. Just because something doesn’t have extensive medical evidence or substantial data to document effectiveness doesn’t mean that, for some people, some activities and ideas aren’t useful. It would be hypocritical to take that position given that last year my New Year’s resolution was to lose weight, and I found success through water fasting, something I found helpful not from reams of data or medical advice but from watching random people on YouTube give anecdotal accounts. It worked better than other alternatives I tried. My general outlook for individuals is, do whatever works. The difference is pushing or proposing to solve the obesity crisis by propagating water fast-based strategy as something feasible for most people outside of a small subset of the population. It wouldn’t work. 

That is how I view the sober curious and AA—both fine as far as being helpful for subsets of the population—but not really a solution for the real problem, a healthcare system incapable of handling basic issues like substance use disorder, to name one problem. I don’t have a personal New Year’s resolution, more of an optimistic hope or wish that in this new decade, that maybe we focus less on millionaires with sensory deprivation chambers or wine moms turned sober curious adopters as solutions, and go for something more modest: say, a functional healthcare system. Anything that reorients us from self-help and moves closer to needed structural reform is, well, at the least an improvement. I guess we’ll see what happens.