The other day, a good friend who is Swedish emailed me a link to a post by Ann Charlott Altstadt, a Swedish writer who suggests that when life gets us down, we'd sometimes be better off ditching the trip to the yoga studio or the psychologist and seeing a sociologist instead.
Funny, my friend said, but true.
Since my knowledge of Swedish is, well, limited to the Muppets' Swedish Chef, I used Google Translate and, given a few glitches, I think I caught the drift: When you find yourself in some deep weeds, it's not always you that needs fixing. Rather than placating yourselves with feel-good measures, you ought to look toward the structures that are causing all the grief in the first place.
In other words: Ain't me, babe. It's you.
If you can get past the cyber-translation, which is more than a little wacky in places, here's a taste of what Altstadt had to say:
...it was so liberating when psychologist and author Jenny Jäger Feldt... questioned the trendiest and most fashionable solution to all our social problems -- mindfulness. For example, if 90 percent in a workplace feel stressed, it probably is not a personal problem, and how can it be?... Can the solution be to stand and smell for 10 minutes on the fish stick pack you just opened for dinner?
If you read women's magazines, you get an intravenous overdose of the millions of images on the hyper-aesthetic women sitting with eyes closed in yoga position. Women take care of themselves, treat themselves and enjoy in their home spa. The woman in perfect balance in the sofa corner with folklore blanket sipping a giant cup of soothing herbal tea is a genre of its own class with religious myths of the Middle Ages.
I hit the "like" button. As my Swedish friend points out, so much of the rhetoric these days is about us taking responsibility for how we react and feel. But what if our negative reactions are normal and warranted?
Indeed. We're led to believe that if we're not happy, if we're less than content, there's something wrong with us. But what if those negative feelings alert us to a structure in need of a fix? When we're unhappy/stressed/worried/angry/sad -- pick one -- it may well be the absolute proper response to a situation where, if we were calm and peaceful, THAT would be a sign of crazy. When we are stretched too thin, when we're struggling with the second shift, when we're overworked and underpaid, when we're striving for that elusive thing called perfect, when we're relentlessly undecided, maybe it's not us that needs help -- it's the system.
The structures themselves. Cue the sociologist.
And yet, we're led to believe that if we would just, you know, dig the moment with a steaming cup of herbal tea, all would be right with the world.
All of which reminds me of a crazy notion we wrote about a couple years ago: on-the-job happiness coaching:
According to the Wall Street Journal, corralling employees in a conference room and showing them how to make happy is apparently the new black: coaching is seeping into the workplace. A growing number of employers, including UBS, American Express, KPMG and the law firm Goodwin Procter, have hired trainers who draw on psychological research, ancient religious traditions or both to inspire workers to take a more positive attitude -- or at least a neutral one. Happiness-at-work coaching is the theme of a crop of new business books and a growing number of MBA-school courses.
The coaching stuff seems silly, at least to me, but we see vestiges of this happiness-building stuff all the time: workplace massage chairs. Free sessions with a work-life coach. Oatmeal raisin cookies (my personal favorite) in the front office. All of which might feel great at the time, but is it all a way to placate us, to keep us smiling so that we won't notice that we're overworked, that we deserve a raise, that your buddy in the next cube just got laid off, that the list of things-to-do-when-you-get home is longer than your right arm, that we're still making only seventy-seven cents to the guy's buck? To keep us from questioning why we need the massage chairs in the first place?
To keep us thinking that if it's happy and serene that we want, all we need do is stop and smell the chamomile?
Or, as Altstadt writes, the fish stick pack. Anyway, she writes that she's tried mindfulness and that all it does is stress her out. Instead of sitting around thinking about reality, what she'd rather do is change it.