Psychology Magazine

Wellness Apps Can't Cure Our Digital Dehumanization

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

Wortham describes the surge in the use of wellness Apps as we have shifted our entire lives indoors this past year and notes that they can't address the real problem of the alienation of 21st-century work as email, social media, and zoom are making us increasingly miserable. (see, for example, Newport's description of how in an attempt to work more effectively, we've accidentally deployed an inhumane way to collaborate (email) that causes verbal overload, and Bailenson's arguement that nonverbal overload is one of the root causes of the Zoom fatigue that is experienced by many of us.)

Wortham notes that the pandemic fatigue resulting from shifting our lives indoors and online, blurring even further the distinction between work and everything else, has resulted in a huge increase in the use of apps to help in coping with increased stresses:

Mindfulness apps like Calm, Headspace, Fabulous, Rootd and Liberate all surged over the past year, downloaded by people in search of reprieve from the crushing anxiety of the virus. Even the mere act of tapping Calm open has a narcotic effect: You can hear a thick, sonorous hum of crickets and see a picture of a serene mountain range and peaceful lake. Last April, as the world moved into a global lockdown, more than two million people paid $69.99 for an annual subscription to the app, which includes a selection of “daily calms,” or short talks on things like the beauty of mandalas and de-escalating conflict, breathing exercises and soundscapes with titles like “White Noise Ocean Surf” and “Wind in Pines.”
Wellness, the way our culture chooses to define it, has become synonymous with productivity and self-optimization. But wellness isn’t something that can be downloaded and consumed, even if the constellations of sun-drenched photos on your Instagram feed indicate otherwise.
Our attachment to our devices and what we see on them is often the cause of our angst...research suggests that our fixation on our smartphones contributes to headaches, bad posture, fatigue, depression and anxiety... Endlessly scrolling through Netflix and checking social media notifications is not just a byproduct of boredom; it’s a function of design intended to be so persuasive that it feels urgent and impossible to stop. Technology is doing more than capturing our attention — it’s extracting whatever data it can get from us and monetizing it. Shoshana Zuboff, a social psychologist and professor emerita at Harvard, describes this as “surveillance capitalism,” the mining of private human experiences for raw behavioral data that can be sold to advertisers eager to anticipate trends in the marketplace.
Social media monetizes the urgency of wanting, and there are economic incentives for keeping us engaged, unhappy, seeking, convinced there’s something more to consume, something better to do, learn or buy. Buddhism teaches that there are no quick fixes, and apps like Calm are better at advertising relaxing services — and profiting from them — than they are at actually providing them in a meaningful way. Mindfulness is less about reducing stress and more about reducing dissatisfaction through direct investigation of our experience. But marketing stress reduction is more successful, and definitely more likely to win a download or corporate account.
We’re already isolated from our communities, and pandemic fatigue is pushing us even farther away from one another. Corporate wellness strategies mimic the most problematic parts of wellness culture, equating care with a Wi-Fi-connected bike rather than finding ways to work together and form new models of health and care-taking that don’t automatically ascribe our value to how much we can do. For many of us, work is not responsible for our freedom or even satisfaction: It shouldn’t dictate our well-being, either.

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