When the New York Times reviewed Charles Duhigg’s 2012 book The Power of Habit, it defined a new kind of guide to the self. Duhigg’s book was “not a self-help book conveying one author’s homespun remedies, but a serious look at the science of habit formation and change.” No longer would self-improvement be the stuff of drugstore book racks. Now it would be rooted in science and make serious claims as a manual for life. The Science of Habit popularized a great deal of cutting-edge research on behavior change, but its scientific framework also made a pitch for the attention of highly educated, tech-savvy young members of the professional class.
They listened. Duhigg’s book kicked off a trend in wellness culture: Experimental psychology and data science would be used to develop clearer (and sometimes counterintuitive) recommendations for improving users’ lives. Bestselling books were written in this genre, including Cal Newport’s Deep Work, Angela Duckworth’s Grit, Adam Grant’s books, and James Clear’s Atomic Habits. But the new wellness culture’s biggest reach might have come through apps which use experimental psychology to guide users toward improved habits and lives. Noom, a dieting app, had 45 million users as of May 2021. Calm, a meditation app, had been downloaded 100 million times and had 4 million paid subscribers as of December 2020.
Taken together, these books and apps, and related podcasts, websites, and social media channels, form what I call cognitive wellness culture—and I’m a sucker for it. I’ve used Noom, Fabulous, and several workout apps; I read all the books mentioned above, looking for solutions to my recurring problems: procrastination, lack of focus, inconsistent exercise. And the fact is, they work. Noom helped me lose 20 pounds; Clear’s and Duhigg’s books helped me work more consistently. But the apps, books, podcasts, and websites that make up cognitive wellness culture promise more, and answer deeper needs, than is immediately apparent. They promise to give our lives purpose, meaning, and shape. It is worth asking: “What shape?”
Cognitive Wellness Culture and the Problem of Distraction
Cognitive wellness culture (or CWC) emerges out of attempts by earlier cultural critics to address the problem of distraction. In the 1980s, the media critic Neil Postman argued that television prompted a cultural revolution by transforming human activities into attention-grabbing enterprises. Politics, religion, art, and other fields subordinated their main purposes to entertainment. Postman traces entertainment culture through communication technologies that made possible a new category of entertainment called “news,” which ostensibly provided information, but packaged and promoted it almost entirely to elicit attention. If a car salesman in Maine reads about a scandal in Texas, such information offers him no practical course of action. He enjoys reading about it because it offers him a diversion and gives him an opportunity to form an opinion about what is happening in the world. Over time, advances in media technology have accelerated the volume of news and the demands that it makes on our overtaxed attentions; media companies compete by maximizing the attention that they can grab.
When the Internet displaced television in the 90s and 2000s, media critics often analyzed it as though it were TV, but more so. Where cable gave us hundreds of channels, the Internet gives us functionally infinite sources of “news.” I know I am not alone in this confession: In the days leading up to the 2016 election, I refreshed FiveThirtyEight.com dozens of times per day to check small changes in the projected outcome. None of the information had any effect on my intended vote; the news that I read satisfied only a need for a dopamine hit. Such experiences caused a generation of critics—usually digital immigrants themselves—to worry about the Internet’s effects on our brains. Often, such critics repeated tropes about the corruption of the youth, shrinking attention spans, and the declining popularity of old-fashioned books.
As millennials matured, they fashioned their own ways of dealing with the distracting lures of the media environment. CWC is their most distinctive response so far. CWC accepts a diversion-rich environment and asks, “How can we mitigate its worst effects?” It proposes to curate our attention so that we can better spend it. Most of its creators are digital natives: Grant (born 1981), Newport (1982), and Clear (1986) are early millennials, as are the co-founders of Noom (38 and 33 as of this writing).
CWC’s tools often draw from evolutionary psychology. During the long period of human evolution, that theory holds, demands on human attention were few but critical. If you overlooked a tiger, you wouldn’t live long enough to overlook anything else. As a result, humans evolved to be hyper-attentive to new information. Today we live in a world that makes incessant demands on our attention, but our neural circuitry has changed little in the last 50,000 years. Our brains are built to chase new things—new tweets, new follows, new products.
The exact contours of the story behind a particular cognitive wellness tool will vary according to the problem it addresses. A dieting app, for instance, might point out that we evolved in a world in which fat, protein, and carbohydrates were rare and precious. Now that they are abundant, their appeal is too great to resist. But whether they offer to help with dieting, finance, attention, or another aspect of our lives, CWC tools tell stories that share a broad outline: we need to update paleolithic neural hardware to a twenty-first-century environment.
To address today’s challenges, nearly all CWC tools propose a strategy of behavioral jiu-jitsu. Instead of relying on willpower to lose weight, perform better at work, or establish better habits, we can use cognitive science to turn the brain’s intrinsic workings toward the ends we want to achieve. Don’t waste effort trying to stop procrastinating, the CWC writers say; instead, rearrange your workspace to make working easier and distraction more difficult. Clean your desk and always work there, so that when you sit down, your brain hears, “time to work.” Place your phone in the far corner of the room so it is harder to check. Download an Internet blocker so you cannot surf the web while you are working. If you plan to go to the gym in the morning, pack your workout bag the night before and place it by the door along with your shoes and an energy bar. By lowering the effort required to perform a good behavior, and raising the cost of slacking off, you can trick your brain into making the right choices.
Finding Your “Why”
The first step in tricking your brain is to define your deeper goal, your “why.” When I began personal fitness training, my trainer asked me about my goals. He clarified that he meant my personal goals, not my fitness goals. The question was not, “are you here to lose weight, or to build strength, or to develop endurance?” It was, “Are you here so you can run a marathon, or feel good about yourself when you talk to women, or live longer to see more of life?” It did not matter what the goal was, but a key part of success was to visualize a goal that went beyond physical fitness.
The principle of “finding your ‘why’” is ubiquitous in the new wellness culture. Whether you want to get in shape, become more productive, make more money, or be a better partner, you will be asked to envision your deeper reason for choosing this goal. This emphasis on meaning differentiates millennial guides to fitness, finance, and other fields from their older self-help counterparts. Recent investing books, for instance, offer monetary advice that is quite similar to earlier books. But in the older books the “why” seemed obvious—money, right? CWC books ask us to understand what money means to us. It asks us to envision what we will do with it, whether our goal is to visit Machu Picchu or to be free enough from work that we can attend our children’s’ dance recitals.
In CWC, goals are another form of cognitive jiu-jitsu. We visualize them to unlock the energy that we need to make good, difficult choices. Often, achieving the goal is less important than the actions needed to achieve it. In The Power of Habit, Duhigg describes a research subject named Lisa whose goal enabled her to overcome a lifetime of self-destructive habits: smoking, over-eating, poor performance at work, selfishness in personal relationships. Lisa hit rock bottom in her early thirties: recently divorced, overweight, unemployed, crying in a hotel room over her inability to achieve even the simplest goals. But then, she was hit by a sudden, powerful desire to trek through the Egyptian desert. The trip required her to make major life changes: She needed to become healthy enough to survive and financially stable enough to afford the expedition. Over the next year, she made changes that she had struggled with for years. She quit smoking, lost weight, excelled at her new job, and trained for a marathon. She made her desert journey and it added a meaningful experience to her life—but becoming healthy, disciplined, and psychologically stable added more. Nevertheless, she could not change her habits until she found a goal that gave meaning to her new habits.
Goals make our everyday actions meaningful by fitting them into a story of personal growth. Once I start building habits, I can see my choices as steps toward becoming a new person. James Clear argues that “behavior change is identity change,” and advises readers that their goal is “not to run a marathon” but to “become a runner.” We are enjoined to build our identities through small actions that testify to them. My decision to run in the morning becomes more than a good or healthy action. It advances me toward becoming someone who works out. When I buy a latte on my way home, I am not just satisfying my desire for caffeine; I am rewarding myself for having gone to the gym. In this way, the latte becomes “self-care,” which is closely aligned with CWC because both make meaning by turning ordinary actions into messages that we send to ourselves. Buying my latte says, “I am worth this. I have value and deserve nice things.” Together, self-care and self-improvement transform daily actions into chapters in a story of which I am the author and central character: “How Bill became the man he wants to be.”
CWC weaves our lives into a story that appeals to us because it offers us two things at once: meaningful lives and control. I decide what life CWC will enable me to achieve. But the story it tells is fixed on the self alone. It has only one true character: the user. Duhigg tells us, “Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom—and the responsibility—to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.” If only your agency truly matters in determining your identity and your course in life, you have all the power, and all the responsibility, for remaking it. And you alone are responsible for finding it meaningful.
Public Languages and Unchosen Obligations
What do we mean when we say we want our lives to be meaningful? In this context, meaning is an odd word, drawn from an analogy to language, and it suggests that our actions should refer to something beyond themselves. If you know that your father enjoys handyman jobs but that his drill is old and worn, you might buy him a new drill. The effect of your gift is no different than if he had bought the drill at a hardware store. But to make the gift, you had to notice that he needed a drill, remember that fact, and then purchase it. It does not matter that he could have bought a drill for himself; the drill is a symbol for the real meaning, which is your love for him. But its meaning is not reducible to the words “I love you” because, while meaning is most apparent in language, it reaches beyond language to include our choices.
Whether or not we want our actions to communicate, they do. I might be staring at my phone, baffled, trying to guess a five-letter word that contains “I,” “E,” “K,” and “N” but all…of…them…are…in…the…wrong…place. My sister says “Billy!” and I look up, surprised to see that she has come into the room. I was too distracted by Wordle to realize she was there, but my actions communicated that she mattered, at that moment, less to me than what I was doing on my phone.
We move in a web of meanings given, received, and understood. And meanings commit us. Our family expects us to care for our elderly relatives; if we are raised in a tight-knit town or a devout religious community, we begin life with a thick network of local support and local obligations. These commitments are unequal and unpredictable; our families give support and impose burdens. In addition to the support and constraints that a community can provide, being part of a community places us in a story that precedes us and is beyond our control. If you help a sick relative go to the bathroom, you are doing something that, in one sense, is no different from the same action performed by a paid home health aide. But your action conveys meaning that the home health aide’s action cannot, because your action is part of the decades-long story of your relationship with that relative, and of the family of which you both are a part.
When knowledge workers move to a magnet city such as New York or Austin, they leave behind a set of expectations that imbued their actions with significance. Often, they leave to pursue a career that is more exciting than what was available back home, and CWC promises to help them achieve the goals they left home to pursue. But CWC promises something else as well: it will grant our lives a meaning to replace the one we lost—but this new meaning will leave us in control.
There’s something admirably American about wanting to determine the meaning of our own lives. The spirit of Huckleberry Finn stands behind anyone who says, “Who are you to tell me how to live my life?” But when I replace the story I have been given with one that I write for myself, I place the entire burden of sustaining meaning on my own shoulders. I must evaluate my passions to determine the life I want to live and the goals I want to achieve. Then—and this is the hard part—I must continue to see those goals as meaningful, and interpret daily actions as steps toward them.
In its attempt to give us control over our own stories, CWC impoverishes the stories we share and the meanings we make together. Generally, CWC books and apps encourage users to enlist their friends and family as accountability partners. Users share their goals and check in about progress and failings. Accountability partners want you to succeed and they support you in your goals, but they do not depend on your success. As a result, they can root for whatever you choose to do, but also support you when you change your mind. An accountability partner will cheer you on and keep you working in medical school, but if you decide that you don’t want to be a doctor after all, she will celebrate the fact that made the decision that is best for you. Meanwhile, she pursues her own, self-determined goals, and you support her in turn. All of this is quite valuable. But accountability partners are not sufficient for a meaningful life because their goals are independent of yours.
Think how different this is from caring for your aging mother. Such a situation is frustrating for you and for her. Neither of you would ever have chosen it. But your sacrifices—to visit her, to take your kids to see her, to take care of her household and medical challenges—has a real, objective effect on a person. She depends on you. Your actions have meaning that is out there, in the world, because you share it with her. You don’t ask, “Do my actions matter?” when you see the person to whom they matter. The appeal of CWC culture, then, is identical to its main deficiency: It never asks you to take on unchosen obligations. If you want your life to be enjoyable, exciting, and satisfying, CWC has its uses. I’m not sorry that I have used it, and in some ways I would recommend it, but it can’t give us meaning. If you want your life to matter, go beyond it. Be part of the story that predates you.