…the advice to be more mindful often contains a hefty scoop of moralizing smugness, a kind of “moment-shaming” for the distractible, like a stern teacher scolding us for failing to concentrate in class. The implication is that by neglecting to live in the moment we are ungrateful and unspontaneous, we are wasting our lives, and therefore if we are unhappy, we really have only ourselves to blame.
This judgmental tone is part of a long history of self-help-based cultural thought policing. At its worst, the positive-thinking movement deftly rebranded actual problems as “problematic thoughts.” Now mindfulness has taken its place as the focus of our appetite for inner self-improvement. Where once problems ranging from bad marriages and work stress to poverty and race discrimination were routinely dismissed as a failure to “think positive,” now our preferred solution to life’s complex and entrenched problems is to instruct the distressed to be more mindful.
This is a kind of neo-liberalism of the emotions, in which happiness is seen not as a response to our circumstances but as a result of our own individual mental effort, a reward for the deserving. The problem is not your sky-high rent or meager paycheck, your cheating spouse or unfair boss or teetering pile of dirty dishes. The problem is you.
It is, of course, easier and cheaper to blame the individual for thinking the wrong thoughts than it is to tackle the thorny causes of his unhappiness. So we give inner-city schoolchildren mindfulness classes rather than engage with education inequality, and instruct exhausted office workers in mindful breathing rather than giving them paid vacation or better health care benefits.
Ruth Whippman, “Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment”, The New York Times (27 November 2016), SR9.