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Illustration by Mike Byers

First Person: Buying Happiness

Millennials spend more money on self-care than any other generation, but that doesn't mean the investment is paying off. Trust me. I'm a millennial.

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A few months ago, shortly after moving to Denver for a new job and a fresh start, I saw an ad on Facebook for a $32 journal from the BestSelf Co. It was a daily planner with page headers like “Today’s Targets” and “Lessons Learned.” I should buy that, I thought. But I didn’t, and not because of the price. I already own three blank Moleskine journals where I plan to record my innermost thoughts. Any day now.

Like plenty of people my age, though, I might’ve easily shelled out the equivalent of a Sushi Den dinner for yet another self-care aid. According to a recent survey by market research firm Field Agent, millennials (young adults approximately ages 18 to 33) spend almost twice as much as baby boomers on their commitments to self-improvement. This includes things like exercising more, eating healthier, and de-stressing, which translates to gym memberships, diet plans, motivational apps, and prepackaged wellness kits complete with aromatherapy candles. But for all our spending on self-care—those activities we do regularly to reduce stress and boost our well-being—we millennials aren’t actually happier or less stressed. There’s still a step missing.

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As a 26-year-old who gladly drops part of his paycheck on gym packages, yoga sessions, and meditation apps like Headspace, I consider self-care to be truly important. And judging by the five yoga studios within walking distance of my apartment—not to mention the hundreds of people I just joined for a yoga session at Red Rocks on Saturday—Coloradans are (perhaps unsurprisingly) particularly avid self-care enthusiasts. But spending the money is the easy part; investing the time to truly engage with those self-improvement practices is more difficult. (Reminder: three blank journals over here.) We tell ourselves we’re going to meditate more. We promise to do some reflective journaling. But we rarely do. Sure, all generations can relate to this conundrum, but we millennials are the champions of the good-intentions/failed-execution problem. Why? The siren songs of Instagram. Facebook. Twitter. Snapchat. Yes, I blame it all on that frustratingly predictable generational divide: the internet.

A 2017 study conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health and the Young Health Movement found that social media is wreaking havoc on young adults’ mental health. Feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness are up, while body image and hours of high-quality sleep are down. I can vouch. I spend hours mindlessly scrolling through Instagram and Snapchat, and it makes me feel awful. When I see my newlywed friends cavorting on their Thailand honeymoon, I’m happy for them, sure—but also jealous. And as one life-affirming, adventurous Instagram story gives way to another, I look up from my couch and realize it’s been an hour since I last moved (aside from plowing through a sleeve of Chips Ahoy!). But I can’t stop scrolling. Worse yet: My iPhone, in catch-22 fashion, is also a helpful resource. It’s how I find self-improvement offerings like “Together: A Podcast About Relationships.” Recently, a lecture I found on Reddit even prompted me to buy a book on procrastination. (I still haven’t read it.)

For better or worse, though, that pervasive digital addiction makes us believe in the potential of self-care. We know that money can’t buy happiness—our parents taught us that—but the internet lets us think we could be the better versions of ourselves with the right investment. So, for now, I’m still mining the web and shelling out for help meeting my personal goals, but I’m also making a conscious effort to spend less time on social media. When I come home from work, I’m not immediately on my phone to see who lived their best life today; I’m leaving it on the kitchen counter and cranking out a quick, phoneless run. Even that brief respite seems to help with productivity, energy levels, and self-esteem. It takes effort, yes. But the best part? It doesn’t cost me a dime.

Illustration by Mike Byers

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