Shannon Kelley

Shannon Kelley
Santa Barbara, California, USA
June 11
Shannon Kelley and her mother Barbara Kelley are both journalists, and have just written a book called "Undecided". Together. (...Right??) This blog is a taste of what you'll find in "Undecided", a book about choice overload, analysis paralysis, grass is greener syndrome, longing for the road not traveled, and how the success of the women’s movement has left women stumped in the face of limitless options — and how to get over it. The book comes out on May 3: if you like what you're reading here, get the book here: And subscribe to our blog here:


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OCTOBER 5, 2012 6:15PM

It’s Not Me… It’s You.

Rate: 15 Flag

The other day, a good friend who is Swedish emailed me a link  to 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.

Being as how my knowledge of Swedish is, well, limited to the Muppets’ Swedish Chef, I google-translated the piece 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 magazine, 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.

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:

Happiness 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.

Tagged: Ann Charlott Alstadt, gender pay gap, happiness, mindfulness, perfection, personal responsibility, second shift, structural change, Undecided, worklife balance, yoga

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I think we have been "dumbed down" by the media, and by advertizing, for too long. Everything has an obvious solution, according to what we are told. I have been reading Augusten Burroughs new book "This is How" in which he debunks the self help industry. I find it a refreshing change of pace, to look at problems as if there is nothing wrong in itself for having a problem. It's part of life, and the way to solve the problem involves accepting the problem as one's own, and owning up to our own feelings. I feel lousy today! Hurray! I'll get over it, but first, I feel I really need to feel lousy for a while, O.K.? Thanks for your take on all this.
Interesting. I strive for balance (yes...I'll admit to doing yoga every day). Change what you can, and find a way to endure what you can't. Regardless, being stressed about it is counter productive. But as an artist I am fascinated by human struggle and full range of emotions we all justifiably feel.
I love this Shannon. Happiness coaching? Dear God. I'm usually pissed off, depressed, or irritated for a reason. A valid reason I like to think. Cool post.
The American comedian/philosopher Bill Hicks offered a solution to overcome our unachievable social expectations: "How many people in the audience work in marketing, advertising or sales?"
After the audience responded, he'd say, "Do the rest of us a favor and kill yourselves," which elicited a laugh, then he'd add,"Why are you laughing? It's not a joke. Kill yourselves. You're the spawn of Satan, corrupting everything that's good and poisoning our hearts and minds! Save what little's left of your souls and kill yourselves!"
I agree that place the onus on us to find happiness, particularly in a workplace where morale is crumbling due to lots of things beyond our control, is a good way to keep us from trying to make changes.
I'll never forget when a depressed woman was sobbing because she was unhappy. I had the spontaneous idea to write her a postcard (because I had one handy), even though she was right there. What came out of me was, "Life is not about being happy. It is about handling our problems with dignity, self-respect and courage." I've tried, then, to live by my own advice and it seems to work.
making that decision was easy. realizing it has proven to be beyond my capability. but, i am a tried and proven spear-carrier in the opera of life: when they is too many, run.
In a world where the Great Unthinking Zombie Grayzone seems to be closing in from all sides, and having no ammunition, coming across your piece here was like turning to find a few bullets in a bowel movement.
Valid points, all. But, it often ends up being much easier to try to change your own mood than to change someone else's behavior much less an institutional set-up.
I love hearing this POV. Thanks for sharing.
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Pretending to be happy is a fun therapy tool. Riding the waves of misery is something that we all have to do on our individual journeys.
I like to think I can take "it" and I can to a point. Then I let myself be angry. It is the forgiveness part that is tricky. Lots of negative emotions to pick from and we need balance with the good ones. Great post!!
Shannon you bring an extremely cogent point: sometimes, you're supposed to be PO'd. Just figure how why and work through it. The answer's in the Gestalt of our own constructs that prop us up -- often misleading us. That extra 10 lbs off? Really going to do it? We are best when we listen to what are body and mind tell us. How do we make the read? Feeling pain is as natural as a child touching the hot stove the parent warned against. It's all there for us. Just don't blot out reality. Thanks for a strong post. R>>>>>>
When I have a bad day - which is usually always somebody else's fault! :o) - some form of exercise always works for me.
It is impossible to be happy without peace. Worry is the antithesis of happiness. We know too much of the world....and for the most part there is nothing we can do about it. Finding your happiness is not as easy as we might think. You can't teach happiness. It is something that just happens...usually unplanned and unexpected.
You're on the right track. But let's examine who the "You" of the title, actually is. Sorry to bring it up, but it is the cultural institutions and assumptions about who "We" are that are coming to a natural conclusion. i.e. econmic meltdown. Which makes everyone uncomfortable to various degrees. Even the Wall St. crowd.
Being responsible for your own happiness isn't necessarily about turning an internal dial from "upset" to "happy". Sometimes you have to actually DO something to change the situation, even if that just means removing yourself from it. Sometimes just adjusting your mental approach will work. Sometimes things just suck, and you can't do anything about it. Figuring out which is which is the hard part.
I worked in an office once that tried to make everyone happy by bringing in birthday cakes for everybody's birthdays. I finally suggested that it would probably make us all a lot happier if they just gave us the day off on our birthday and quit corralling everyone in the conference room to sing and eat cake. They did it and probably ended up saving both time and money, while giving morale a big boost.
Love this. Attitude is everything. What a great article! Thanks!
You raise really important points, Shannon. It may be that people turned to self-improvement only when they despaired of making any real social change, any changes in structures. That was Christopher Lasch's explanation back in the 1970s when he publsihed "The Culture of Narcissism," seeing it as a fall-back position as people felt more socially atomized and powerless to change anything beyond themselves. I think you are right to use the word "placating" since that is the intent of promoting "happiness" while avodiing any real change. [r]
Loved this post. Who has not racked his/her brains focusing on what he/she could have done differently about some job related matter to achieve a better result for all concerned when it really is not you that is the problem? There is no cure for mismanagement of a sociopathic or at least uber narcissistic work colleague. Not everyone is in a position to retire or find another job, but it sure could help one's psyche to repeat your mantra over and over.

Thanks for the insight, Shannon.
this reminds me of the antidepressant/drug industry bigtime. why is it so many ppl need to be medicated? why is this such a massive business? an entire generation is growing up on drugs. maybe the culture is *screwed*up* and drugs are to try to make the intolerable, tolerable.... more and more, the evidence seems to point to that. have long felt that the hypermaterialism and darwinianism of our capitalist system have gotten out of hand. and the drugs actually perpetuate the downward spiral, it would seem.
I would rather be interested than happy. People who chase happiness and treat it like a dog are going to get tired quickly. Beautiful post!