Happiness, Batteries Not Included

[Image description: Collage. Cut out of a woman in a yellow swimming costume, swimming cap and goggles jumping in the air on a blue background with "Happy" written over her in white. Pasted over black writing on white paper repeating: "BUT AM I?"]

Article by Sam Moore
Art by Amelia A J Foy

I don’t normally buy things that fall under the banner of self-care products. It’s not something I’ve ever been very good at practicing. And when I do, it normally takes the form of something that smells nice or something that adds a slightly more decadent dimension to my daily routine. So, with summer seeming to end sooner than ever, and the light fading out from the night sky by mid-September, I decided to bite the bullet and buy a few things from Lush. I went out of my way to get things that embodied summer to me in a vague, uncertain way. The day I got these impulse purchases from a three-floor store in Oxford Circus, I described the logic of getting the things I did – rather than getting anything Halloween-themed – as being to counteract bad wintery vibes. I’m not really a vibes type of person, but most people I talked to over the past few days have mentioned the changing weather, and the fact that we’re entering SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) season, so there’s something in the dark winter skies that might amount to vibes. And the thing with a coffee face mask and a strawberry-scented shower gel is that they feel like a cheap way to feel better, even when they’re not that cheap. They’re a way to ward off the winter; a slightly self-indulgent equivalent to a circle of salt serving as protection from ghosts and evil spirits. But that’s not the best defence mechanism when the spirits are acting from inside instead of out.
That’s the trick with self-care, or at least the superficial kind; the kind that begins and ends with doing a facemask, a performance of dealing with things. It presents easy solutions to complicated problems. A few missing pieces that allow for the creation of some kind of happiness, even if it is a little on the temporary side. That’s what big Oxford Circus shops are for, they let you get a refill on that temporary happiness. This isn’t meant to make bath products sound like an addiction, it’s just interesting to note that happiness and comfort are seen as more commodified than ever. This isn’t exactly new information, the entire point of advertising from the mid-20th-century onwards is the idea of selling happiness, and the reality behind that fa├žade is exactly why Mad Men exists:
Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay. (Matthew Weiner)
That’s from the first episode of Mad Men. Years later, the show’s protagonist, Don Draper, has a different view on what happiness is. Instead of being freedom from fear it’s just a moment before you need more happiness. (Ibid*)
In the end, both things are probably true when it comes to the cost of happiness. It’s still that billboard that tells you you’re okay, that product that offers a brief respite from discomfort. But it isn’t permanent, that happiness that’s bought and paid for won’t last forever. So, sooner or later, you have to buy it and pay for it again. The worst thing that can happen with Christmas gifts for kids is that the batteries aren’t included, it immediately deflates the joy of the new thing, because as nice as that new thing is, without the batteries, it’s functionally useless. And that’s how happiness gets sold, how remedies to all sorts of problems get sold. You’re doing fine, you’re just missing the batteries, and we can sell them to you. They’re just not rechargeable, so every now and then you’ll have to come back to us and buy more batteries. But that’s okay, because as long as you have the batteries, you’ll be able to function just fine.
A close friend of mine once told me that she doesn’t like the idea of taking medication because she thinks of it as cheating when so many people around her don’t need to take them in order to feel okay. Or not even to feel okay, just to feel normal. Like this artificial levelling of the psychological and emotional playing field somehow doesn’t feel right, like athletes who take drugs before competing. Instead, people look for other things that they think will level the playing field, things that everybody has access to, instead of the kind of medication that only comes from playing the game with a handicap. So they think that a relationship will make them happy, even as it becomes a kind of co-dependent crutch, or losing themselves in work in spite of the fact that it leads to burnout. But the thing with meds is that they’re not designed as a kind of forget-your-problems self-care, like buying nice summery things in the onset of winter; instead, they’re a more concrete solution, instead of “cheating” or losing a sense of self, they allow you to find yourself outside of illness.

I get asked in a text if I consider myself to be festive or a Grinch. I say that I’m festive, up to a point, but one of the biggest problems I have with Christmas is that basically no Christmas songs are good, save for ‘River’ by Joni Mitchell. She tells that ‘Fairytale of New York’ is the only good one because “it’s a kind of depressingly realistic song that people feel they can relate to.” I’m struck by the fact that one of the things that makes this song so relatable is the bleakness that runs through it, the ways in which it deals with dashed expectations. And Christmas, like self-care-as-brand, like the kinds of escapism that manifest as different ways to self-medicate, is something that draws a line between money and happiness.
It’s no surprise that the narrators of ‘Fairytale of New York’ aren’t at their best. It’s a song that’s as much about dashed hopes as it is about being hopeful, the kind of thing that forces one to take refuge in good luck, and signs from above.
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true.

(Jane Finer and Shane MacGowan)
Affection is something that lives in the past, these are people who were handsome, who were pretty, but this emphasis points to the idea that the same isn’t true in the present, when the song is being sung; recollections of a better time intercut with the cold and unforgiving winter with the present.
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me.

While ‘Fairytale of New York’ might have a tenuous relationship with self-care at first glance, this kind of festive bleakness simply echoes the kind of feeling that creep in during the winter. Just like impulse-buying things in Lush, a song like ‘Fairytale of New York’ works because of its simplicity, not just in the melody, or the hook in the chorus, but the ways in which it distils problems of depression and inequality to their essence, something that can still be palatable in a pop song. In the end, the real essence of winter, and of the end of the year, is one of disappointment; of expectations set too high, of resolutions that won’t survive January, and, in the end, it lives and dies by capitalism.
November-January is defined by the sales more than anything else; Black Friday, which we’ve imported from the Americans, but without the shop-floor-violence, Cyber Monday (which, I’ll confess, I used to get a new mouse for my laptop), and then the January Sales that will usher in the new year. This means, if you’re looking to find a way to buy self-care, you’ll almost certainly be able to find it. But, in the end, you’re still trusting corporations to fix you. 
So much of sadness is about the loss of self that comes with it, the lack of understanding or remembering what kind of person you were before that capital-s Sadness first appeared. This takes on a strange new dimension in the winter, in SAD season.
It’s supposed to temporary, by definition. The disorder is seasonal. And it also comes at a strange time, a time when everyone is – in theory – optimistic, able to spend time with loved ones, and look ahead to a year that will be better than the one that came before it. Putting to one side the fact that not everybody will have these options available to them, it makes SADness feel more pronounced, at odds with the rest of the world. In theory, this means that temporary cures might work, especially if the problem itself exists on a kind of time-lock, something that, like the changing of the seasons, comes and goes every year. But it doesn’t work like that. Something that breaks for a quarter of the year is still something that needs fixing; the problem disappearing, or becoming less pronounced, for the rest of the year, doesn’t mean it’s really gone. It’s the kind of thing that exists even when it’s not entirely visible, and then, like a ghost, returns to repeat the same motions, at the same time every year. And broken doesn’t have to be an ugly word, doesn’t need to require a retreat into a past where it was easier to project the idea of being “fixed.” 
The antithesis of broken isn’t fixed. It’s rebuilt. Rebuilt on stronger foundations, with support that can last through cold weather, through wind, rain, and storms. Toys without batteries aren’t broken, in spite of the grey clouds they used to bring over Christmas mornings. They’re just missing one of the things that lets them work. And that’s fine. Because the missing piece can be found, and used, and it can run as it was meant to. You don’t constantly shop around the problem, hoping that other things will somehow allow it magically run; you diagnose and fix the problem, you let it become itself.
Sadness, SADness, and it’s many variations, all work in the same way in the long term; they erode a sense of self. The thing with SADness is that it’s easier to describe through metaphor; a gift with something missing, the weather in the winter. And the thing with self-care, especially the kind that manifests as impulse-buying, and looking for hope amidst the wreckage of capitalism, is that it doesn’t always work, not really. There’s nothing wrong with buying nice things, as dangerous as the “treat yourself” mantra can be for a bank account; the problem comes with the assumption that products, companies, and times of year, that define themselves as being about “self-care” won’t care about you once their dates have been crossed off the calendar.
To continue with the seasonal metaphors, spring is so often described as being about renewal and rebirth, about life returning to things that look dead. And that’s not a bad thing to think about. Just don’t only think about it during spring, don’t assume that you need to follow the whims of time, of seasons, of fleeting moments where institutions or corporations act like they care. If it helps to do it, then allow yourself to be reborn in the spring, once you’ve survived a winter that’s cold and ghostly. But don’t shrug off the new life that you’ve found a way to grant yourself as soon as spring is replaced with summer, and then the leaves begin to fall off the trees again. Don’t fall to the ground with the leaves. Don’t let the winter make you cold. Hold on to that rebirth, to the version of yourself that you hope will greet you on the threshold of tomorrow when the fireworks go off at midnight, and don’t let go of them.

* - Ibid, or “as above,” a referencing shorthand for using the same writer multiple times/an academic reference I never outgrew