How 'Motivation Porn' Can Be Damaging To Our Mental Health

Underneath ‘motivation porn’ lies the basic assumption that emotional feelings of happiness and self-worth are clearly obtainable – the truth is, there is no magical solution to any of life’s difficulties.

Social media is oversaturated with ‘motivation porn’ – “The Five Easy Steps To Success”, “Do This And You’ll Find Happiness”, “Take Back Control Of Your Life”, “Ten CEOs Reveal Their Top Tips in Climbing The Career Ladder”, “How To Succeed In Your Dreams”, you know the sort. An endless flurry of bullet-point articles, inspirational quotes, how-to manuals and testimonial photos, widely shared and posted across the Internet.

A lot of these are fundamentally based on different kinds of pop psychology, part of the self-help and “human potential” movements which sprung up in the post-war US and ended up gaining mainstream appeal in the Western world. Without the need for a psychology degree, by now anyone with some common sense and a flair for the written word could produce a best-selling book heralding the end to people’s problems through their very own miraculous formula. Move forward to 2019, and you don’t even need to bother crafting a 250-page opus – share your own little anecdote on your blog and that will suffice.

‘Motivation porn’ clearly differs in shape and scope – some pieces are about finding your inner inspiration, others more crudely about providing you with the magic beans to fame and fortune. Nevertheless, there are a set of common characteristics which seem imbued in almost any how-to manual or inspiration article you find online: 1) focus on and visualise your specific goals 2) think positively, and get rid of negative thoughts 3) stop wasting your time in distractions 4) wake up early, eat healthily and exercise 5) work, work, work. Ultimately, underneath ‘motivation porn’ lies the basic assumption that emotional feelings of happiness, self-worth or success are clearly obtainable, with self-help articles providing the ‘recipe’ to a delicious dish.

But the reality is that ‘motivation porn’, however potentially benevolent in its intentions, can often end up doing far more damage than good. To begin with, its goal-based emphasis puts a set of heavy demands on the individual which can cause further depression and anxiety if they’re not adequately fulfilled. A new chain of negative thinking emerges (“clearly, if I haven’t reached my aims, I’m a failure”), which leads on to more worrisome thoughts, less success and further unpleasant feelings. Dr Albert Ellis’ Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), the cornerstone of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), argues that abiding to overly-perfectionistic demands (or, in Ellis’ own terms, “musturbating”) is a key factor in our negative thinking patterns. In essence, ‘motivation porn’ is rooted in a set of inflexible aims and steps which are often the triggers themselves of our stress.

What is more, much of the overgeneralised advice given by various pop psychologists and online ‘motivation gurus’ can prove to be inadvertently damaging for several specific types of mental disorders. Take the popular ‘positive thinking’ approach – the notion that not only must bad thoughts be actively replaced with happy ones, but that we end up becoming the sum of our thoughts. While it may seem perfectly harmless to many, for people suffering with obsessive-compulsive disorder, especially of the ‘Pure-O’ type, ‘positive thinking’ is directly antithetical to what most professional psychologists recommend as therapy and can provide even greater discomfort. When you consider that OCD sufferers are inundated with endless frightening and repetitive thoughts, attempts to ‘control’ or ‘suppress’ them are futile at best. Rather, those with the condition and other anxiety disorders are encouraged to accept their worries, and, as Dr Russ Harris advises in his Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)-based book The Happiness Trap, to practice “defusion” by observing one’s thoughts and treating them for what they are: just thoughts.

Ultimately, ‘motivation porn’ has ended up developing a kind of quasi-cultish adherence, with its most faithful followers abiding zealously to its rules without realising many of the damaging behavioural patterns and vicious cycles they’ve been fostering. Nevertheless, in spite of all its flaws, there is something about this kind of pop psychology which is inherently appealing, being a quintessential product of our age. We are living in the shadow of the Great Recession, emerging from times of economic hardship and wading through a period of intense socio-political tension. Teenagers and twenty-somethings have childhood memories of their parents losing their jobs, moving house, and crying over the phone. University graduates are entering a competitive workforce with an increasingly undervalued qualification and a significant accumulation of debt, knowing that it may well be up to a decade or more before they can afford to buy their own place. Middle-aged couples obsess over their mortgage and future, knowing that they’ll probably be working into old age. The rise of inflammatory, right-wing populist politics has created a deep rift in society, with countless families, friendships and relationships shattered. No wonder depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness have risen significantly in the last years, and young people are burning out considerably faster than before. In the sheer chaos that 21st-century life throws upon us, the quick, simple and seemingly easy solutions offered by various forms of ‘motivation porn’ are unsurprisingly appealing.

But as the topic of mental health is becoming increasingly prominent in the media, it’s important for us not only to create a public space where people can talk openly about their personal struggles, but to question how, as society, we’re addressing them. It’s understandable that an eagerly over-optimistic, increasingly perfectionist pop-psychological formula claiming to have the simple answers to all our maladies has found itself an enthusiastic audience in our current times. But while many proponents of ‘motivation porn’ may openly promote their agenda with the best of intentions, we need to think about the way many vulnerable people may end up substituting genuine, professional help for these get-happy-quick schemes, often to their own detriment.

The truth is, there is no magical solution to any of life’s difficulties but there are people to talk to who, who through the use of validated forms of therapy can significantly improve your mental health and personal well-being.