My wellness hangover: How “empowering” memes bummed me out

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Photo: Jenna Duffy

Jesse Israel, who is bringing meditation to the masses as the founder of The Big Quiet and Medi Club, is all about the positivity. But even he can get overwhelmed by the volume—and intensity—of hear-me-roar feel-good messages. (Let’s face it, it’s getting a bit…aggressive out there.) Here, he presents a call for a bit more gentleness—and realness—online and IRL. 

Self-improvement is trending right now. Hard.

My generation is a salad-eating, silent-retreating, life-coaching, ClassPassing, values-having cohort of millions of people who consider personal wellness to be a top priority.

I’m smack in the middle of it. I’m a 31-year-old dude who spends his time building community around meditation through Medi Club and hosting large-scale experiences that blend well-being with culture. (Maybe you’ve meditated with us in Central Park or Lincoln Center in New York City?)

Jesse Israel big quiet wellness hangover
Photo: Felix Kunze

But just a couple of years ago, things looked different for me .  I was running a record label and tech fund in downtown Manhattan, signing bands, producing concerts, and consulting entertainment startups. It was late nights, lots of booze, and high stress.

By 2014, my heart had fallen out of love with the music biz so I decided to move on and discover my “deeper” purpose in life. It involved a leap into the unknown with minimal savings in my bank account and no idea what I wanted to do next. The process proved to be as gratifying and exciting as it was tormenting and fear-inducing.

Let’s face it: Vulnerability is the new cool.

Today, I’m starting to get into a rhythm working in this new world of health and wellness—and I’m finding myself in the middle of a cultural movement around conscious living and personal betterment, where life hackers are becoming celebrities and articles on “the top five ways to improve your ____(fill in the blank)” are going viral.

Let’s face it: Vulnerability is the new cool. Even music icons like Drake and DJ Khaled are taking a stab at self-help:


It’s exciting to watch something so positive become so popular. But there’s a downside: Now more than ever there’s constant pressure to be better. To be healthier. To be happier.

My social media feeds compound this pressure. It’s hard to open my Instagram without getting hit with a quote to remind me to be living at my full potential, or watch someone who has found the trick to love, financial success, or getting pregnant.

Since I left the music biz two years ago, I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster. I have days where I feel completely aligned with why I’m on this earth, then I get hit by days where I’m paralyzed by the uncertainty of what I’m doing. I have moments where I feel totally empowered and connected to vision, followed by moments where I feel numb to inspiration and purpose.

Jesse Israel big quiet wellness hangover
Photo: Kelly Marshall

When we first started hosting the Big Quiet, I often felt like a phony. On the outside I was leading mass meditations and giving talks on fulfillment, but inside I would feel afraid of people disliking me and insecure about my financial situation.

There I was, dedicating myself to what I felt called to do, but the experience was unbearably volatile. It was confusing, and the constant cultural “self-betterment” machine only made matters worse.

On a particularly low day, I was at a gift shop and noticed a Hallmark card glaring at me. In a bold graphic the front of the card stated (demanded?): “Be in love with your life. Every minute of it.”

I wanted to burn it.

The front of the card stated (demanded?): “Be in love with your life. Every minute of it.” I wanted to burn it.

Frustrated, I decided to start to speak up about these challenges in the Medi Club community. I shared about the pressure to always be feeling amazing and living at my full potential—and the reality of experiencing low moments of uncertainty and fear despite all of the “work” I had done on myself.

I realized that I lived most of my life allowing my high moments to define me, and doing whatever I could to defend against the low.

The more I spoke up about this, the more I realized that my peers were experiencing the same pressures and the same challenges in their lives.

Our community posed a question: How can we be inclusive of all experiences that we have in our lives — the moments of joy and fulfillment, as well as the moments of discomfort and disconnect?

Jesse Israel big quiet wellness hangover
Photo: Skylar Stetten

The answer that’s become clear to me is a simple reminder: All experiences are a critical part of life’s process.

Just as I have defined myself by my “highs,” our health and wellness community tends to focus on the good stuff. You know the buzzwords: authenticity, purpose, gratitude, and a lot of phrases that end with the word “self”—true self, best self, higher self, full self.

All of those are amazing ideas, but I’ve found that allowing myself to fully experience discomfort has proven to be the most meaningful way to evolve. Being my “highest self” means connecting with wherever I’m at on my journey — enjoying the moments of empowerment while also sitting in the fire with the moments of pain.

So maybe it’s time to consider the bigger picture behind the relentlessly inspirational memes? Because a salad-eating, silent-retreating, life-coaching, ClassPassing, values-having life doesn’t result in constant, unceasing awesomeness. It results in realness, though—and what’s more awesome than that?

Israel’s on to something—studies show a little bit of (reality-based) negative thinking can actually be positive. But if every meme is making you irate, maybe take a long hot bath and recharge for a while. With the current “culture of busy,” you could be pushing yourself so hard you can’t enjoy an amazing cat GIF. (Horrors!)

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