Are you GENERATION DISCIPLINE?
FROM JUICE CLEANSES AND SUPERFOODS TO ALCOHOL ABSTINENCE AND ‘FITSPO’, THERE’S NO DENYING THE RESTRAINT REVOLUTION IS UPON US
‘great achievement is usually born of great sacrifice.’ At least, it is according to Instagram, where, in one week alone, I saw this quote plastered across a sunlit field of barley, a picturesque lake surrounded by autumnal trees and, inexplicably, a baby crawling across a mat as men in feudal-era Japanese robes looked on encouragingly. The words, originally uttered by US self-help father Napoleon Hill, seem like sound advice: you can’t lose weight without ditching the doughnuts, or get a degree without weekend study.
But lately, sacrifice and self-control seem to have become an end in themselves. Barely a week goes by without a friend embarking on a detox, an acquaintance admitting they’ve given up alcohol for a few months, or a relative announcing how much more productive they are now they’ve given their TV away. This enthusiasm for sacrifice and self-control is difficult to avoid. Log on to Facebook and you’ll find the stream of party pics has been replaced by gym selfies, ‘fitspo’ images and ‘mapped runs’. Even our idols have grown ascetic. The models who sipped, smoked and snorted their way through previous decades have been replaced by sun-saluting yoga goddesses who are more
likely to credit their success to hard work, meditation and a gruelling fitness regimen than to a fast metabolism or forgetting to eat.
Of course, Gwyneth Paltrow is the celebrity most conspicuously flying the flag for an aggressively wholesome lifestyle, but even we regular folk have started spending our weekends at farmers’ markets instead of the pub, are increasingly partial to a green juice, and know we should be eating more kale (even if we aren’t sure what to do with it). In the office, too, the narrative has changed. These days, the concept of ‘work-life balance’ seems positively outdated. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and an outspoken advocate for women leaders, is urging us to ‘lean in’ at work, telling an interviewer that ‘there’s work, and there’s life, and there’s no balance’.
If the ’80s were all about greed and the ’90s rebelled with slacker swagger, the present is all about self-control. Welcome to the new age of discipline, where having it all means giving everything up.
So, why is everyone suddenly aspiring to a disciplined way of life? ‘We want certainty in a world that is inundated with choice,’ says Rebecca Huntley, director of research at Australian company Ipsos Mackay. When you consider that we each receive up to 300 e-mails a day, are exposed to anything between 300 and 3 000 advertisements in 24 hours – each selling a different product, body or lifestyle – and consume four times as much information as we did 30 years ago, is it any wonder that laser-sharp focus is prized above all else? ‘In the chaos of the liberal free market,’ writes author and philosopher Alain de Botton, ‘ we lack guidance, selfunderstanding, self-control, direction.’ In other words, we crave what we don’t have.
There are also less esoteric forces behind this new-found austerity. Put simply, we like our jobs – and in uncertain economic times, we’re scared of losing them. ‘Despite the way we portray Gen Y in wider culture, many young people are very ambitious,’ notes Huntley. ‘In a world that’s increasingly competitive, they may feel that they need to have a rigid, punishing schedule that relates to both their body and their professional life.’ Martin Hagger, professor of psychology at Curtin University in Australia, agrees: ‘People feel they must commit more time to work – or they’ll be replaced by someone who will.’
Partially, at least, we’re choosing discipline because it makes us feel good. Studies show that disciplined people are happier in the moment and in the long run. But somewhere along the way, these things also became … cool. The more gruelling the regimen, the greater the glory. Instead of regular exercise, we joined boot camps. Instead of a balanced diet, we chose juice cleanses. Even yoga has been turbocharged with hot rooms and ‘power’ sessions. ‘The positive way we view discipline is partly to do with the number of high-profile athletes and celebrities who advocate that kind of lifestyle,’ says Hagger.
Which leads us back to Gwyneth Paltrow. Not only does the Oscar-winning actressturned-lifestyle-guru share the full, punishing extent of her diet and exercise routine, she wears it as a badge of honour. The 41-yearold’s transformation of a perfectly fine, stockstandard Hollywood bum into ‘the butt of a 22-year-old stripper’ (her words) became the fairy-tale rear-ending for our times. In the past, says Hagger, most of us would have viewed Paltrow and her ilk as ‘genetic freaks’. But thanks to the media’s unprecedented access to celebrities’ lives, that’s changed. ‘Today we look at them and think, I could be like you – with the right exercise, diet and lifestyle,’ he says.
It’s a belief celebrities themselves are eager to encourage. ‘Celebrities realise there’s a real market of people out there who want to know what they eat, what clothes they like, who their favourite bands are,’ Dana Randall of FORM MGMT, a New York branding agency, told The New York Times. ‘And, of course, they are wonderful business opportunities.’ Paltrow can’t sell us the ageless genes of her mother (Blythe Danner), a fast metabolism or a Protestant work ethic on Goop, her hugely popular website. But she can publicise the recipe for her sugar-free cupcakes, a prescription for rock-hard glutes and a Breton-striped tee for our kids. (Did I mention her kids? They’re disciplined. They only watch cartoons in foreign languages.)
Add to all this the trend towards selfimprovement, and it’s easy to see why many of us feel the need for a disciplined lifestyle. Genes, upbringing and personal relationships all have an influence, says Hagger. But even if DNA and environment have conspired to place you on the slovenly, fast-food end of the spectrum, there is hope. Some experts believe discipline is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets.
I should confess that my own alcoholfree month lasted just four days and the closest I’ve come to green juice was when I was cleaning out the vegetable crisper after a holiday. So, where does the restraint revolution leave those of us who have never lifted anything heavier than a glass of wine and still think quinoa is a martial art? Just as the puritanical Victorian era gave way to the Roaring Twenties, there will come a time when the idle inherit the earth. It’s just a matter of lying low and waiting it out. And I expect we’re quite good at that.
The more gruelling the regimen, the greater the glory
Gywneth (above and right) showing off her ‘22-yearold stripper’s bum’ at the premiere of Iron Man 3, Los Angeles,