A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an oped by author Leigh Stein entitled “The Empty Religions of Instagram.” The piece made a substantial splash, complete with an accompanying graphic that showed a halo-crowned iPhone. Stein holds an interest in, and here examines, the popularity of “wellness culture,” a movement whose creed is self-improvement and whose clergy are largely social media influencers.

In her piece, Stein critiques what she calls the “alternative scripture” of online figureheads. Preaching narratives that are, in Stein’s generalization, a combination of “left-wing political orthodoxy, intersectional feminism, self-optimization, therapy, wellness, astrology and Dolly Parton,” these internet gurus trumpet a doctrine that tends to look like old-time religion without all the supernatural mystery.

At its core, wellness culture promises a better you, provides its own moral framework, and reaps a congregational-like devotion. Referencing popular wellness ministers such as Glennon Doyle, Brené Brown, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Stein writes, “These women look and sound radically different from conservative evangelical male televangelists like Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen. And while they don’t brand themselves as faith leaders, this is the role they play in many of their secular fans’ lives. The size of their devoted, ecstatic, largely female following shows how many American women are desperate for good vibes, coping skills for modern life, and proactive steps to combat injustice and inequality.”

If I can speak positively of my generation for a moment, I think we millennials bear a keen awareness of an inauthentic sales pitch. Perhaps that’s why we are, as Stein also mentions, known as religious “nones” — not affiliated with any specific denomination. We are spiritually curious but dogmatically hesitant. Yet, even as we have claimed to eschew our religious dogmas, we’ve lowered our guard to paler secular ones.

Stein’s article got me thinking, so I took a quick scroll through my social apps to see who and what is speaking into my life. If the experts who study habits are right in that what we give most of our attention to shapes us in return, what sort of mentors and messages are we entertaining? And how much screen time should we give them?

In her piece, Stein mentions a few timeless questions that I think might function as good guidelines in finding solid mentors. Do the sources we put our trust in ponder the following: “Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?” If you, like me, seek a flourishing life, want to fight for justice, and thrive on endless learning and good question-asking, we might do well to examine who we’re following and how closely.

Whether we like it or not, we human beings are natural adorers, with some more open to nuance than others. We love to give our time, attention, and devotion to all sorts of nouns (ourselves, especially) and we form dogmas around those commitments. This impulse only gets more complicated with a smartphone in hand. Part of social media’s allure is its ability to better connect us with simplicity and ease. Once in a while, though, it might be good to ask: What is it connecting us to?

Abbey Sitterley is a copy editor at the Finger Lakes Times. Her “Around 520 Words” columns run every other Tuesday. Contact her at asitterley@fltimes.com or (315) 789-3333, ext. 256.

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