Ivi Fung

When I am sad, I simply tell myself: Stop. Breathe. Believe. Don’t hesitate, meditate. Live well. Be well. Live. Laugh. Love. Eat. Pray. Love. Be. In. Love. With. Life. These maxims are written in gold calligraphy on posters that hang in my pastel bedroom. Without them, I could not keep calm and carry on from my sadness. Each morning, the cover of my bullet journal reminds me of my other beliefs: “BE A BOSS. Laugh. Love always. Speak up. DREAM BIG. MAKE MAGIC. Hustle. RISE AND SHINE. Take risks. STAY FREE. DARE TO BEING. GIVE BACK. Stand tall. SLAY YOUR DAY.” Now, whenever I wake up, meditate, and pack up my metal straws before yoga, I have all the information I need to slay my day, every day.

Disclaimer: I hate cliches.

I hate myself even more for accidentally using them all the time. They ruffle my feathers in the same way that nails on a chalkboard get under my skin. But they are so ubiquitous that avoiding them requires a self-awareness I simply do not have. Cliches are an easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy way for me to communicate some meaning without the effort of authenticity, so why stop using them? Why not combine motivational cliches for supreme inspiration? Why not purchase a journal with the cliche medley, providing essential, profound life lessons I can only remember through a written reminder?

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Wellness-themed mantras now overpopulate merchandise in a growing section of the Western retail world. Even in The Yale Bookstore, the journal and home sections are dominated by uniform stacks of rosy, bronze-laced planners and signs plastered with instructions to inspire. They remind their owners on the daily that “every day is a beautiful day,” to “believe there are no limits in the sky,” and, naturally, “something wonderful is about to happen” (I was a little disappointed by the last one when I un-wonderfully tripped walking up the stairs while exiting the bookstore). Online, the combined 23.4 million Instagram posts tagged with “#mantra” and “#inspirationalquotes” dispatch similar messages. For a regular audience, these products champion and varnish cliches in the spirit of wellness to the point of depriving the mantras of an already wavering meaning.

For most of us, the presentation of these mantras hyper-feminizes wellness in a way that can be alienating if we aren’t gushing with saccharine sorority girl self-confidence. A number of mantras blatantly use “she” and “her” to address this female market, like one holographic cursive poster in The Yale Bookstore with an inscription that reads: “SHE TURNS HER CAN’TS INTO CANS AND HER DREAMS INTO PLANS.” Conventionally girly packaging of the mantras, often dominated by pastels and pink watercolor prints, limits the group of targeted consumers. One might presume that only a niche cohort is buying into these mantras online and in store: women with personalities that self-righteously glitter and scream like jewel-encrusted chalices, or women who think that wellness requires aroma diffusers, horoscopes, coconut oil and crystals.

Why do these products and posts exist? Is their audience as restricted in size and shallow in character as it seems? One notebook tells me, “It’s the thought that counts,” but does the “thought” that these mantras stand for — inspiration and wellness — do anything at all?

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Mantras originated in the Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Traditionally, they manifest in many forms, including monosyllabic sounds, such as the now ubiquitous “om,” as well as complex hymns. Mantras, primarily the wordy, multisyllabic kind, have entered the mainstream through Western co-opting of Hindu and Buddhist practices, most notably in meditation, yoga and psychiatric treatment practices. But our use of mantras is not solely derived from Indian culture; we seek them out in secular literature as well. We clarify our beliefs when we velcro our worldview against the sticky strip that is a well-crafted sentence.

On Amazon, there are more than 100,000 products based on Gandhi’s “be the change” maxim. Inevitably, many people who sustain this massive market know little about Gandhi’s life. These products exist partly because Gandhi’s words, from 1906, are in the public domain. Gandhi, of course, merits his authority, but even unsubstantiated authors gain credibility simply by being published. Scott Sobel, a media psychology expert, told the magazine Fast Company that “leaders and their words – inspirational quotes – affect us on a primal level” because humans tend to follow what their role models say. Often, readers instinctively respect published works, treating them like scripture and their authors like gods. Quotability begets believability, even when a phrase only needs to exist to warrant quoting. Thus, the choice to purchase a “be the change” PopSocket phone grip reflects not only a desire for the image of inspiration, but also an assumption of an author’s expertise.

Well-known quotes have even more authority. Their messages seem even more objective because they are part of public knowledge. Further, these quotes allow for uncomplicated transactions of meaning — understood by the listener and requiring little on the part of the speaker. Throwing an “ignorance is bliss” or a “grass is greener” into a conversation echoes the creativity and authority of some distant poet, even if unknown to the parties involved, while curbing misinterpretation.

Similarly, commercialized cliched quotes convey the weight of an author without the pretentiousness of literary context. The quotes do not try to summarize an author’s idea from a text; by standing alone, isolated from context, the quotes suggest more about the choices of a user than an author. The cover of a journal suggests that its contents will reflect a similar tone. Mantra Instagram posts suggest consistency with the contents of the user’s character — or at least the user’s self-image. Anonymous quotes are even more attractive than authored ones if the goal of consumers is to reflect their identities while still preserving some external authority. Markedly 21st century mantras with little author credibility (think: slay your day) can appeal to us through not only our common colloquialisms (slay), but also an uncomplicated lightheartedness of message that matches our intentions for the journal. Using a cliche is a piece of cake, and that can be good.

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Last year, someone that I know was hospitalized for several months. When she left the hospital, mantras were foaming from her belongings. In her bedroom, a daily flip calendar revealed a new mantra every day. Scattered on her walls, neon pieces of paper with happiness quotes strewed flecks of positivity. I had trouble distinguishing the papers from fragments of light filtering through her lace curtains. Construction paper postings in one corner included handwritten original mantras she had made to manage her condition. She kept a journal with a mantra on its cover that praised the spirit of adventure.

If my motivation were scarce, it’s conceivable that I would need a daily reminder to Slay my Day. A positive mantra would be comforting as something familiar and simple to grasp. Despite mantras’ common pseudo-scientific presentation, they are, in fact, valid tools when used intentionally. Mantras are a form of self-talk with therapeutic uses to improve mental health. Thus, mantra products can provide, at the very least, surprisingly powerful reminders for certain individuals who struggle to return to a state of positive self-perception.

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During my research of cliched mantras used in Pinterest posts, I rediscovered my personal account from sixth grade. Its bio: “Beauty isn’t about having a pretty face. It’s about having a pretty mind, pretty heart and pretty soul.” Seeing this, I recoiled and wanted to command-quit the browser immediately. However, in the name of research, I pressed on: The button that says “I choose joy.” Apparently, that was the title of an entire Pinterest board I had dedicated to quotes. The memories of my curation process returned; at the time, I had relied on a few key criteria: 1) above all, the mantra must speak to me; 2) it must be in an appealing font; and 3) its design must fit with the aesthetic of the rest of my board.

Mantras were a means for me to feel like I was grasping significance through literature. The quotes helped me ponder Oscar Wilde’s “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all” without getting lost reading “The Soul of the Man Under Socialism” at age 12. Plus, the Pinterest posts were pretty (backdropped by miscellaneous mountains, zodiac signs and girls holding flowers), and I didn’t have to create them myself. Posting mantras made me feel creative and literary and mindless all at once. If only temporarily, I was using my computer time to reach for the power of words over Club Penguin dominance.

Like 12-year-old me, most preteens can find value in cliches before, to them, they become cliches. Not yet saturated with platitudes, youth can benefit from the messaging with meaning that, to us, has been stifled by repetition. Quotes rolled in glitter on journals are an appropriate vehicle to transition from toys to books. While the targeted market in The Yale Bookstore is college students, young teenagers are the beneficiaries of products and online content centered on mantras.

Childish activities have always, in some form, had allure to young adults and adults. Today, it manifests with drones, escape rooms and virtual reality technology. For previous generations, there was laser tag, paintball, bowling and board game cafes. However, the popularity amongst adults of the teenage tool that is inspirational stationery reflects a desire to merge reflective time with playtime. We inject our childhood naïveté into the burdensome task of thinking about how to navigate our problems and day-to-day stresses. Thus, not only do we excise quotes from context, but we furnish them as toys. The reason we combine recreation with contemplation is not because we have issues that are more pressing than prior generations’. It’s because that’s what our notions of wellness tell us to do.

Come to think of it, no. Adult toy-book hybrids are used because it’s what the wellness industry tells us to do. Our notions of wellness are shaped by the items linked to them due to the wellness industry’s commercialization of self-care. Clever opportunism of businesses has turned self-care into a playful — and thus material and profitable — endeavour.

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On my first day of college, I entered my dorm room expecting to find a bare space. That’s what I got, except for a single item: a framed black-and-white poster with Amatic, all-caps lettering hung above the mantle. The poster glared at me with the text:

BE KIND.
WORK HARD.
STAY HUMBLE.
SMILE OFTEN.
BE HONEST.
TRAVEL WHEN POSSIBLE.
NEVER STOP LEARNING.
BE THANKFUL.
AND LOVE ALWAYS.

Independently, my three suitemates and I had the same reaction of offense by its excess, followed by: How can it be removed immediately? There we were, ripe target consumers: female, relatively health-conscious, eager. We even hoped to do some of the things dictated by the nine-in-one mantra. Yet we were all relieved to hide it in the back of my closet, facing the wall to limit accidental run-ins.

We didn’t throw it out, though.

Updated: March 23, 11:30 p.m.

Nicole Dirks | nicole.dirks@yale.edu