UK Channel 4 documentary series Virtual Lives has exposed a millennial malaise affecting the lives of millions, brought on by an expanding wealth gap combined with increased exposure to advertising via social media. The programme interviews several victims of the growing 21st century phenomenon of dreaming a better life than can ever be achieved.
29 year old Jan Parkins lives in a squalid Streatham bedsit, and is obsessed by home furnishings. She can name the best places to buy Eames loungers, Jean Prouve chairs, Kaiser Idell lamps and Florence Knoll sofas, none of which she will ever be able to afford working a zero hours contract at Sports Direct. “I love the design classics,” she said, perched on a broken stool bought fourth-hand from Furniture Now. “It is important to surround myself with beautiful things, so my life can be just as beautiful.”
Tom Pankhurst is 35 and has been diagnosed with clinical obesity. He understands the best workout regimes and the healthiest diets to eat to achieve an Olympian body shape. Sitting in front of the TV in his Middlesbrough flat, he doesn’t do any exercise, or eat anything other than fried chicken takeaways, although is a subscriber to Men’s Health, and a fan of Ella Woodward’s meal construction books. “A healthy body is the gateway to a healthy mind, and a healthy life,” he said, slurping on a full fat value cola substitute. “I know one day I can achieve as much as my hero, Dwayne Johnson, even though I haven’t had the breaks he’s had.”
With so little chance of ever achieving their desires, Jan and Tom have retreated into a fantasy world, joining online communities to discuss their pet loves with other enthusiasts, without the burden of revealing their true identities. They have chosen to reject aspiration, or effort, instead escaping into a virtual life where they can pretend to be who they admire.
Munchausen Syndrome is a disorder that takes its name from the eponymous Baron who was revered and reviled for his amazing tall tales, that he told so well he believed them himself. This willingness to lie to ourselves is a form of protection against the horrifying mediocrity of our existence, much as the daydreaming Baron was a hero in his own mind.
The inundation of luxury goods and lifestyles in the Western world, that most can only covet or adore from afar, has catalysed a treatable psychological disorder into an out-of-control phenomenon. Until such material possessions and shallow lifestyles are rejected it is a sickness doomed to spread, although it may be that at least Jan and Tom are happier living within their own fantastical minds, than in the depressing squalor of the real world.