I’ve spent the past week in a strange place, sonically. My audio landscape has been populated by people with names like “the Get-It-Done Guy” who have been exhorting me to “jump start my joy”, “harvest my happiness” and – best of all – “think, believe and manifest!”. It is January, the start of a new year, and I have been exploring the world of self-improvement podcasts.
This binge of wholesome, motivational audio has left me feeling, predictably, a lot worse than when I started. I know now that I will never have the billion dollar body, or meditate every day, or go on a “wisdom-trek”. The succession of gurus I let into my ears, from Dr Ned Hallowell to Tim “four hour work week” Ferriss, are in general pretty good podcasters, but in each case the relentless enthusiasm and focus on a single way of looking at life began to wear on me after only a couple of episodes.
Podcasts are a good tool for self-care, though, albeit slightly more indirectly. Listening to more of them could be a positive change you make in 2017, for the following reasons:
Getting stuff done
As many people, including Helen Zaltzman and Sarah Brown, have pointed out to me in the past couple of years, podcasts are a secondary medium. You can do a whole other action properly and safely, like walking or cleaning, while still enjoying the show you are listening to. As much as you might kid yourself that you can stick something on Netflix while you tidy you room, I can guarantee that the clutter will not be gone by the time the episode is finished. With a podcast, though, you can blitz through chores without feeling like it’s been a grind. True crime podcasts, with their compelling plot twists and focus on getting to the solution at the end of the case, are particularly good for this. Shows like The Black Tapes Podcast (admittedly fictional, but still good for this), Criminal and Sword and Scale will do the job admirably.
Escaping your thoughts
Since you can listen while you are doing something else, podcasts can also be an excellent way of escaping from something or somewhere unpleasant. Determined to start running, or have a sweaty, horrible commute? Put some headphones on and be somewhere else for the duration of the nastiness. Visit Utah with Scott Carrier of Home of the Brave, or disappear down under with ABC’s The Real Thing. I’m not big on predictions, but I have a feeling that narrative, documentary-style podcasts are only going to grew in scope and splendour this year as producers get more funding to push the form further, which is good news for all of use who feel like we might need to get out of our own heads for a while.
Seeing the other side
The best podcasts, as with all types of media, are the ones that allow you to see someone else’s perspective. If, at the start of 2017 you need a reminder that there are good people in the world, you can find shows to do that for you. The Moth Podcast is a staple of the “real people telling personal stories” genre, and that’s because it is reliably excellent. In this vein, there is also This is Actually Happening, and – best of all, in my opinion – Strangers. It’s an extraordinarily empathetic show, featuring reported human stories about connections and relationships. Start with “As Far As You Can Get”. It will make things better.
Never mind signing up for evening classes or finally reading all of Thomas Piketty’s Capital – you can broaden your mind for free with podcasts. Wendy Zukerman’s Science Vs is a great way of learning more via interesting stories, rather than the tedium of a textbook (and she’s even done a true crime-flavoured episode recently, if you need a murder-related way in). My other go-to show whenever I need to feel better-educated is 99% Invisible. Start by learning what the design of a blazer has to do with police reform, and go from there. And of course, no article about self-care through podcasts would be complete without mention of Making Oprah, in which the great lady herself takes listeners behind the scenes of her TV show. Learn from the best.
Finally, if you can’t let the year turn without some gesture towards self-improvement, I recommend Krista Tippett’s On Being and Happier with Gretchen Rubin. The former is ostensibly a show about spirituality and theology, but it explores these subjects via interviews, so never feels overly didactic. Try this one with Rebecca Solnit, for starters.
Gretchen Rubin’s podcast is the only one to make it onto my regular listening rosta from my dive into the self-help genre. It isn’t necessarily because it is better – the quality of shows in this area is variable, but there are lots of well-produced ones – but rather because it has a relationship at its heart is one that I want to hear about. The spine of it is Rubin’s conversations with her sister Elizabeth Craft, and their quick-paced, joke-filled chat reminds me of the way I talk to my own sister. They frequently have good advice to offer, too: maybe start the year by following the example set in this episode, and offer someone else your taxi.
Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.