Instagram’s “mental health awareness” community has lately started to feel a little one-note—content creators push out posts, stories, Reels, and IGTV videos focusing on what’s wrong and how to fix it. Words like “unpack,” “toxic,” “narcissism,” “reparenting,” and, most of all, “trauma” dominate. It’s a lot of slideshows, all in a muted color palette, with step-by-step instructions for accomplishing “personal growth” from our broken states.
It’s easy to forget when a trend overwhelms our feeds that we have the power to terraform the content we see, and set the tone for our own inner lives with the faces and places and vibes of our choosing. It was in this negative landscape that Matthew, the 20-year-old student living in Oslo, Norway, launched @afffirmations on the first day of 2021, with the goal of injecting a little radical gratitude into the discourse.
Typical wellness and mindfulness accounts encourage hyperfocus on the negative in order to “overcome” it. By Matthew’s calculation, aggressively positive content is the real balm for what ails. On @afffirmations, Matthew’s posts follow a formula that’s magnetic in its simplicity: exuberant proclamations like “I become instantly happy every Friday,” “I never doubt my ability to post daily on Instagram,” and “I WOKE UP AND I FELT AMAZING” pop against the backdrop of psychedelic stock imagery. According to Matthew, these images have become a source of fascination, amusement, and, yes, affirmation for the 94,000 people following the account (as of this writing).
Matthew only expects his account to gain more traction, thanks to the ambiguity baked into its premise: Is he poking fun at positive thinking, or proselytizing it? Personally, I had no idea until I asked. Turning Matthew’s images over in my mind, I thought I saw parodic pushback against the hand-wringing, navel-gazing, self-diagnosis-encouraging tendencies present in most of today’s “mental health” content, all laid out in tidy, if toothless, packaging. It turns out, that’s all part of the concept. “These images can reach out to people who they believe that affirmations may have a psychological or even spiritual value, and they can also reach out to normal people who don't,” Matthew said. “Normal people, they have a hard time deciphering whether or not the pictures are satirical… This is something I’ve thought through, naturally. But it’s important for me to stress that I’m not joking around—I’m being quite serious with my work.”
We talked to Matthew about where he draws his visual inspiration from, how he plays with language for maximum impact, and just how seriously he takes positive thought.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
VICE: Hi Matthew, how’s it going?
Matthew: Amazing, thank God. Everything’s fine. I cannot complain. How are you doing? You’re in the States?
Yeah, I’m in Brooklyn.
Fantastic, I love Brooklyn, I love New York. I’ve been there once. It’s great, really continental, amazing Big Apple vibe, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs]
Definitely, definitely, Big Apple vibe every day. So, what do you do during the day?
I’m unemployed, but I’m a student, studying the Arabic language. But due to the corona pandemic, there’s been a lot of spare time—most of the day I just spend on making pictures and writing texts and doing this thing!
Got it. So, I just want to say that I love your account—I haven’t reacted so strongly to an Instagram page in a long time. What made you want to launch it?
I'm honored that you enjoy the pictures and that they leave their mark, and that maybe you think a little bit about them, because I want people to reflect on these pictures. I want them to think, and reflect on life. The reason why I’m making affirmations on Instagram is because it’s an effective way to establish a connection with the viewer. I try to post a lot and write a lot. You're reading these affirmations throughout the day, and you're being exposed to this information throughout the day, and I write in first person singular, so that makes it very personal and open to interpretation—I call this “Global Self Hypnosis.”
When I'm doing the affirmations, most of the time, what I'm trying to do is make something clear to the audience. For example, I want to make it clear to viewers that they’ve got what they need, the bare necessities of life. If you're seeing the affirmations, that means you've got WiFi, which means you’re relatively privileged, etcetera. I know that these are hard times, of course, even in Norway. But I still try to help people express their thankfulness and help people think more positively.
What do you think makes your content unique among other Instagram accounts that talk about wellness or mental health, which tends to take a more technical standpoint with riffs on subjects like trauma or toxicity?
This wellness thing has been around for some while, but I think I'm making it more approachable and less boring. Many niches of Instagram have been characterized by a sort of negative attitude, memes with a negative perspective on the world. I think I'm contributing to making a sort of new wave on Instagram. I twist that around, I try to make it positive.
Sometimes people complain about my affirmations that I'm using the negation too much. For example, I would say: I am not extremely lonely right now. They might say, “Oh, that has something to do with the subconscious.” Somebody once told me that reposting the pictures can be interpreted as a sort of cry for help, but it’s also cheeky, and a little bit funny. But what if they’re not extremely lonely? Then it's great, they can read it, they can affirm it, and they can be grateful for that—that they're not extremely lonely.
Got it. So, why do you think gratitude is so important?
I believe that every person will go through the amount of hardship they can bear—this is my philosophy of life. Due to me thinking this way, I believe that through hardships, one should stay patient, because there will come some light at the end. Even when going through hardship, I believe that you should be grateful, because I believe that gratefulness does something to the soul, and to the persona and to the mind that it increases your wellness. I believe that by being grateful for even the small things, you will get large things in return.
And during times of material abundance, we should stay grateful for this and cherish these moments, because they do not last forever.
There are a lot of recurring themes in your work—gratitude, of course, but also productivity, mental health, and content creation. What draws you to that subject matter?
This isn't necessarily an autobiography of my life or anything—though the affirmations to some extent will always be influenced by events happening in my life.
The content creator aspect, I would characterize that as very postmodern in the sense that it’s referring to itself all the time. Speaking about Instagram, though, everybody's on that content writer “thing”—I like writing about it for that reason, because many people relate to it. And also, I want my pictures to be modern and very fresh, and I want them to feel very distinct and new. Of course, this is an Instagram page. I realistically have kind of become an influencer, whether I wanted it or not.
I'm very grateful to have this opportunity, naturally. But it comes with a lot of responsibility, so I’m trying to do what’s right. I do not want to become a charlatan, like some sort of guru sitting on Instagram Live talking about this. I love talking to people on the internet and talking about inspiration, but I'm just an ordinary guy, I’ve got my problems too. I'm not especially gifted. If I had not made this profile, I am convinced that somebody else would have done it, because I'm speaking about themes that drive the era of individualism—where we are in the West right now. I believe that it was inevitable that these sorts of images would be created.
What do you make of people’s reactions to your content—it seems like a lot of people don’t know how to interpret what you do, even though they’re attracted to it.
You know the Norwegian author, Karl Ove Knausgaard? He said that, concerning his work and the works of authors in general, that the writer, he has his understanding and analysis, and the reader has his own understanding and an analysis. It's like this mutual exchange.
That’s why I don't get offended when people call it “memes.” They are more than welcome to do so, because as I said, it's open for interpretation. People can do whatever they like to the pictures, think however they would like about the pictures. But I don't consider it to be memes. I consider it to be very high art, because it's a concept I’ve thought through a lot.
Your images have such a specific style. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Early web, internet type of aesthetic, of course, is an inspiration for my work. I'm inspired because of the colors—I'm living in Norway, and Norway is a very gray and minimalistic country. So for me, it's a sort of reaction to this boring, bland aesthetic. Also, I speak Arabic, and I’ve been learning Arabic for five years now—and websites in Arabic are so much more colorful and amazing, and they use their typography in a very beautiful way.
I'm inspired by simple things. The pictures that I'm using I find from real estate agencies, I find from travel agencies, I find from hotels, car dealerships, limousine services—from all over the place, because I want to make “normal” pictures. I like the early Instagram vibe as well. You know, latte girls, the selfies that are very grainy, very bad quality with that border that goes around the fade. I love it. I think it's great. I'm inspired by Russian and Ukrainian artists who draw and paint selfies and pictures from the internet in oil paints.
What about the way you phrase the affirmations?
I’ve got a huge interest in language and I believe like, some words are very powerful to the mouth—like, you know, the English word “thud,” the onomatopoeia. I like to experiment with these things, I like to be creative with language. I wouldn't consider my English skills to be poor. When I write things like “I am Big Boss,” or “I am unique persona” or “I am shining teeth,” it's not because I don't understand the verbs of English language. It’s because I'm doing this very consciously, and I'm trying to do some new things in English.
Everybody knows, of course, that you cannot go around saying, “I am Big Boss,” but it can become sort of an expression. It heightens the effect, as I said, so people have a hard time deciphering whether or not these pictures are satirical or whether or not they're for real.
So, the visuals, the wording, it’s all kind of a Trojan Horse for your ultimate message about the power of positive thinking?
Due to the way I formatted the concept, it's very open for interpretation. This is how I reached out to normal people who don’t know a lot about affirmations. They see it and they think it looks very absurd. Then, they follow because they think it’s a meme or they think it’s a funny, satirical page. And then they see that I know what I'm talking about, that I'm a good writer who produces very good things. I give the content that sort of edge in this way—it makes it more tasty. [Laughs]
I’m only 20 years old, I’m just someone who spends a lot of time on Instagram, not a physician or a psychologist. But I spend a lot of time thinking, and I imagine that when people are exposed to this during the day, the neural bonds in the brain that relate themselves to positive thinking will become strengthened. I can summarize this very shortly by saying: I help people express thankfulness through my pictures.