Working from home — with no obligation to appear in the presence of other people besides my fiancée — has thrown my grooming habits into disarray. I no longer get haircuts or shave on the regular. Most days, I just look in the mirror and think, Oof, you need to clean up. And then — oops — it’s time to log on! No time for that.
Coincidentally, these moments overlap in times where I’ve fallen into a bit of a rut. Most my time is either sleeping, writing or staring at social media. But upon seeing the gaunt, pale, haggard figure in the mirror looking back at me like a frightened caveman, I realize it’s time to head to visit Linda and the gals at the barbershop. In a way, my appearance is a sort of personal mental health barometer: If I’ve let myself go a bit, I know I’m in a bad place.
But after a haircut, shave and shower, I feel better. I always do. And it turns out this is a thing. On Reddit, you’ll find multiple “Life Pro Tips” about getting a shave and haircut to feel better. Some men heartily believe this is a cure-all to their blues. “I’ve been badly in need of a haircut for almost two months,” says Reddit user Piqued_a_Pack. “Just looking at myself in the mirror [post-grooming] staves off the depression in a way I haven’t felt in… longer than I can really recall. Little moments of self-care really can help you each and every day to keep the beast at bay.”
“I have a habit of slipping into depression,” writes user BH1321. “However, I have gotten better at recognizing my warning signs and behavior patterns when I begin to slip. … Hair, beard, clothes, my home… I just stop caring. When I finally decide to do the work to dig myself out, my first stop tends to be at the barber shop. I cried last time I left there. I just felt so much better about myself.”
Other comments in the same thread invoke the sarcastic “wow thanks I’m cured” response, seeing this “pro tip” as just a temporary fix or a blanket solution to the complex problem that is depression.
So what’s the truth about grooming and mental health? Is there a connection at all, or is there something else at play? I reached out to a few mental health professionals.
You’re Setting Yourself in Motion to Feel Better
Dr. Claudia Luiz, Psychoanalyst: Cleaning up of any kind, including making your bed, has been revealed to increase happiness. Simply by doing something positive, you set yourself in motion to feel better and do better. But haircuts aren’t going to give you a chemical rush like exercise, so what is it about?
There’s always a chicken-and-egg situation for me when it comes to … the causality of feeling better. In my opinion, men who already have good self-esteem and feel good about themselves are more likely to make the most of their looks — get great haircuts and look their best. Conversely, a more depressed man will not be very interested in beautifying himself because he doesn’t feel good from within, so looking his best wouldn’t resonate with how he feels.
Now, there’s a behavioral philosophy, which is that if you start acting like a person with good self-esteem, you will actually become one. Therefore, men should work harder to get good haircuts, and style their hair and beard to their best advantage. But from the perspective of a psychoanalyst like me, doing the deeper work of challenging your negative self-perceptions is what will eventually turn into behaviors that reflect that positive self-esteem, like looking your very best.
So I recommend that men work both angles: changing their behaviors — getting great haircuts that will maximize their inherently positive features — as well as striving to challenge the negative self-speak that can get in the way of all that.
There are a lot of other markers for mental health that are not just about happiness or productivity. We are remarkably endowed as a human species to have the potential for impulse disorders, anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, thought disorders and mood disorders. So while measures of positivity and happiness have their own standard, there is a limit to how much the deeper mental health disturbances can be affected by the day-to-day positive improvements.
For deeper problems, behavioral adjustments can make life more bearable, tolerable and productive. But they won’t create the necessary shifts in consciousness that are required when there are more severe mental health concerns. So while taking good care of yourself is an excellent way of giving your brain the message “I’m worth being attended to in a positive way,” will it cure major depression? Probably not.
Your Brain Associates a Better Appearance with Success
Ari Hoffman, Psychotherapist: There are a number of reasons why a shave and a haircut can facilitate significant change in a man’s experience of well-being: Being successful is a mix of so many different elements. One might be making good decisions, another might be patience, and another might be good people skills. However, there is one thing that most of those elements depend on, one factor that can promote success in the adventures of self, relationship and business. That factor is a positive opinion of oneself and one’s abilities.
When I get up and look in the mirror and I’m unhappy with what I see, it doesn’t feel great. And even if I know “it’s only skin-deep” and “you can’t judge a book by it’s cover,” it still doesn’t feel good. And even if I have great self-esteem, not liking what I see in the mirror makes a difference.
However, if, when I look in the mirror, I think to myself, Wow, you’re looking fine, that will increase my confidence and my willingness to put a little more out there and ask for that raise, or just feel good knowing that I look good.
Another positive element of getting a shave and a haircut is the value of human touch. There has been tons of research done on human-to-human touch and the enormous positive effects it can bring about. The caring and gentle touch from a barber or stylist can increase feelings of well-being, lower blood pressure and promote relaxation.
There’s Meaning in the Haircut
Alex Ribbentrop, Psychoanalyst: The short answer to this is… yes and no. No, you do not need an expensive haircut or anything. Yes, there can be value attached to external appearance.
What this can be boiled down to is the values attached to the haircut, shave, etc. and the specific person being treated. Someone with narcissistic traits may not benefit from continuing to spend too much on external appearances as a means of compensating for an unhealthy self-view. A person struggling with depression may benefit from cleaning up. It can be a behavioral intervention or action that sparks a level of self-care and investment in self, which depression often chips away at. Although it is a simple question, there are many perspectives that could be applicable.
Ultimately, one will benefit most from investing time, energy and emotion into those things that align with a sound system of value and meaning. Check out Viktor Frankl’s work Man’s Search for Meaning, or existential perspectives, for further description of this concept.
A Short-Term Fix
Dr. Chris Barnes, Psychologist: We all too often use quick fixes for emotional distress. Sex, booze, new clothes, haircut, whatever. I’m cool with all that, so long as it isn’t avoidance. When we avoid, we don’t really fix anything. As an emotionally stable person, my personality is the same on the day I get a trim as well as after six weeks of no trim.
It all boils down to self-awareness and balance. If your life is a mess and your environment is equally as messy, put some energy into something you actually have control over and tidy up a bit. But beware that this might also be avoidance: It will only be a simple short-term fix that could complicate things more down the road.