There’s a new movement in the world, and it’s amazingly widespread. From beaches in Australia to coffee shops in Paris, from Silicon Valley in the US to the streets of Barcelona, people are hopping on a swathe of health trends that fall under one, all-encompassing label.
I’m talking, of course, about wellness.
Wellness is something of an amorphous term. If you check Wikipedia, it’s “an umbrella term for pseudoscientific health interventions”. If you read wellness articles, that includes activities from yoga to bulletproof coffee and almost everything in between. Want to market your new infrared sauna? Call it a wellness spa and suddenly it’s all the rage.
The problem is that, despite offering to take you to a state of health that was previously unknown to humanity, most wellness services suffer from the same underlying issue.
You see, wellness is almost entirely a scam for rich people.
The World Health Organization famously defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. It’s a very good definition — being healthy is not just about disease or injury, it’s about innumerable separate parts of our lives that have to work together for us to enjoy our existence.
The problem is, what happens if you are already at the very top end of the WHO’s definition? If you live in a wealthy suburb of a wealthy state in one of the wealthiest countries in the world? No one is 100% ‘healthy’, perhaps, but if you have access to fresh food and water, and are vaccinated against infectious diseases, you’re already better off than a significant chunk of humanity.
Which brings us to wellness.
Wellness defines the murky divide between ‘health’ and something even better. You might feel well, but your maybe you could feel fantastic! Just take these liver supplements, spend a few hours a week mindfully doing yoga, and stare at the sun*.
Wellness was demonstrated amazingly well in a recent Times article that went viral. It was a wonderful example of what happens when people who are both very wealthy and interested in their own wellbeing go down rabbit holes in search of the perfect life. The absurd nonsense that was described by the wellness experts in the article was, in many ways, the logical endpoint of a search for ultimate wellbeing that ignores the scientific realities when it comes to health.
Much of this is down to the underlying ideas that the wellness movement is based on. It’s usually predicated on two basic assumptions:
- No one is 100% ‘well’. Even the most objectively healthy people can and should take steps, sometimes drastic ones, to improve their wellbeing.
- Health is under your control. You can easily improve your life by taking relatively simple — if expensive — steps like purifying your own water or buying a specific brand of cheese.
Sadly, both of these ideas are fundamentally flawed.
The first issue with wellness is that it medicalizes everyday life. There is no problem, big or small, that can’t be solved with some sort of supplement or strange device. If you are already mostly healthy, this often involves creating issues where none exist. You may think you’re doing ok, but what about all of the toxins in your environment? They aren’t well defined, and probably don’t exist, but somewhere there are large teams of people who will happily sell you expensive treatments designed to combat them.
The second problem with wellness is that it totally ignores how health works for most people. Much of our wellbeing is down to factors beyond individual control. For example, take diabetes. Whether you have diabetes is not down to some vague notions of toxins but does have a lot to do with where you were born, what your parents did, and how wealthy you were growing up.
Unfortunately, there is no supplement that will cure poverty.
And this is a really important point. Wellness is defined by the idea the you can improve your health, that it’s your responsibility to, say, drink the right kind of coconut water. If you don’t shop around, it’s then your fault that you are sick. This attitude doesn’t just inappropriately blame people for their own ill health, it’s actively ignorant of the science. If you’re lucky enough to be fit, young, and generally healthy, it’s usually more down to luck than some miracle of willpower.
For the vast majority of people, being well is more about where they live than how much of their food is organic. If you’re wealthy enough to buy boutique supplements and your own infra-red sauna, you almost certainly don’t need them anyway.
It’s impossible to rule out that some wellness trends are helpful to health, but personally I have’t seen one yet. Most of them are based on vague approximations of science and promise things that not only can they not deliver, but you don’t really need anyway. For example, if you’re not being admitted to a hospital, chances are most of your organs are doing a decent job already.
Don’t worry too much about being well. If you are mostly healthy, consider yourself lucky and do something more useful with your time. Donate some of the money that you were going to waste on your next detox retreat. And before you try any treatment, it’s a good idea to check in with a doctor to see if there are downsides that you might not know about.
It may not always be easy, but it’s far more useful than wellness.
*Note: don’t stare at the sun, this is truly ridiculous and very dangerous it won’t help your health and can make you blind