Personal Health

Why We're Sick and Tired of Wellness

It's nearly impossible to live up to its unattainable standards.

In big-picture terms, wellness sounds like a pretty good idea right about now. Around the world, obesity rates are climbing (astoundingly, the planet’s “1.6 billion overweight and obese now outnumber the malnourished by nearly 2-to-1”). Noncommunicable illnesses such as heart attack and diabetes have supplanted starvation and malnutrition as the world’s leading killers. Fast food proliferates globally, which is really not helping. Throw in the fact that our choices, as a species, are turning out to have some pretty nasty consequences — things like, oh, endless wars and our own extinction — and the desire to make this life as pleasure-driven and meaningful as possible seems fairly understandable. 

It makes sense, then, that wellness, with its focus on mind, body and spiritual self-care, has become a guiding life philosophy for many; a concept that promises to make us all healthy, wealthy and wise, not to mention that most elusive and sought-after of states, happy. So why is wellness making so many of us miserable instead?

Partially, perhaps, it’s due to the sheer inescapability of the concept. Wellness seemingly grows in both ubiquity and profitability by the day, and has infiltrated nearly every sphere of Western culture. The wellness tourism market (think yoga and meditation retreats, spa stays, fitness outings and Eat, Pray, Love-style spiritual sojourns) raked in $494 billion in 2013, an increase of 12.7 percent over the year prior, making it the fastest growing travel sector. (Hilton Hotels, having clearly got the memo, recently issued a press release noting the expansion of amenities for “mindful guests.”)

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Carl Cederström and Andre Spicer, co-authors of the new book The Wellness Syndrome, cite numerous American colleges and universities, among them Duke, Clemson and Syracuse, which urge attendees to sign “wellness contracts,” pacts that generally compel students to live drug-free, conscientious lives. General Mills just announced a wellness-focused product line, which for good measure includes a couple of varieties of muesli, a Swiss-German cereal dish American marketers have successfully made synonymous with “healthy.” Corporations like Buick throw lavish, star-studded parties in the name of wellness awareness. And according to a 2014 Global Wellness Institute study, the industry overall is now valued at $3.4 trillion globally, “nearly three times larger than the $1 trillion worldwide pharmaceutical industry.”

While wellness sounds great on paper — because really, who doesn’t want mental, spiritual and physical clarity? — the fine print makes it less satisfying in practice. Cederström and Spicer point out how the all-pervasive values and tenets of wellness have been elevated from feel-good lifestyle choice to all-consuming ideology. Taking care of ourselves, a component of which includes self-denial of societally condemned “bad things,” from fatty foods to hedonistic living, to achieve and reap the benefits of a body that shows off all that self-discipline, has become de rigueur. Seen through the wellness filter, every mundane act is now an expression of self-love and presence of mind. (“When we engage in boring activities, such as washing up at home, we should think of them as improving our mindfulness,” Cederström and Spicer write. “Even baking a loaf of bread is now recast as a way of nurturing our well-being.”) It is an endless exercise, literally and figuratively, in the pursuit of perfection and perfunctory joy, itself an oxymoronic idea.

What’s more, the "wellness syndrome” firmly places the onus on each of us to create a life of pleasure and healthy moderation. Those who do not or cannot live up to its standards — the sick, the overweight, the depressed — are inherently defective failures who have no one but themselves to blame. In this way, wellness becomes, to quote Cederström and Spicer, a “moral imperative.” They cite Slovenian philosopher Alenka Zupančič, who in her 2008 book The Odd One In coined the term “biomorality,” which Cederström and Spicer define as “the moral demand to be happy and healthy.”

Zupančič suggests that through the prism of biomorality, lifestyle and emotional state become an indicator of intrinsic personal worth, or lack thereof. We are what we eat, what we do and how we feel. “[Biomorality] promotes the following fundamental axiom,” Zupančič writes. “[A] person who feels good (and is happy) is a good person; a person who feels bad is a bad person.”

Through the lens of capitalism, wellness turns those who do not adhere to its tenets into liabilities of the free market. “Healthy bodies are productive bodies,” Cederström and Spicer note. “They are good for business.” They are what is often labeled, however vaguely, as contributing members of society. Citizens who do not measure up on this count, for whatever reason, are denigrated and maligned, a class of “other” whose values, if they exist at all, run counter to our cherished, middle-class own. Here, America’s deeply rooted puritanical beliefs add an extra layer of amorality, and even immorality, to those who exist outside of or beyond the needs of the capitalist state.

These people are demonized as lazy, feeble or weak willed. They are seen as obscene deviants, unlawfully and unabashedly enjoying what every sensible person should resist. When health becomes an ideology, the failure to conform becomes a stigma...This ideological shift is part of a larger transformation in contemporary culture where individual responsibility and self-expression are morphed with the mindset of a free-market economist. To stop smoking is not so much about cutting down on your immediate expenses, or even extending your life expectancy, as it is a necessary strategy to improve your personal market value...People who don't carefully cultivate their personal wellness are seen as a direct threat to contemporary society, a society in which illness, as David Harvey puts it, "is defined as the inability to work."

One need only look at the endless pathologizing of the poor, the frequent conjuring of the "welfare queen" boogeywoman, the constant decrying of “entitlement programs,” for proof. Wellness, in many ways, has become the latest supporting evidence for the “takers vs. makers” school of what passes for thought.

Further evidence of this idea becomes apparent when looking at the number of companies that have adopted wellness policies, which are aimed at keeping employees physically fit, mentally sharp and relatively happy. Business does nothing out of the goodness of its heart, and this latest obsession with wellness is aimed at achieving two profit-driven goals: increasing production and reducing costs associated with employee health care. Forbes recently highlighted a study finding more than two-thirds of U.S. companies have wellness programs, and a 2012 Huffington Post article noted a survey indicating that “wellness programs are the fastest growing category of employee benefits.”

Corporate culture’s embrace of wellness takes multiple and myriad forms. Mindfulness meditation practice has become a staple of business culture. On-site yoga instruction is an increasingly common workplace "perk," and naps are encouraged in a growing number of corporate spaces. Companies from Silicon Valley to Wall Street have attempted to turn their offices into virtual funhouses, where chill-out rooms and foosball tables break up the monotony of increasingly long and demanding work days. Job sites offer free “on-campus” healthy meals, mostly to ensure that employees eat the right things, but without all the dictatorial undertones.

As the Nation notes, a number of corporate entities have also implemented wellness programs, many of them essentially mandated, which allow companies to monitor employee health via biometric testing of traits including “cholesterol, blood pressure, sugar levels, weight and body mass index.” Those who don’t go along with the program, or who don’t meet pre-established fitness benchmarks, often find themselves penalized with fines and/or higher insurance rates. As author Will Davies, cited by Cederström and Spicer, bluntly states in an article titled "The Political Economy of Unhappiness," "[W]ell-being provides the policy paradigm by which mind and body can be assessed as economic resources.”

Under the guise of pushing staff healthiness, the wellness “benefits” model represents yet another excuse for companies to make workers responsible for health care costs once covered by employers. The unfit and rebellious pay a literal price, a sort of tax for not abiding by the rules of corporate wellness. As the Nationstates, “[t]his new, more individualized form of cost-shifting threatens to stigmatize and penalize the chronic health conditions of millions of workers, expose some to job discrimination and undermine labor solidarity in the process.” There’s also the issue of privacy, a right which is lost when your employer is permitted to ask about nearly every aspect of your personal life, using “surveys [which] probe off-duty behavior related to sex, drugs and alcohol.”

What’s more, the oft-touted returns on investment that wellness programs promise have been vastly inflated and overestimated by companies. In a 2014 piece examining wellness and its purported enhancement of corporate bottom lines, Entrepreneur magazine notes that while companies reportedly spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion annually on these programs, studies indicate that the old idea of spending money to make money isn’t exactly paying off where corporate wellness is concerned:

[R]esearchers examined 51 research studies in nine industry types in 12 countries with more than 260,000 participants and concluded that in randomized control trials (considered the “gold standard” for research trials), the ROI of workplace wellness programs had an overall mean value of -.22. “This means that for every dollar invested in these programs, 78 cents was returned,” says Jon Robison of Salveo Partners, LLC, an organization that counsels companies on how to create thriving, healthy workplaces.

“The delivery of programs that pry, poke, prod and punish employees are not the key to a healthier workplace,” Robison continued. Instead, they place the blame for job dissatisfaction squarely on the shoulders of the workers themselves. Burnt out? Not hitting the gym as often as you should to comply with your company’s wellness ideals? Feeling unable to keep up with the pace of your inbox? Must be a problem with you, not the corporate culture that surrounds you.

An even more insidious effect of the wellness syndrome may be the way it ignores factors outside of our personal control — the weight of history, the realities of structural socioeconomic inequality — in favor of the idea that if we all just took better care of ourselves and were a little more open to being happy, all would be right with the world. The "wellness syndrome,” though not always labeled as such, gives the powers that be an out in terms of working toward real social change to address inequality, and suggests that individuals just do it themselves, encouraging what Cederström and Spicer call an “infectious narcissism":

In place of politics, we are left with corporeal babble and increasingly invasive lifestyle tweaks. As a result, we abandon political demands. The just redistribution of material resources (through "social welfare"), the recognition of previously maligned identities (through "identity politics") and the representation of political voices (through "democratization") have now become replaced by a new ambition: personal rehabilitation. Here, the unemployed are not provided with an income; they get life coaching. Discriminated groups don't get opportunities to celebrate their identities; they get an exercise plan. Citizens don't get the opportunity to influence decisions that affect their lives; they get a mindfulness session. Meanwhile, inequality, discrimination and authoritarianism become seen as questions too grand to tackle head-on. Instead, political ambitions become myopically focused on boosting our well-being.

There has, of late, been pushback against the wellness mandate. Forbes cites the findings of Al Lewis and Vik Khanna, co-authors of the book Surviving Workplace Wellness…With Your Dignity, Finances, and (Major) Organs Intact,which indicate that wellness programs often have the opposite effect than intended, lowering employee morale. (“In addition to subjecting workers to incredibly invasive questioning," the article states, “[b]ad wellness programs send the message that your boss thinks you’re an idiot. This typically isn’t a good strategy for improving morale, though it does improve motivation to update your resume.”)

The New York Times points to Penn State, which was forced to abandon plans for a wellness program that faculty characterized as “coercive and financially punitive." (Employees of the university would have been required to complete a questionnaire that posed incredibly personal questions about their “jobs, marital situation and finances,” including requiring women staffers to indicate whether they planned to get pregnant in the near future, or face a $100 “monthly noncompliance fee.”) And Chicago’s Inspector General Joe Ferguson has very recently gone public with criticisms of a wellness program for city workers, which he says is actually raising city expenditures — he cites a 43 percent rise in health care-related spending — without providing any monetary returns.

No one’s arguing that wellness, in general, is a bad idea. Life is hard. Most of us could be a bit nicer to ourselves; smoking is indeed bad for us; and exercise — breaking news — does a body good. But the all-consuming wellness syndrome Cederström and Spicer identify isn’t about making us better versions of ourselves, it’s about achieving an ultimately unattainable perfect self that mostly serves to distract from widespread societal ills and further enrich our corporate overlords. Go for a run or a swim if you like (I probably will once I file this story), but do it because you want to, and because it makes your life richer and more enjoyable. In the end, that should be the only personal wellness mandate that matters.

Kali Holloway is a senior writing fellow and the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute.