If you’ve scrolled past a day planner carefully photographed and shared on social media during this pandemic, you’re not alone. Each one varies depending on the influencer or self-confessed health guru, but the general consensus is that by waking up early, making time for exercise, eating healthily and then diving into some sort of creative mindfulness, you can maximise your time in isolation. While creating our ‘new normal’ in the current global health crisis is uncharted territory, it’s sending many of us deeper into an area we’ve become all too accustomed to: wellness ideology.
The concept of achieving wellness at its most basic level is striving for a balance in health in our body and mind. Many of its elements, such as prioritising sleep, meditation, diet, yoga, and natural remedies, are not new inventions but rather practices from many cultures repackaged under the gleam of lifestyle brands such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop empire.
In 1979, American journalist and 60 Minutes host Dan Rather began a segment on wellness with: “There’s a word you don’t hear every day.” Four decades later and it’s become part of our regular vocabulary. In 2018, the global wellness market was estimated to be worth $4.5tn, making the wellness economy more than half as large as the total global health economy ($7.3tn, based on WHO data). This focus on positivity, however, hasn’t resulted in an overall uptick in positive feelings: Gallup’s 2019 report showed record levels of negative wellness experiences.
Controlling what we can
Carl Cederström, associate professor at Stockholm University and co-author of The Wellness Syndrome, describes our obsession with wellness as strange preparation for the solitariness that social isolation presents us with. By using ‘expert advice’ to shape each section of our lives, a self-centred focus on wellness can leave us trying to control every aspect of our day with tunnel vision. “You move towards treating yourself not just as a commodity, but as a project,” says Cederström. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the “you never lacked time, you lacked discipline” quote that’s splashed across social media under the guise of being motivational.
While this desire to control our schedules may bring a reassuring sense of order in these uncertain times, it can also fuel disorders such as orthorexia, an obsession with eating healthy food. Cederström hopes the pandemic will be a breaking point in our fixation on wellness trends. “[It’s] a wake-up call for those who are still committed to living this idea of optimised wellness,” he tells Vogue. “We could stay at home and regulate our hours, we could be perfectly time-efficient and do the workout for the extremely fit bodies we see on Instagram, but at the end of the day, why do we do that?”
The wave of revolt against wellness and the pressure of productivity indicates that this might be the case. As The Balanced Blonde blogger Jordan Younger participates in a 14-day “water fast” and encourages her followers to “go inward” during the pandemic, actor and activist Jameela Jamil reminds us that “we don’t need to come out of this thin, we need to come out of this alive.” The backlash against wellness is rife on Twitter where people are creating satirical memes sending up lifestyle bloggers promoting positivity during lockdown. Meanwhile, writer Sophie Kemp provides a much more relatable take on how a pandemic can leave you feeling less than inspired to practise self-care: “Doing ‘self-care’ when the world is eroding at a horrifically rapid pace rendering you dead inside like.”
Yet this mindset will be a difficult one to collectively shift. André Spicer, the other co-author of The Wellness Syndrome and professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School in London, points out that our view of wellness has become an ideology of sorts—and with it comes the notion that those not engaging in these practices are somehow ‘less than’. “Those who fail to look after their bodies under the expectations of wellness syndrome are judged and demonised as lazy or weak-willed,” he says. This judgmental behaviour continues despite studies proving that many physical indicators of wellness, such as thinness, don’t relate to actual good health. A 2016 study showed that unfit slim people were twice as likely to get diabetes as fit overweight people.
When wellness enters dangerous territory
This distorted view of health, and discrimination against those perceived as unhealthy, is maybe the most dangerous part of wellness, as it has a very real impact on our physical health—according to a 2015 study, fat people who feel discriminated against have shorter life expectancies than fat people who don’t.
Another dangerous element of wellness, says Spicer, is the idea that “through ‘positive thinking’ you can be whatever you want to be and if anything bad happens to you, it’s no one’s fault but your own.” He describes this as a “very controversial movement in psychology” because this thought process can leave you feeling worse and withdrawing into yourself. As well as feeding self hatred, it’s harmful in the same way that we talk about people with pre-existing health conditions being more susceptible to coronavirus or how the virus is disproportionately impacting people of colour—as if in both cases it’s somehow their fault.
Many of the most common practices marketed to us through wellness are helpful, such as gratitude, exercise, healthy eating and meditation, but our obsessive approach to them is not. Laurie Santos, professor of psychology at Yale University, offers many practical and scientifically proven steps for boosting happiness on her popular The Science of Well-Being course. These include being present, participating in small acts of kindness, and prioritising social connection, all of which are backed up by science. The difference, however, between her suggestions and general wellness dialogue is her science-focus and the element of self-compassion. “Not beating yourself up and taking baby steps is a core component of what I teach,” she says. “Lots of the wellness stuff on Instagram can feel performative or almost like a competition. And science suggests that this kind of social comparison can make us feel worse, not better.”
Under the weight of a global pandemic that’s killing people around the world and leaving many without basic healthcare, our all-consuming approach to wellness pushes us further into individualism, fuelling prejudices around health, and ultimately making us unhappier. Santos offers an alternative: by focusing on others and remaining present, we can improve both our own happiness and fulfil our most basic needs for social connection—something we’re currently collectively yearning for from a 2m distance.