Book review: The Wellness Syndrome - an industry brilliantly dissected

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 11:47pm


The Wellness Syndrome
by Carl Cederström and André Spicer

The idea of "wellness" in our age is missing something. To achieve wellness, a person must eat correctly, get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, and have the right socially sanctioned desires for professional advancement and consumer objects.

This hegemonic idea of wellness has, however, zero intellectual substance. Once upon a time, people who spoke Latin used to say "mens sana in corpore sano", which meant at least that a healthy mind was as important as a healthy body, and sometimes that the whole point of having a healthy body was to have a healthy mind.

But we live in the age of the official promotion of "mindfulness", whose aim is to calm the mind to a state of bovine acceptance. The modern idea of wellness is opposed to deep thinking: it encourages us all to become happily stupid athletes of capitalist productivity.

Carl Cederström and André Spicer's brilliantly sardonic anatomy of this "wellness syndrome" concentrates on the ways in which the pressure to be well operates as a moralising command and obliterates political engagement. The body, for adherents of wellness, becomes the only "truth system", and the withdrawal into it leads to "passive nihilism".

If we are all obsessed with being well individually, the book warns, we will not be well together.

Is wellness really such an onerous imposition? It is, the authors point out, for the increasing number of American students required to sign "wellness contracts" with their university, according to one of which the youngster promises to "maintain an alcohol- and drug-free lifestyle".

The rules of corporate wellness are now extending, too, from banning smoking in the workplace to banning smokers altogether, even if they only ever light up at home. Meanwhile, offices provide treadmill desks and companies employ "chief happiness officers", so as to paint exploitation with a smiley face.

"Our concern," Cederström and Spicer write, "is how wellness has become an ideology". And this is particularly revealing in "the prevailing attitudes towards those who fail to look after their bodies. These people are demonised as lazy, feeble or weak-willed. They are seen as obscene deviants, unlawfully and unabashedly enjoying what every sensible person should resist."

The common answer in our day is all too revealing: the poor and degenerate don't deserve decent housing or a basic income; they just need to be taught how to cook.

Indeed, the authors point out, the ideology of wellness shares with the controversial movement in psychology called "positive thinking" the twin assumptions that: a) you can be whatever you want to be; and therefore b) if anything bad happens to you, it's your fault. In this way, the apparent optimism of the public encouragement to "wellness" hides a brutal, libertarian lack of compassion.

Perhaps we don't need a new word, but just a new attitude. You might want to say, after all, that even if we are not all brainwashed by the wellness syndrome, it is still universal to find oneself seduced by some aspect of the wellness project, particularly if we define "wellness" as encompassing also our intellectual powers or our behaviour towards others. It is true, too, that when someone asks how we are and we are inclined to give a positive reply, we can sincerely say "I'm very well, thanks".

The authors would agree there is nothing wrong with being well or wanting to be well. But, as their humane and persuasive book shows, being told to be well is a different matter. A society where wellness is obligatory is a sick one.

Guardian News & Media