Since the 1980s, wellness in the United States has undergone a dramatic shift. The days are gone in which people sat around the workplace drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes, as the 1960s-era T.V. series, Mad Men, demonstrates. Instead, workplaces are incubators for wellness programs and mindfulness workshops. People are encouraged to meet with their colleagues while walking rather than sitting in an office. Attending a yearly health screening might get you a credit to your health insurance (at least that was the case for me when I worked for a public university two years ago). There are meditation rooms and gyms built into workspaces. Wellness isn’t just limited to our jobs, either. It is a social phenomenon that is permeating every aspect of our lives, from data tracking apps that tell you how many steps you took today to Time: Special Edition issues about mindfulness that get sold at grocery store check-out lines. As Carl Cedarström and André Spicer describe it in their book, The Wellness Syndrome, “wellness is not just something we choose. It is a moral obligation. We must consider it at every turn of our lives. While we often see it spelled out in advertisements and life-style magazines, this command is also transmitted more insidiously, so that we don’t know whether is is imparted from the outside or spontaneously arises within ourselves” (6).
The wellness syndrome is in part a result of the diminishing presence of traditional authorities—like the church, state, nation, etc.—in the cultural domain. During the 1970s and 80s, the rise of globalization diffused these historically reliable institutions, creating a lack in which people yearned for the days of Fordism in which reliability and purpose were cornerstones to the (white) American experience. Enter: the wellness syndrome. After the death of god, and now the slow demise of reason, people have become increasingly responsible for harnessing and expressing the truth through the means of their own bodies. Self-help gurus and wellness coaches are teaching us that the truth is individually located and personally understood, or as Cedarström and Spicer put it, “[b]y interrogating our bodies and listening to their most subtle signals, we are told we can find the truth, not just about who we are, but about what constitutes the good life” (26). The person who adheres to the dogma of wellness is “someone who is autonomous, potent, strong-willed and relentlessly striving to improve herself,” and so, as a result, she also experiences “anxiety, self-blame and guilt” (6). When someone is believed to have the capacity to choose her own fate and actualize not only what is true, but “what constitutes the good life,” that person is undoubtedly suffering under the weight of enormous pressure.
Choice is a double-edged sword. In Renata Salecl’s article, “Society of Choice,” the role of choice is analyzed as it relates to the wellness syndrome. Salecl investigates the question: how is it possible that an “apparent increase of choices through which people can supposedly fashion and tailor their lives does not lead to more satisfaction, but rather contributes to greater anxiety, greater feelings of inadequacy and guilt?” (159). She goes on to argue that, paradoxically, “many people do not find satisfaction in a presumably limitless society, but often end up on the path of self-destruction. It looks as if free consumers end by consuming themselves” (159). Indeed, with “deaths of despair”—or deaths caused by suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related liver disease—on the rise, it appears that limitless choice hasn’t resulted in greater freedom and happiness, but with seemingly inescapable sadness and anxiety.
The element of choice characteristic of the wellness syndrome is not problematic in and of itself: it is problematic when it is used against a public that was raised in a society that values obedience and submission. The discomfort and anxiety of decision making arises when, on one hand, an individual desires to please and cater to an authority, but on the other hand, that authority does not exist in a reliable and concrete way. In fact, there are currently multiple, contradictory authorities that implore the individual to acquiesce. (Do I go vegan or paleo? Do I buy an Android or an iPhone? Do I use a sleep tracking app or leave my phone in the other room to avoid screen time while in bed? Am I spending enough time with my child or overbearing her with affection? Is my daily nap hurting or helping my sleep cycle?). Fundamentally, the individual desires to acquiesce, to do the “right thing,” to be okay and to be seen as okay, but that’s no longer possible. In a corporatized culture of buying and selling, the economy benefits when people are mired in doubt.
As long as people have a desire to please, they will be trapped in longing, hoping that the Other (whoever or whatever that may be) will eventually acknowledge their worthiness and reward them with recognition. As long as our children are taught to obey rather than to respond, they will grow up to become people who are dependent on someone else’s approval to feel good about themselves, and they will continue to consume, consume, consume, until they end up consuming themselves, all the while searching for a form of validation that’s never quite good enough.
Cedarström, Carl and André Spicer. The Wellness Syndrome. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2015.
Salecl, Renata. “Society of Choice.” differences 20.1 (2009): 157–180. Web.