Let’s peel away the filters and ask… what is really happening in the world of wellness? What is wellbeing today in the society I see, work and operate in? And what is really happening within me?
I am at once both witnessing and participating in the outer and inner craziness that is the… self-improvement age we are living in.
People talk of New Age, the Tech age, the Psychological era and Globalisation. Well, collide them altogether into a virtual nuclear fusion and the Self Improvement age comes out in the mix.
If that metaphor seems a little creative, the figures speak for themselves. In the UK, the wellbeing market is valued at £25 billion for this year alone, up by several billion in just five years. Within the wellness industry (which includes money spent voluntarily on health and wellbeing), the ‘self-help’ sector is valued at £10 billion and is also growing exponentially.
Isn’t it great that so many people are now taking their health and wellbeing by the horns and devoting a large part of our time, cash and attention to it?
Well… it would be great if this time, cash and attention led to happiness and connection. But is it? Is it really?
Before I go on, I’d like to say this is not a blog post to argue against self improvement or rant against the‘Wellness Age’ we live in. Rather, I wanted to hoist up the red flags for our collective and individual attention because it seems so many of us are either in denial or caught up in a wellbeing web that traps rather than liberates our souls and way of life.
Red flag one: from actual to virtual
In our efforts to improve our wellbeing, our focus has increasingly shifted from actual self to a virtual self. The need to validate our efforts digitally, be it via social media, photographs or updates, or using devices to track and record outcomes, seem more important or urgent than the outcome itself. If we go to yoga, we need to ‘see’ how yoga is making a difference to our body. If we take up running, we need to track it and share those results. If we make a healthy dinner, we need to show it to our friends and strangers around the world, and ideally win a load of likes. It works the other way round too. Gym chains are sassing up their image to appear ‘holistic’. Anything connected to wellbeing needs a strong constant virtual presence and ever flowing stream of tools to keep attention. Even corporations and big businesses are jumping on the ‘we care about your wellbeing’ bandwagon as a means to psychologically make their staff feel nurtured (and improve their company’s image). Feeding our ego’s inherent and never ending hunger for approval has overtaken the original need to nourish our bellies and souls.
Red flag two: yet another pressure
The notion that we shouldbe fit, healthy, wholesome and balanced has joined the party that says we must be great at our jobs, physically attractive, well-off, happily married, with children and a sorted future.
As if we didn’t have enough on our plates already, ‘wellbeing’ is now on the priority list of things that we must work on if we are to consider ourselves acceptable human beings.
The now hackneyed phrase ‘work-life-balance’ has evolved into the ‘wellbeing-work-life” equation. It’s not enough to go to work and provide shelter and food on the table for yourself and your loved ones. It’s not enough to be creative or passionate as well as earn plenty of bucks. It’s not enough to lead a moral, good life. Nope.
Now, you must have a specific fitness regime, a special diet for performance, supplements for brain and body, constant monitoring of where you fall off balance and lots of time off to be able to travel and re-set.
Red flag three: self-me
When does ‘working on the self’ move from a healthy leisurely lifelong project to a narcissistic pursuit? I think it’s subtle and a shift that happens by stealth. If and when we do realise that our self-help intentions have turned into a monstrous The Project of Me, it’s often too late or too hard to turn back the tide. Why is that? Largely becauseour cultures doesn’t reallyoffer alternatives. We have a duality that says you’re either healthy and holistic or… you’re not.
Throw technology into the mix and we’ve landed ourselves into a toxic quagmire whereby the external validation of outcomes to improve ourselves has become compulsive behaviour. Plenty of research now shows that ‘likes’ and feedback on an instagram post creates a dopamine hit. And we all know what dopamine is like… addictive! Getting recognised for our efforts to improve ourselves lights up the very same cells in our brain and nervous system just like coke (the drug, and the drink), sex and retail therapy.
Red flag four: why is it so damn expensive?
Why is it that the fastest growing and most financially lucrative sector of the food industry are ‘health foods’, and the only retail units making profit on the high street are outlets heavily marketed as healthy, or smartly branded to target the attentions of those who are leading or wanting to lead a “conscious lifestyle”. (Ok, KFC is the notable exception here).
It wasn’t long ago that joining a gym was a straightforward business and in most cases not too heavy on the pocket. Similarly, you could go to a yoga class in the local community hall. To relieve yourself of work stress, you’d meet people, or sleep more, or do gardening, or share a meal with friends or a loved on, or go on holiday, or read a paper, or just try to work less hours. To lose weight, you’d eat less, work out more and eat fresh food. To feel happier, you’d reach out to connect to a loved one or friend and you’d try to make more time in your life for pleasure and relaxation.
Now, wellbeing is big business. Supplements, superfoods, boutique gyms, personal trainers, apps, bespoke programmes, retreats, detoxes, more apps, books, e-books, e-courses, seminars, training courses, life coaches therapy and even mattress makers (if you’re not spending at least 1k on a mattress, you can’t be getting quality sleep apparently) are steadily tipping out our pockets. Then there’s the rise of the Expert and the Niche Expert who are merrily funding house extensions and conservatories (AND their own wellbeing lifestyles) off the back of the big business that is ‘you have an insecurity and I can fix it’.
Red flag six: still unhappy
In trying to turn our lives into something made up of perfectly aligned segments – think of a pie chart divided into wellbeing, work, family, finance, creativity, attractiveness, social life, security, however much we might well succeed in any one of these segments, is it possible to have perfection in each one at any given time, and are we feeling genuinely truly happier as we work on our wellbeing?
Or maybe happiness isn’t the point. In which case, this red flag is redundant.
Negative self-talk, the rocketing of mental health issues in young people, the distorted body image epidemic, anxiety, insomnia, preoccupation with The Project of Me are shadow side of the stratospheric growth of the wellbeing sector.
Just look at sales of self-help books, going through the roof even though the book industry per se is in decline.
We really have to question what lies underneath the wellbeing veneer we are buying and creating, and how far do the stories that we put out to the world resonate with the truth inside of us. The capitalist culture we all now live in makes multi billions out of making us feel un-whole and we’ve bought into it.
But oh, I don’t want to end on a tragic note of a series of glaring red flags with no inner shining light at the end of the tunnel.
Here are my suggestions on how we can embrace wellbeing into our lives so that it is effective, joyful and real
-Self check your wellbeing habits: regularly ask yourself why you do what you do, buy what you buy, subscribe to what you subscribe to and explore the impact its having on how you feel about yourself and life in general
-Keep it simple: life is complicated enough as it is! Maintain or work on a healthy lifestyle in ways that are sustainable, affordable and practical
-Self regulate your use of tech – ok, that is a whole other post, but you can do it
-Consider the environments you spend time in as contributing to your wellbeing – city/nature, workplace, home, bedroom, and also the metaphorical circles you are in (social life, family, relationships);
-Think about what you can give – not just what you can take – that will help other people’s wellbeing (and the impact your behaviours have on them); ample research shows that service, or just mere consideration of another person’s happiness or needs reverbs back and makes us feel better about ourselves
-Take out the ‘Self’ out of self-improvement – and see where it takes you… *
*and yes, I’m working on all this too.