The Case Against Wellness

Authors and academics Carl Cederström and André Spicer want us to shut up already about happiness and health. In their new against-the-grain book, The Wellness Syndrome, they argue in favor of being sad, sedentary, and a little bit soft. We talked to Spicer, a professor of organizational behavior at London’s City University, to learn more.

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Photo by amazon.com

Your book takes apart the cult of wellness, positing that our culture has gone too far with its emphasis on physical and emotional self-actualization. What was your goal?
We wanted to remind people that they don’t need to spend all their time improving their wellness if they want to lead a good life.

Do you think most people feel pressured in that direction?
Yes. We’re told constantly that you must perpetually invest in your well being. It’s a big problem because we spend so much of our time trying to maximize our own wellness that we have little time left for the rest of life. But excessive focus on exercise, dieting, and self-help does not necessarily make us any healthier and happier. In fact, it often makes us feel worse.

One thing you talk about is that health has become a moral imperative—that “goodness” is associated with prioritizing wellness. Can you give an example?
A few years ago, my co-author, Carl, was in a park with his dog. An older woman started shouting at him. He didn’t know why. After a while he realized that she was upset because he was smoking in front of the dog. Carl called me up and we started talking about how it’s become sinful to do unhealthy things. Not long after, Carl quit smoking and we started to write this book.

Twice this week on NPR I heard coverage of ultra-athletes, and in the interviews I thought, these people are kind of insane. If they were talking about anything other than an athletic pursuit, they'd be medicated to deal with these impulses.
The cult of wellness is dangerous for ultra-athletes. Despite appearances, they often lead quite unhealthy and unhappy lives. It can also be dangerous for regular people too. If we become obsessed with working out, we can disconnect ourselves from the other things that give life meaning.

What do you say to those who argue that we need to be extreme about wellness here in the U.S. because we’re extreme about things on the other end of the spectrum—super-sized fast food, inactivity, diabetes?
You are right. There is a big problem with obesity and inactivity—not just in the U.S., but around the world. But becoming obsessed with our own wellness is not the solution. Research shows that most people who take up a wellness initiative like a diet usually don’t keep it up. In fact most serial dieters actually end up gaining weight. If we’re really interested in improving our own health, making modest but sustainable changes to our life is probably more important.

You have strong opinions on tech devices that count steps or watch sleep patterns.
Life-logging wearable tech that help people track their physical movements and moods appeal to some, but there is a danger that we can become obsessed with them. We know that people check their smart phones on average 150 times a day. We are likely to check our smart watches even more obsessively. As a result we could become preoccupied with monitoring ourselves rather than just living our lives.

What do you think parents could learn from your book?
As a father of a three-year-old girl, I find myself just wanting her to be happy. This is natural. But the reality is that to grow as a person she needs to be allowed to experience a range of emotions. Some of these will be positive, some will be negative. Unfortunately we can’t be happy all the time. By allowing her to experience and deal with a range of emotions, and not feel ashamed about it, I think I can give her the tools to cope with whatever life might throw at her in the future.

There’s a lot of focus on grownup happiness these days. Thoughts?
There’s lots of research that shows when we focus on our own personal happiness we often end up feeling worse. Instead we should use that time to do things that actually make us happy.

Your book is diagnostic, not prescriptive. But this is Real Simple, so what would you like to tell people to do?
We need to liberate ourselves from images we are fed every day of perfect health and happy lives. We all know this is not reality. We should accept these images for what they are—a pleasant and entertaining fantasy. Once we put these images in their place, the quality of our own life will immediately improve.

Parting thought?
I think we need to stop worrying that we are not healthy or happy enough and just start living.

The Wellness Syndrome is available at independent bookstores or at amazon.com.