Cover page

The Wellness Syndrome slinks like a submarine beneath the disingenuously placid surface-narratives of contemporary ideology, before torpedoing, with devastating effect, that most pernicious of all neoliberal doctrines: positiveness.’
Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder, C and Satin Island

‘A fascinating and timely investigation of the modern ideology of “wellness”, with its moralizing insistence that being a good member of society means meditating more, exercising more and using your smartphone to track sleep patterns, your diet and even your sex life. Carl Cederström and André Spicer vividly show how the consumer economy has co-opted health and even happiness itself – and warn that our fixation on wellness is ultimately an anxiety-inducing, isolating and joyless way to live.’
Oliver Burkeman, Guardian columnist and author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking

‘A wonderful piece of work which exposes the wellness ideology for what it is: a stupid and dreadful fantasy of authentic self-mastery. As this timely and entertaining book shows, such fantasies must be nailed.’
Simon Critchley, The New School for Social Research

‘We all obscurely sense that politics has dramatically shifted. Less involved in the “body politic” than ever, we are all far more deeply engaged with our own bodies, through medicine, meditation workshops or fitness classes. As this insightful and elegant book shows, this shift marks a dramatic change in our societies as it makes health and happiness the new markers of “morality” or “immorality”. Fat people and smokers are now united in their common immorality. Marshalling an impressive array of evidence, this book sheds a much-needed light on the new tyranny exerted by the cultural imperatives of health and happiness.’
Eva Illouz, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

‘Using a comprehensive set of case studies, Carl Cederström and André Spicer diagnose contemporary capitalism's obsession with “wellness”. The Wellness Syndrome is a mordantly witty analysis of how ideology works today. It demonstrates that the fixation on health is itself pathological – and that sickness can be liberating.’
Mark Fisher, Goldsmiths University

For Esther and Rita

Title page

Introduction

Being a good person these days does not mean curbing the sinful longings of the body, mortifying the weak flesh, following your conscience and preparing through constant prayer for your departure from this life here below; it means living well. Bad cess to anyone who lets a day pass without some enjoyment!

Hervé Juvin, The Coming of the Body, 20101

Signing the Wellness Contract

As students at the École Normale Supérieure, Sartre and his close friends had more important things to contemplate than their personal wellness. A generous observer might have described their diet as varied: a massive intake of stodgy books alternated with laxatives, consisting of cigarettes, coffee and hard liquor. In a world defined by absurdity, there were more acute issues to deal with than perfecting one's physical wellbeing. For Sartre's set, being students was to engage promiscuously with thinking, and to take risks with one's mind – not to waste time thinking about how to eat correctly.

Slightly less than a century later we find a new trend at North American universities. To shape their lives in an image of wellbeing, thousands of students across the United States are encouraged to sign ‘wellness contracts’. You agree to a lifestyle aimed at enhancing body, mind and soul. If you sign the ‘Campus Wellness Contract’ at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, you promise to ‘maintain an alcohol- and drug-free lifestyle’. You will then get a taste of what such contracts call a ‘holistic approach to living’. But then you have to give something back. You have to contribute ‘positively to the community’, respect ‘different motivations for choosing this living option’, participate in community events, and not possess drink or other drugs. And of course you need to abide by ‘the philosophy of the Wellness community’.

These wellness contracts are not incidental. They are now offered by at least a dozen universities across the United States.2 While most promote a ‘substance-free lifestyle’, each university has its own shtick. North Dakota takes a broad approach, offering physical, social, emotional, environmental, spiritual and intellectual wellness. At Syracuse, you get ‘group trips to local parks and lakes’. You also get ‘nutrition demonstrations and presentations; meditation, yoga and other forms of stress reduction; parfait nights and more’. In the more committed wellness communities, students are requested to carefully monitor their progress against the wellness goals they set out at the beginning of the year.

This may be a good thing for eager young students, at least if you ask their concerned parents. Wellness contracts make sure that students avoid harmful hedonism while encouraging other social activities (such as the mandatory ‘parfait nights’). What is wrong with turning universities into year-round health spas to help students grow their bodies and minds?

The problem, of course, is that this project produces a very particular version of the student: the sanitized and straight-thinking student, who would not mix well with Sartre and his radical friends. What is likely to disappear here is a particular kind of college education where students experiment with transformative politics, take mind-expanding substances, encounter the ravages of an unhealthy diet, and experience intense and soul-destroying relationships.

It is not just some North American college students who have promised to pursue wellness. Today, wellness has become a moral demand – about which we are constantly and tirelessly reminded. To be a good person, as Hervé Juvin reminds us in the epigraph, is to constantly find new sources of pleasure. It means turning life into an exercise in wellness optimization. At work, we are kindly offered a place on ‘wellbeing programmes’. As consumers, we are required to curate a lifestyle aimed at maximizing our wellbeing. When we engage in boring activities, such as washing up at home, we should think of them as improving our mindfulness. Even baking a loaf of bread is now recast as a way of nurturing our wellbeing.

In other words, wellness has wormed itself into every aspect of our lives. A few decades back, wellness was the preserve of small groups of alternative lifestylers. Today, wellness has gone mainstream. It dictates the way we work and live, how we study, and how we have sex. We find it even in the most unexpected places, such as the Ashland Federal Correctional Institution, Kentucky, where prisoners undergo wellness programmes and learn about nutrition, exercise and how to deal with stress.3

Our concern in this book is not with wellness per se. Our concern is how wellness has become an ideology. As such, it offers a package of ideas and beliefs which people may find seductive and desirable, although, for the most part, these ideas appear as natural or even inevitable. The ideological element of wellness is particularly visible when considering the prevailing attitudes towards those who fail to look after their bodies. These people are demonized as lazy, feeble or weak willed. They are seen as obscene deviants, unlawfully and unabashedly enjoying what every sensible person should resist. ‘The fat, the flaccid, and the forlorn are unhealthy,’ Jonathan M. Metzl writes in Against Health, ‘not because of illness or disease, but because they refuse to wear, fetishize, or aspire to the glossy trappings of the health of others.’4 When health becomes an ideology, the failure to conform becomes a stigma. Smokers are regarded as not just threats to their own personal wellbeing, but a threat to society. As we will see later in this book, some workplaces have moved from banning smoking to banning smokers, shifting the focus from an unhealthy activity to an unhealthy individual.

This ideological shift is part of a larger transformation in contemporary culture where individual responsibility and self-expression are morphed with the mindset of a free-market economist. To stop smoking is not so much about cutting down on your immediate expenses, or even extending your life expectancy, as it is a necessary strategy to improve your personal market value. The ‘obese body’, Lauren Berlant writes, ‘serves as a billboard advert for impending sickness and death’.5

People who don't carefully cultivate their personal wellness are seen as a direct threat to contemporary society, a society in which illness, as David Harvey puts it, ‘is defined as the inability to work’.6 Healthy bodies are productive bodies. They are good for business. And the same goes with happiness. Assuming that happy workers are more productive, corporations devise new ways to boost their employees' happiness, from coaching sessions and team-building exercises to the recruitment of Chief Happiness Officers. The result, as Will Davies has put it, is that now ‘wellbeing provides the policy paradigm by which mind and body can be assessed as economic resources’.7

The Wellness Syndrome

The focus of this book is on wellness as a moral imperative. Although this argument has been made by a number of theorists, no one has put it so elegantly as Alenka Zupančič. In The Odd One In, she calls this biomorality. This is what she writes:

Negativity, lack, dissatisfaction, unhappiness, are perceived more and more as moral faults – worse, as a corruption at the level of our very being or bare life. There is a spectacular rise of what we might call a bio-morality (as well as morality of feelings and emotions), which promotes the following fundamental axiom: a person who feels good (and is happy) is a good person; a person who feels bad is a bad person.8

Biomorality is the moral demand to be happy and healthy. It is a familiar remark, which brings to mind the central ideas of the self-help movement. The same term appears in Slavoj Žižek's In Defense of Lost Causes. Even though he leaves this intriguing term unexplained, it is clear that the moralizing turn of wellness is an extension of what he elsewhere calls the ‘superego-injunction to enjoy’. What we encounter here is not the punitive paternal superego which tells us ‘no, don't do that’. Rather, the superego tells us to have fun, to express our true selves and to seize every opportunity in life for enjoyment. But as we will see in the course of this book, this command is not designed to improve our wellness, or to unleash enjoyment. It is often unclear what this demand actually implies, whether we are demanded to cautiously pursue moderate pleasures or to violently plunge into excessive enjoyment. We will deal with that issue later, but for now it is enough to say that turning enjoyment into an obligation is not entirely good news. ‘[T]he very injunction to enjoy’, Žižek writes, ‘sabotages enjoyment, so that, paradoxically, the more one obeys the superego command, the more one feels guilty.’9

Wellness has undergone a similar transformation. Today 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 it is imparted from the outside or spontaneously arises within ourselves. This is what we call the wellness command.

In addition to identifying the emergence of this wellness command, we want to show how this injunction now works against us. And this is what we call the wellness syndrome.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives us two definitions of the word ‘syndrome’. The first refers to ‘a group of symptoms which consistently occur together’. Keeping this definition in mind, we can say that the wellness syndrome refers to symptoms such as anxiety, self-blame and guilt – to name a few. As we shall see throughout the book, the wellness syndrome is based on an assumption about the individual, as someone who is autonomous, potent, strong-willed and relentlessly striving to improve herself. This insistence that the individual is able to choose her own fate, we argue, provokes a sense of guilt and anxiety. We are thought to be in control of our own lives, even in situations where circumstances are not in our favour. Jobseekers experience this in difficult economic times when they are told not to mention the crisis, but instead to focus their attention on themselves. Finding a job, they are told, is about will-power and choice.

Choice is usually seen as a positive thing. However, it ‘brings an overwhelming sense of responsibility into play’, Renata Salecl writes in her book Choice, ‘and this is bound up with a fear of failure, a feeling of guilt and an anxiety that regret will follow if we have made the wrong choice’.10 When wellness goes from being a general idea of feeling good to something that we ought to do in order to live truthfully and righteously, it takes on a new meaning. It becomes an impossible demand that reconfigures the way we live our lives. Obsessively tracking our wellness, while continuously finding new avenues of self-enhancement, leaves little room to live.

When the body has become the ultimate object of your life, a new Archimedean point, the surrounding world is seen as either a threat or a balm. Our body determines where we live, whom we spend time with, how we exercise, and where we go on holiday. Part of this corporeal obsession is our deep fascination with what we put in our mouth. Indeed, eating has become a paranoid activity, which is not just intended to bring momentary pleasures through taste. It puts your identity to the test. Eating correctly is thought to be a way to cook up a happy and prosperous life, free from stress and despair. To eat correctly is an achievement, which demonstrates your superior life-skills. As the cultural significance of this activity has grown, the market for expert advice has boomed. In a style that blurs new-age sophistries with scientific discoveries, dietitians and celebrity chefs have been elevated to priestly status. When we cannot find meaning in our lives, a rare culinary experience becomes a stand-in. One New York Times restaurant critic recently released a book describing how meals prepared by eight women chefs ‘saved her life’.11

Such obsessive attention lavished on diets and cookery reminds us that eating has taken on a new meaning. As Pascal Bruckner puts it, ‘The dining table is no longer the altar of succulent delights, a place for sharing a meal and conversation.’ Instead it has become, ‘a pharmacy counter where we keep an eye on our fats and calories and conscientiously eat food reduced to a form of medication’.12 All of the pleasures that we used to indulge in are now pleasures with one ultimate objective – to improve our wellness. Wine or fat are perfectly fine, if you can fit them into your wellness plan. As Steven Poole suggests in You Aren't What You Eat, food has become our present-day ideology.13 For foodists, eating is more than just a lifestyle; it is a metaphysical adventure. Having lost our faith in politicians and priests, Poole argues, we now turn to celebrity chefs and nutritionists to find answers to the big questions. And unsurprisingly, given the importance that foodism attributes to eating correctly, the obsession with this – orthorexia – has become a new idiosyncratic disorder.

Opening the dictionary again, we see that a syndrome can also mean ‘a characteristic combination of opinions, emotions, or behaviour’. The wellness syndrome characteristically combines an obsession with the body with a burning desire for authenticity. This may seem counterintuitive: being preoccupied with your body is normally seen as superficial. However, improving one's body is too often seen to be a way of improving one's self. In Better Than Well, Carl Elliott describes how technologies ‘from Prozac to face-lifts are routinely described as tools of self-discovery and self-fulfillment’.14 Rather than being narcissistic, the search for personal health and authenticity is regarded as a moral responsibility. ‘Many people today feel called to pursue self-fulfillment,’ Elliott writes, ‘to devote themselves single-mindedly to a career, for example, or to cultivate their looks through severe diets and punishing workouts at the gym, even if it means ignoring their children.’15

When we are trapped by the wellness syndrome, we become what Simon Critchley calls passive nihilists. ‘Rather than acting in the world and trying to transform it,’ he explains, ‘the passive nihilist simply focuses on himself and his particular pleasures and projects for perfecting himself, whether through discovering the inner child, manipulating pyramids, writing pessimistic-sounding literary essays, taking up yoga, bird-watching or botany.’16 Where does our preoccupation with our own wellness leave the rest of the population, who have an acute shortage of organic smoothies, diet apps and yoga instructors? Withdrawing into yourself and treating the signals of your body as a good-enough ersatz for universal truth has become an increasingly appealing alternative to thinking soberly about the world.

Notes