Sales of healthy cookbooks more than doubled in 2014, while sugar free diets were popping up all over the place and kale became the latest trend in must-eat vegetables. Somewhere in recent years being healthy and generally ‘well’ has stopped being a begrudging necessity and become ‘cool’.
In The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederström, assistant professor of organisation theory at Stockholm University, and André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at London’s City University, argue that fashion isn’t the half of it, and that the culture of wellness has become a debilitating pressure that is crushing the enjoyment out of life.
What is the wellness syndrome?
The book examines the extremes of wellness and the resulting social implications that spring from forced happiness, near-constant productivity and the obsessive monitoring of every aspect of our lives, from calorie intake to minutes spent in deep wave sleep. Through a series of often unbelievable examples from various scientific studies and the media, Cederström and Spicer put forward a convincing argument that an abundance of wellness might in fact be bad for us.
We are introduced to the professors’ thesis through an examination of the ‘wellness contract’ in US universities, which encourages students to “shape their lives in an image of wellbeing” by complying with a “lifestyle aimed at enhancing mind, body and soul.” Under the contract, students must abstain from alcohol and drugs, take part in community activities, attend the occasional mandatory parfait night and generally live in healthy, holistic bliss.
Cederström and Spicer believe this detoxed lifestyle is far from ideal, producing “a very particular version of the student: the sanitised and straight-thinking student, who would not mix well with Sartre and his radical friends.” The comparison with the French philosopher’s boozy, drug-fuelled educational experience is a significant one; the implication being that the “ravages” of an intensely unhealthy youth moulds the kind of adult who might ask questions and contribute unorthodox ideas to the wider world.
Wellness on the brain
Throughout their thorough exploration of wellness, as a moral demand that contributes to modern class differences and a murderer of happiness because it encourages happiness to be the goal, the initial argument of The Wellness Syndrome is the one that holds focus: The lack of intellectual thought.
“Mindfulness is all the rage,” said Steven Poole, journalist and author of You Aren’t What You Eat, during a panel discussion at the book’s launch event at City University. “[But] it seems to be almost a counsel of passivity… If you teach your employees or citizens or people in schools to be mindful, you’re teaching them to just accept what’s happening to them and just be calm about it and not to complain… It’s like having completely empty minds. It seems like the perfectly well modern person has no thoughts in their head at all.”
With light-hearted and sarcastic dissections of popular health and fitness culture, such as the UK’s food saint Jamie Oliver’s crusade against Turkey Twizzlers, Cederström and Spicer’s book almost satirises the ignorance of a world that allows itself to be controlled by the social ideal of wellness.
A controversial theory
While both fascinating and disturbing to a reader who acknowledges their own symptoms of the wellness syndrome, others may find the suggestions insulting.
“As a health editor for 20 years I’ve actually experienced all these trends, and I’ve been promoting them,” Christina Bølling, author and Health Editor at ALT for Damerne, Denmark’s leading women’s magazine, said at the book’s launch. “So I felt a little bit ridiculed when I read the book because some of [it] is things that I’ve tried and actually promoted to my readers.”
As well as being potentially unappealing to those deeply afflicted by wellness, the book can be repetitive. Such a comprehensive collection of research and case studies, which was compiled over four years, hammers home the point so hard it’s difficult to disagree with it – although that could be due to a passive nature, formed by a lifetime of conforming to social norms of health and happiness.
What’s in it for HR?
From an HR point of view, The Wellness Syndrome is a relevant text because it uses many workplace examples for how this ‘condition’ has spread. While it points out the benefits of a healthy and happy workforce who don’t require much in the way of healthcare resources or sick leave, the book mentions topics that we keep returning to in HR, such as work/life balance and the relationship between happiness and productivity. Perhaps most importantly for this field, it reveals the lengths to which people will go to become “more desirable in an increasingly competitive labour market.”
The Wellness Syndrome is available from Polity press.