The Wellness Industrial Complex is Making Us Sick
Here’s what real wellness is—and how to achieve it
From coast to coast, wellness is a thing. In Silicon Valley, techies are swooning over tarot-card readers. In New York, you can hook up to a “detox” IV at a lounge. Online, companies like Goop promote “8 Crystals For Better Energy” and a detox-delivery meal kit, complete with “nutritional supplements, probiotics, detox and beauty tinctures, and beauty and detox teas.” It seems that everyone is looking for a cure to what ails them, which has led to a booming billion-dollar industry — what I’ve come to call the Wellness Industrial Complex.
The problem is that so much of what’s sold in the name of modern-day wellness has little to no evidence of working.
According to decades of research, real wellness is a lifestyle or state of being that goes beyond merely the absence of disease and into the realm of maximizing human potential. Once someone’s basic needs are met (e.g., food and shelter), scientists say that wellness emerges from nourishing six interrelated dimensions of your health: physical, emotional, cognitive, social, spiritual, and environmental.
Nourishing these interrelated dimensions of health, however, does not require that you buy any lotions, potions, or pills. Wellness — the kind that actually works — is simple: it’s about committing to basic practices, day in and day out, as individuals and communities.
Unfortunately, these basics tend to get overlooked in favor of easy-to-market nonsense. We’d be much better off if we stopped obsessing over hacks and silver bullets — if we hopped off the wellness hamster wheel — and instead focused on evidence-based stuff that works. Here’s how to get started.
Move your body, eat whole foods, and do not diet
Decades of research shows that just 30 minutes of moderate to intense daily physical activity lowers your risk for heart disease, Alzheimer’s, mental illness, and many types of cancer. While this can certainly mean training for a marathon or setting CrossFit records, it doesn’t have to. Hiking, gardening, and even fast-paced walking can provide many of the same benefits. Basically, anything that makes your breathing labored for a sustained period — and that you can do consistently; remember, small steps taken regularly lead to big gains — does the trick.
The other aspect of physical health is nutrition. Here again, the best advice is the simplest: ignore diets and supplements and, instead, just aim to cut out junk like processed and fried foods. A study that was just published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reviewed data from hundreds of clinical trials involving nearly a million people and found that 16 of the most popular supplements and eight of the most popular diets have virtually no benefit — and many cause harm.
Express your feelings
A big issue with what passes for modern-day wellness is that it creates the impression that everyone is happy all the time and that you should be, too. But like selective sharing on social media, this is not the reality of being human.
People get sad. Psychologists tell us that hiding and repressing that only makes it worse. Studies show that the more you hold something back or try to force it away, the stronger it becomes. On the contrary, the more vulnerable you are — both with yourself and others — the better. Researchers at the University of Mannheim, in Germany, call this the “beautiful mess effect.” Through multiple experiments, they’ve found that even though sharing your feelings may seem like a weakness to you, to others it seems courageous and builds trust and connection. In other words: stop trying so damn hard to be invincible, and just be yourself.
Your relationships matter more than you think
The roots of a redwood tree only run six to twelve feet deep. Instead of growing downward, they grow out, extending hundreds of feet laterally and wrapping themselves around the roots of other trees. When rough weather comes, it’s the network of closely intertwined roots that allows the trees to stand strong. We are the same.
In 2010, researchers from Brigham Young University completed a comprehensive study that followed more than 300,000 people for an average of 7.5 years and learned that the mortality risks associated with loneliness exceeded those associated with obesity and physical inactivity and were comparable to the risks of smoking. More recent research shows that digital connections can be beneficial in certain circumstances (e.g., to stay in touch with geographically distant friends and family), but they cannot replace in-person ones and the value of physical presence and touch.
Unfortunately, the first thing that gets crowded out in a world that is hyper focused on “efficiency” and “optimization” is time for building community! Though community building may be inefficient in the short-run, it’s arguably the most important thing in the long run — for health, happiness, and fulfillment.
Do deep-focused work
Eliminate distractions so you can give the meaningful stuff in your life full attention. An app called Track Your Happiness has allowed thousands of people to report their feelings in real time. The main finding: the more present and fully engaged you are with what’s in front of you, the happier you’ll be. It’s amazing how much just one or two blocks of undistracted work per day can do to improve your mood.
A cohesive sense of direction, core values, and connection with something beyond yourself is important. For some this takes the form of going to church, synagogue, mosque, or sangha. For others it’s about feeling connected to evolution, being a part of nature. (Of course, these two don’t need to be exclusive.) The work of Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, has shown time and time again that experiencing awe — watching a beautiful sunset, listening to moving music, witnessing a master at their craft — leads to self-transcendence and feelings of spiritual connection.
What won’t lead to spirituality and true well-being? Trying to find meaning in all the stuff that modern-day wellness implicitly and explicitly promotes, such as beauty, wealth, anti-aging, and sex appeal. As David Foster Wallace said in his famous 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College:
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Care for your space
Our surroundings shape us in so many ways. Yet we’re rarely intentional about them. On a micro level, is your phone always on? Are you constantly being interrupted by notifications? Are you in a space conducive to the goal you want to accomplish? Do you keep lots of junk food in the house? Do you surround yourself with junk content? The goal is to design your environment to support the behaviors you desire.
On a macro level, ask yourself these questions: Do I live in a place that feels unlivable? Does my commute totally suck my soul? I’m aware that I’ve got a lot of privilege to suggest moving geographically, but the kind of move I’m suggesting is one away from crazily expensive, competitive, and congested cities. I can’t tell you how many people I know who feel “trapped” in big and expensive cities. Move! There are plenty of places with lower costs of living, more access to nature, and good jobs.
This is what you need if you really want to be well. You have to cut out the crap and focus on the basics. This stuff is simple — and though it’s not always easy, it’s not always so hard either.
Brad Stulberg’s new book, upon which this story is adapted from, The Practice of Groundedness: A Transformative Path to Success that Feeds — Not Crushes — Your Soul, is out now.