I am a total word nerd. I absolutely love writing and with that comes an obsession with vocabulary. Combine that with a history degree? All my happiness comes together looking at the origins of words and how we use them!
The wellness industry is as susceptible as any other to reducing sometimes quite wide-reaching, complicated and disparate ideas and concepts down into a single word. We love pigeon-holing and labelling things.
Increasingly in a world with shorter and shorter attention spans, finding natty little words or phrases to encompass ideas has become the norm.
So I wanted to take a bit of a longer look at the words we might throw away easily. And maybe, in a Malcolm Gladwell style (if you don’t already listen to Revisionist History, you need to!), shine a different light and a fresh approach on words that have become tainted with particular connotations.
I’m starting with a big one. Not only because it’s in the title of my series (!) but also because it’s a word I saw recently discussed on Twitter by Kimberley Wilson from Food & Psyched and it made for hugely depressing reading.
What does it mean to you? What do you think of when you hear it? And what does it really mean if we stripped away our preconceptions?
Here are a few of the comments left by Kimberley’s followers when she asked them what the wellness industry meant to them:
There is of course a difference between wellness as a noun, and wellness and the industry it has now become associated with.
Let’s go back to the origin of the word and see what it was meant to mean before it got taken over.
The dictionary definitions of wellness are:
1. the quality or state of being healthy in body and mind, especially as the result of deliberate effort.
2. an approach to healthcare that emphasises preventing illness and prolonging life, as opposed the emphasising treating diseases.
3. (British definition) the state of being in good physical and mental health
4. (Medical definition) The condition of good physical, mental and emotional health, especially when maintained by an appropriate diet, exercise, and other lifestyle modifications.
Looking at the definitions, if we’re going back to the very essence of the word ‘wellness’ it’s about being in good physical and mental health that results from ‘deliberate effort’ i.e. conscious decisions that emphasize optimum health over treating disease. It’s not doctors and hospitals fixing you. It’s about things you can do at home, in your everyday life, to prevent needing to arrive there.
Looking at the definition I can see why so much of the wellness industry gets a bad name and why it has become associated with the ‘worried well.’ Because rather than treating illness and disease, the wellness industry is championing what you can do to boost your health and prevent becoming ill, before it happens.
That’s a hugely attractive proposition. And a great concept in so many ways! The idea of being able to make lifestyle modifications that will help you avoid illness – particularly when packaged and branded as easy and simple - is a seriously sexy one.
But what happens if we’re already okay?
If the diet we eat is balanced, if we move the right amount for our age and circumstances, if we take care of our minds and live a life that isn’t putting us on the fast-track to disease? Do we need everything the wellness industry offers?
Of course the way we eat, move and live our lives can always be optimised. I’d wager very few of us could say we live a life that avoids the possibility of disease 100% of the time.
That’s just life – the environments we’re in, the jobs we do, the people we are surrounded by and the experiences that living a full life brings. It’s like that image of someone trying to go about their everyday lives cocooned in a bubble on an allergy relief advert. It’s just not practical! We are always going to be open to disease and illness in one way or another.
When people living generally very normal, balanced lives become bombarded with messages that there is more they should be doing to improve their health, or that in fact their current behaviour is damaging their health, that’s when things can turn ugly.
If we’re not able to filter and make the right decisions that work for us, incessant messages about products and services that promise us optimum health can feel confusing and ultimately terrifying.
It’s the scare-mongering that moves the word ‘wellness’ from an emphasis on health optimisation, into a fear-inducing, money-grabbing idealised industry of what living a ‘healthy’ life really means.
As I’ve learned over the years I’ve been exploring my own health journey, there simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
There isn’t one miracle product that is going to help you avoid disease forever. No matter what someone in the ‘wellness industry’ tells you about how important their product is, chances are you’ll be absolutely fine without it.
That’s not to say I’m not still susceptible to these kinds of messages. I went to a wellness event earlier this month and it felt like every exhibiting stand and speaker was telling me I needed to take supplements.
Hundreds of people in the audience obviously also felt the same as they were taking home samples and snapping pictures of the recommendations on the screens as they popped up. And yet I knew in the back of my mind that the general consensus from research is that supplements aren’t necessary.
As humans we love to understand things. We love to harness what we learn and control things. But the thing to remember is, sometimes sh*t just happens.
No matter how many immune boosting pills we pop, green smoothies we consume or meditation and yoga sessions we take part in, sometimes we just get ill. It’s frustrating and as humans we love to find a reason for everything. But sometimes there just isn’t one. It’s the randomness of life and we simply cannot control everything that happens. (This topic is covered brilliantly by Anthony Warner in his first Angry Chef book).
The wellness industry should be about empowering people to make the right decisions for them to optimise their health. It should be about showing them options and making research and the latest discoveries accessible and relatable. It should be about simple changes that could help avoid illness and disease, with no guarantees.
If the ‘wellness’ companies and people you follow feel like they’re scaring you – making you feel you’re risking your health by not consuming their product or giving you black and white answers and extreme solutions, chances are they’re not embracing wellness for its true meaning.
What do you think? What does wellness mean to you?
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