In a decidedly tongue-in-cheek competition, the concept of “wellness” was briefly cancelled by voters in the Jezebel Cancel Tournament. In a later round, however, readers of the popular blog decided “keto diets” were more deserving of “cancellation,” so wellness will be around this year.
The fact that wellness was even a target in this lighthearted competition to root out tired, worn and overexposed ideas points to a key concept in our new book, the future of wellness. Through a recent ethnographic study, we found that wellness has become a shallow, commercially defined, imposed-from-on-high concept that is of little lasting interest to many consumers. Instead, more consumers and business leaders need to begin pursuing and empowering “living well” vs. “wellness.” Understanding this distinction is important. Consumers are looking for more collaborative and flexible solutions to compose their own health and lifestyle journeys. Companies that can go beyond wellness offerings will be well positioned to gain new mindshare and market share.
The confines of wellness vs. the expansiveness of living well
Governments, corporations, media and various celebrities all have attempted to define wellness, as both a process and a set of diverse practices. While different in their specifics, most of these definitions had fairly confining and even moralistic requirements a person had to follow, forever, to achieve wellness. Wellness regimens, from Kellogg’s Battle Creek sanitarium in 1870 to those promoted today by internet influencers, require people to eat only certain foods, move in particular ways and think the right thoughts. Though persistent, this broad outline of wellness and its trappings have become incredibly confining. It does not leave room for people to find their own ways to wellness. In fact, deviating from a defined wellness path often is called “bad” behavior. Yet most of these prescribed paths to wellness are narrow and open only to individuals with relevant resources, including time, money and assistance (e.g., yoga teachers, trainers, dieticians). Those individuals who might need bodily, emotional, psychological and spiritual support the most are often excluded from contemporary cultures of wellness.
Our research shows these authoritarian, formulaic and curated messages about wellness have become increasingly hollow. For most consumers, living well is about much more than adopting trendy diets and expensive exercise gear. They want to feel good about their relationships, the food they eat, what they buy and how they interact with the world. We found individuals use simple, iterative and improvisational practices to accomplish these ends, care for themselves and feel well. These practices include taking walks, hosting game nights, eating gourmet chocolate and many other activities. People adapt their practices to whatever they need to feel well, based on their unique needs and circumstances on any given day.
In short, “wellness” is too limited to encompass all the rich and often unexpected ideas and behaviors that people adopt to shape the physical, mental and spiritual dimensions of their lives. That’s why we think new language — “living well” — is a thoughtful replacement for narrowly imposed notions of “wellness.” For healthcare companies and other organizations that want to help people compose lives worth living, they must shift to collaborative, flexible and bottom-up approaches. It’s important to understand people’s perceptions of and efforts to live well that go beyond diet and exercise. Our research revealed that consumers are composing acts of living well across five key categories, which is detailed in our report, The Future of Wellness.