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.
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.
Not everyone thinks of wealth in terms of financial security and upward mobility. People are creating different versions of wealth for themselves by cultivating other meaningful aspects of their lives and by imagining futures they want to live in. These different ways of feeling wealthy, including the value that individuals place on knowledge, family and friends, emotional security, art, travel and experiences, play a prominent role in how people navigate their lives and live well in the present.
Whereas wellness tends to be a private, individualized pursuit, living well is a purposeful, community-oriented practice that asks individuals to trust other people. “Faith” here can be found in bonds that people create with the world around them. As people hunger for community, new social structures and relationships are emerging, and more dynamic forms of community are forming that will contribute to how individuals live well.
This is a fraught area for living well because individuals’ relationship with food is complex. Food carries emotional weight. Some individuals are concerned about the quality of their food; others struggle with food security. Creating healthy and sustainable approaches to nourishment, with the recognition that the mind and soul need to be nourished as well as the body, is a key challenge and opportunity in this space.
Traditional healthcare structures are not always equipped to address concepts of living well. We found many people view medical treatment as something that comes at great cost, rather than as something that provides physical or emotional benefits. More circular, communal and continuous forms of care are better aligned with how people want to be cared for, versus the episodic nature of most encounters with the healthcare system.
Wellness regimens typically insist that adherents be constantly moving toward their goals. We found people’s movement is much more varied. Sometimes people are physically or mentally stuck, unable to move. With others, they choose to stop and savor a time in their lives. Living well is about finding or creating purposeful moments and motions that add value to a life.
Together, these themes demonstrate how people navigate and conceptualize their lives, as well as the world around them. It is through these categories of experience that people negotiate what it means to live well in every aspect of their lives. To meet individuals where they are in their endeavors to living well, companies should incorporate these key design principles as they consider new products and services:
Our work on the future of wellness provides more than just an educational tool for businesses: It is a call to companies and entrepreneurs to rethink how they relate to wellness—and to find a way to do more. It also means taking seriously the extent to which your offerings align with living well, or whether those offerings are based on an outdated model of wellness. Finally, the concept of living well is a flexible, fluid one that means different things to different people. By taking into account the variability of these needs, every business has opportunities to support people in their efforts to live well — and that is a goal worth pursuing.
This article was written by Cameron Murray, resident anthropologist, Idea Couture. For more on designing for better health outcomes, read Designing for the Lived Experience of Chronic Illness and Redefining What it Means to Age Well.