I didn’t spread COVID but I did spread wellbeing

I trained, as a psychologist, to assess/diagnose mental ill health and apply evidence-based treatments. The alleviation of suffering was the primary goal.

Now in my work however, I operate more at the wellbeing, happiness, wellness end. I try to teach people strategies and techniques for bringing more positive experiences (e.g. gratitude, connection, awe, curiosity, self-acceptance, compassion) into their lives.

I have on more than one occasion wondered about this mission. Is it feasible? Does it create unreasonably high expectations? Am I setting people up for disappointment, rather than increased wellbeing?

So it was with a little dark pleasure that I found myself reading this Conversation article – The wellbeing ‘pandemic’ – how the global drive for wellness might be making us sick‘.

If I am understanding the article correctly, wellbeing and wellness as concepts have spread (like a pandemic) throughout the media, government, organisations, schools, workplaces and the marketplace and the authors aren’t sure this is necessarily a good thing. A focus on wellbeing and wellness appears positive and virtuous on the surface, but can have negative impacts or intentions: obligation, expectation, imposition of values, overemphasis of individual responsibility, conformity, obsession. In short, it is possible the widespread dissemination of wellbeing/wellness principles may do more harm than good.

I think it’s important that those of us in the wellbeing/wellness space talk about this. So here are some things I’ve witnessed that would be consistent with this view.

I do see (and experience myself) a working assumption that the communication of wellbeing principles is uniformly positive. It is far less common to see a discussion of unwanted side effects when discussing wellbeing strategies, compared with medication and psychological therapies for mental ill health.

I’ve seen (and experienced myself) the sense of overwhelm, frustration and fatigue that comes when a person feels obligated to implement certain wellbeing strategies in their life. In fact, the more I’ve learned about wellbeing, the more I feel I should live it and if that is pushed too far it starts to feel like a chore and me a failure if I don’t keep up with it.

I’ve seen (and been responsible for) packaging wellbeing strategies in a way that doesn’t acknowledge the underlying value structures. For example, most of my wellbeing teaching is based in an individual responsibility framework which could conflict with other value systems and alienate significant portions of my audience.

I’ve noticed that I (and others in the industry) don’t always talk about how much variance in an individual’s health and wellbeing can be attributed to individual choices. I asked ChatGPT this question and it responded:

Research suggests that roughly 40-50% of a person’s health outcomes are influenced by their behaviors, while another 30% is determined by genetic factors, and the remaining 20% is influenced by environmental factors such as access to healthcare, social support, and socioeconomic status. However, it is important to note that these estimates can vary depending on the specific health outcome being studied and the population being examined.

It is also important to consider the role of systemic factors, such as discrimination and inequality, in shaping health outcomes. For example, individuals from marginalized communities may have limited access to healthy food options, safe and affordable housing, and quality healthcare, which can have a negative impact on their health and wellbeing, regardless of personal choices and behaviors.

Note that last bolded section. A person might want to make all the changes possible in their life but be stuck in circumstances that block such choices. Rather than discouraging people, I think if we taught this alongside the wellbeing strategies, we might take some of the pressure off people that their personal outcomes are due entirely to their own choices.

Finally, I’ve seen how wellbeing and wellness ideas can be leveraged in organisations more for the organisations benefit than the benefit of the employees. A productivity play, a virtue signalling play, a reputation play. As the authors of the article write:

“In reality, it could also be designed to enhance productivity and reduce costs, minimise and manage reputational risk, and promote conformity, control and surveillance.”

I’m not sure what we need to do as a wellness/wellbeing industry but I’m mindful of things I can do as an individual trainer/facilitator. Some of these I’ve actioned. Others, I need to.

  1. Openness and transparency – before talking about wellbeing practices acknowledge things like underlying values, privilege, potential cultural asynchronies, power dynamics. Using the linked Conversation article might be a good way to start that conversation.
  2. Discussion of side effects – treat wellbeing strategies/practices like medications and be alert and communicative of potential side effects. Encourage people to notice the positives and negatives of implementing these strategies.
  3. Focus on strategies that work – ground my suggestions in strategies that I am confident have an evidence-base. That is made easier by the presence of groups that base their suggestions on the emerging evidence-base (1, 2)
  4. Invite experimentation not conformity – encourage participants to experiment with wellbeing practices but not because they ‘should’ but rather because it might help them develop parts of their life they’ve already identified as wanting to develop. Help people match the strategies they choose to the goals they have.
  5. Share the stage – seek out opportunities to share the stage with presenters who have different points of view or who discuss other skillsets and strategies that might be worth developing. Show that wellbeing is actually just part of a bigger discussion about how we live our lives.

Articles like the one mentioned in this post are excellent reminders for people like me, working in the wellbeing/ wellness industry, to not get too drunk on our own Kool-Aid.

For readers who are in the wellbeing/wellness industry or engaged in practices from those areas, what has your experience been? Does it ever feel like there is a disconnect between the goals of what we’re doing and the real-world outcomes? How might we create a better wellbeing industry?

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