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Review: The Wellness Syndrome

July 16, 2016

I just finished a neat little book called The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederström and André Spicer. They are (business school) professors in Stockholm and London, respectively, so the book has a welcome non-U.S. perspective.


The book defines the wellness syndrome to be an extension and a perversion of the concept of individual well-being. According to Cederström and Spicer, it’s not just that you are expected to care for yourself, it’s that you are blamed if you don’t, and conversely, if there’s anything at all wrong with your life, then it’s because you’ve failed to sufficiently take care of yourself. The result is that people have become utterly unaware of why things happen to them and how much power they actually have to change anything.

The wellness syndrome manifests itself in various ways:

  1. We are asked to “think positively” to make positive things happen to us. The funniest (read: saddest) section of the book relates to the fact that David Cameron was a big believer in this kind of positive thinking; he focused on good outcomes and ignored the bad ones, believing that somehow his personal willpower would make good things happen.
  2. We are asked to take care of ourselves in order to stay competitive in the workforce, to productize and commoditize ourselves. This could mean staying slim – because if you’re overweight you’re falling down on the self-optimization regiment – or it could mean engaging in the quantified self movement, keeping track of sleep, exercise, and even pooping schedules, and at the very least it requires us to monitor our attitudes.
  3. We are asked to enjoy ourselves while we take full personal responsibility for our own wellness, which in the age of the gig economy means we always appear happy to stay lively and infinitely employable under increasingly precarious economic conditions.
  4. If things don’t go well for us, if we cannot find that job or we cannot seem to lose the extra weight, we are expected to feel guilty and – this is crucial – not to blame the system for an inadequate supply of job, nor the racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory environment, but rather our own mindset. God forbid we ever accept any actual limit to our powers of reinvention, because that is equivalent to giving up.
  5. The authors point to Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in the UK and to Reagan and Bill Clinton in the US as creators of this notion of individual responsibility as a shield of governmental responsibility, and they frequently point out that the “positive mindset” self-help gurus thus represent a perfect pairing: a pairing, moreover, which manages to depoliticize itself as its power grows.
  6. The consequence: we don’t think of ourselves as political victims when we fall prey to a narcissistic worldview in which we are never fit enough, never eating enough organic kale, and never productive enough. Instead we engage in self-criticism, guilt, and renewed promises to try better next time. We internalize the shame and the definition of ourselves as “improperly optimized.”
  7. In the end, we all walk around with tiny little versions of Reagan’s welfare queens in our heads – or at the very least, the fear of becoming anything like her. In the UK it’s a slightly varied version called the Chav.

There are two rich topics that aren’t addressed in this book which I’d love to hear about, even if it’s just in an informal conversation with the authors. First, what about the online dating scene? How does that play into this and amplify it? From my perspective, online dating has a strong effect on how people create and wield data about themselves, and the extent to which they self-criticize, stemming from (I assume) the question of how they are being seen by potential lovers.

Second, to what extent does this concept of self-perfecting and quantifying encourage the subculture of futurism? Do people like Ray Kurzweil and others who believe they will live forever represent the most extreme version of the wellness syndrome, or do they suffer from some other disease?

I liked the book a lot. There are lots of topics in common with my upcoming book, in fact, including wellness programs and personal data collection, and other ways that employers have increasing control over our bodies and lives. And although we largely agree, it was interesting to read their more historical take on things. Also, it was a super fast read, at only 135 pages. I recommend it.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. mathematrucker
    July 16, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    Given the brisk pace at which privacy is on the run in the trucking industry nowadays, the mental leap required to get from “sleepiness” detection


    to “wellness” detection would fit nicely in a Twit of the Year competition



  2. orthonormal
    July 16, 2016 at 2:02 pm

    Related: Why Employers Love Advocating Self-Care



  3. July 16, 2016 at 2:29 pm

    I can’t imagine this could be completely addressed without the theological perspective.


  4. Bertie
    July 16, 2016 at 8:41 pm

    Mathbabe, I gather from this that u r writing another book, did I miss a post on your blog about this?


    • mathematrucker
      July 16, 2016 at 10:27 pm

      WMD is still upcoming.


  5. July 16, 2016 at 11:43 pm

    “so the book has a welcome non-U.S. perspective”

    What are you implying by that?


    • mathematrucker
      July 17, 2016 at 9:59 am

      [me sprinting in from the outfield again] Bernie Sanders plucked Scandinavia out for a reason…nudge nudge wink wink say no more.


      • July 17, 2016 at 10:49 am

        I came to this country a child refugee and I have a choice as to where to live. Despite my European Union passport, I prefer to live here and I love this country with all its warts. I can understand why others would want to live elsewhere.


  6. Chris
    July 17, 2016 at 1:16 am

    Sounds consonant with Barbara Ehrenreich’s argument in Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. It came out at the height of the Oprah-sanctioned hysteria over “The Secret” and before nonsense like Lean In; and it points to the way that the cult of individual responsibility and see-it-and-be-it positive thinking undermines the real need for structural reform and to recognize that things are not always good and it’s not ok.


  7. Thad
    July 17, 2016 at 3:36 am

    I have two questions about this post:
    1. Is this “wellness syndrome” a modern issue? When was humanity’s worldview NOT narcissistic?
    2. Where does one draw the line between “personal responsibility” and “victim of a failed political system”?

    I don’t see: i) how this book adds to an “ethics” debate (ethics as in how should one lead his life) ii) what do the authors propose as an alternative worldview?

    There are aspects of your life which you can control and others which you can’t. The ones you can control, you should be trying to constantly improve. If you get lazy, you feel bad: it’s called conscience.


    • July 18, 2016 at 6:25 pm

      “There are aspects of your life which you can control and others which you can’t. The ones you can control, you should be trying to constantly improve. If you get lazy, you feel bad: it’s called conscience.”

      Yikes. I don’t doubt that feeling bad, aka conscience, can be of value in prompting us to experiment with ways to solve problems, but by far it’s not the only way.


  8. rob
    July 19, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    If the market promotes social or personal ills, aren’t these externalities cures for which the market or gov’t should absorb through some service or regulation? These are tractable problems, so they should addressed with at least a try. I regret the loss of cigarette culture, but I concede that we’re, all things considered, better off without them. I don’t see such regulation as avoiding conscience. The market succeeds by serving any desire however destructive as long as it doesn’t interfere with itself. Dollars aren’t health-interested or human. But societies are, so they should act on those human interests.


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