Review: The Wellness Syndrome
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.