CONTRIBUTIONS OF THE WELLNESS MOVEMENT
The explosion of wellness in the economy has generated an ever-increasing array of criticisms of the “wellness-industrial complex.” Critics complain about wellness businesses preying on consumer fears to make a profit, and they attack celebrity influencers for peddling “snake oil” and false promises without any scientific evidence of safety or efficacy. In many cases, these criticisms are well-warranted. But amidst all of the fads and trends and hype around commercialized wellness, we need to remember that the wellness concept and global wellness movement are not rooted in selling things or making money. The core of wellness is a holistic, multi-dimensional, and proactive approach to health and well-being. Beyond the significant economic activities it has generated, the modern wellness movement has brought its share of good to the world over the last decade.
- Embracing holistic health. The concept of health as holistic dates back thousands of years, but this understanding was largely lost in developed and Westernized societies with the advent of modern, evidence-based medicine. The modern wellness movement has revived and popularized among mainstream consumers an understanding of their health as being holistic, multidimensional, and interconnected. For example, when people are asked why they visit the gym or take exercise classes, they are now just as likely to mention the mental and social benefits as they are exercise.
- Mainstreaming traditional modalities for prevention and self-care. Many of the practices and products that we associate with wellness today – e.g., meditation, yoga, herbal supplements, plant-based medicines, spirituality, looking to nature for healing, psychedelic mushrooms – date from ancient times. Most were considered fringe or “woo woo” in Westernized societies until they were embraced and mainstreamed by the wellness movement. Even in their countries of origin, many traditional healing practices had fallen out of favor among younger generations, until they were modernized and brought back by the wellness industry (e.g., TCM in China, Ayurveda in India). The increasing popularity of ancient and traditional wellness practices has greatly expanded our understanding of self-care and strategies to improve resilience. It has also forced the scientific and medical communities to take a new look at traditional healing modalities and their scientific efficacy for both prevention and treatment purposes.
- Increasing consumer choice and business innovations. The desire for healthier lifestyles and for alternatives/complements to allopathic care has spurred demand for new wellness services, products, practices, and businesses. The wellness market is driven by personal agency; the desire for choices; experimentation with ancient and new modalities; and a delivery that meets the need for convenience, customization, privacy, and access. This dynamic environment has stimulated countless new business innovations, research, investments, and products/services, mostly to the benefit of consumers. Everyone wants and needs something different when it comes to their personal wellness, and the wellness market provides an ever-expanding array of options to meet those needs, as well as the opportunity to scale and expand services and access for different populations.
- Destigmatizing mental health. Wellness is not only about preventing disease, but also about moving toward a higher state of health and well-being across many dimensions (physical, mental, social, etc.). The mental dimension of wellness, in particular, has received increased attention during the pandemic. Rather than just coping with or stigmatizing mental health conditions, mental wellness helps shift our focus toward a more positive and empowering approach. It highlights the pervasiveness of stress and social isolation, the importance of resilience, the value of finding purpose and meaning, and the need to build social connections. This increased awareness helps to build understanding, compassion, and support toward shared human conditions, no matter what our mental health challenges might be.
- Moving from “sick care” to prevention. Research has shown that 80-90% of our individual health outcomes are determined by environmental, socioeconomic, and lifestyle factors (also known as the social determinants of health). Healthcare systems have little influence on the social determinants that so heavily influence our health and longevity. Currently, our healthcare systems are primarily “sick care” systems, emphasizing diagnosis and treatment of illness and injuries, while doing a very poor job at prevention. The wellness movement has raised awareness of the shortcomings of our “sick care” model and the importance of self-care and community care approaches, emphasizing prevention and health-enhancing practices. This shift can potentially help more people live longer and healthier lives while lessening the costs on our overburdened healthcare systems.
- Building pathways for sustainability and health equity. The modern wellness movement may have started out as a self-centered approach for individuals to pursue healthier and happier lives, but it is steadily evolving from a personal aspiration toward a recognition of our connection to the collective. Increasingly, we are recognizing that our individual health and well-being are inextricably linked to the well-being of other people, our communities, and the planet. We cannot be truly well if we confine our existence to a personal wellness bubble. For example, people are now asking important questions about their neighborhoods and living environments: Is our indoor and outdoor air safe to breathe? Why don’t we have good public spaces to socialize or to exercise? A growing segment of consumers is shifting from a “me” to a “we” perspective about wellness: How can people be healthy if they cannot afford healthy foods? Why is there so little green space in poor neighborhoods? Is the person doing my massage or serving my food treated fairly at work? As these perspectives evolve, the wellness movement is bringing sustainability and health equity issues closer to home.
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- This content is an excerpt from GWI’s 2022 report, Defining Wellness Policy. For more information, see: Wellness Policy Series.