Too much wellbeing is making us sick

A year or so back I had a student who said she wanted to study the link between architecture and morality. Great, I thought. A difficult topic, therefore, fun. I sent her off to develop the idea, thinking she’d return with ways to test whether form can carry meaning, change behaviour or in some other way exert moral heft in the world. To my disappointment, by the time she returned, her subject had flipped into the architecture of wellbeing. Suddenly, it was dull.

What’s the difference? That we can even wonder this shows just how crude our moral conversation has become. Yes, both are positives. But directionally, ethics and wellbeing they are opposites. Where ethics asks, how can I do good in the world, wellbeing asks, what is good for me.

Illustration: Simon LetchCredit:

Am I eating right, exercising enough, getting enough sex? Am I making enough money? Working effectively? Optimising my me? Where ethics implies give-and-take, a relationship of exchange, wellbeing indicates increasing absorption into self.

The universal measure of all things good, wellbeing is the honey and marshmallow of our time, the default desirable, the acceptably zen version of prosperity. You can’t admit to being grasping or lazy but you can be on the hustle, or take a wellbeing day. Wellbeing is a version of me-time. So healthy.

Wellbeing is now globally measured and ranked – usually with some Scandi nation at the top and some part of Africa at the bottom – as though wellbeing were a competition, an Olympic sport. Think you’re up there, Sweden, in the wellbeing steeplechase? Hah. I take your six-star wellbeing and double it, adding a triple somersault twelve-green-star cling-and-jerk for good measure.

Not surprisingly, the rankings correlate strongly with wealth and education. The rhetoric insists it’s not just cold hard numbers, but that’s what measurement implies. The Commonwealth Bank has even invented a financial wellbeing assessment tool, replete with images of young dads with babies and studded with gems of trite cliche: “People who report having a major worsening in financial circumstances, as well as separation, job loss and illness on average have markedly lower financial wellbeing outcomes.”

The quest for wellbeing can lead to pathological narcissism. Credit:Shutterstock

But, you ask, isn’t wellbeing a useful measure? A way of focusing on health not sickness, and of broadening physical prosperity with more ephemeral pluses? Isn’t it a motherhood value – unopposable, unquestionable, unimpeachable? Well yes, and perhaps that’s the issue.

Wellbeing seems so self-evidently good that it escapes scrutiny, enabling it to slide from useful tool to expectation; of ourselves and of others. In fact, wellbeing has taken the place of morality. Instead of working to improve the world, we work to improve ourselves.

This narcissism is actively nurtured by social media. Instagram and Facebook in particular are devoted to creating and sustaining the fiction of each body and life as a locus of perfection. This is dangerous enough, for lurking in the heart of narcissism is intractable existential misery. Valuing yourself for the smoothness of your Insta-buttocks or softness of your Insta-pout is a recipe for neurosis, self-loathing and, ultimately, despair. But that’s not all. For wellbeing is right out of the neo-feudal playbook.

Wellbeing represents a cultural merger of the 1960s health movement and the more recent happiness industry. Its essential message is not only that being healthy-happy is good but that – just as you are essentially responsible for your own super and medical insurance – your wellbeing is your duty. Duty to whom? Well, to yourself of course but also to, as a driven little consumer, to the market.

This weird mix of extreme individualism and a kind of faux-civic responsibility should lessen your surprise in learning that the be-healthy-be-happy-eat-natural-foods movement is rooted in Nazi Germany.

As you no doubt know, Hitler ate mostly organic and vegetarian, as did Rudolf Hess. Himmler, who ran the SS, was a passionate advocate of organic farming. Dachau had its own herb garden. Exercise, healthy eating and an anti-smoking push were core planks in the Nazi program.

German historian Dr Corinna Treitel has documented this phenomenon, including the 1934 state-funded exhibition German People, German Workers that exhorted Germans to abstain from sugar, white bread, beef, pork and alcohol and instead eat rye bread, fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese, unpeeled potatoes, eggs, herring and mineral water. There’s also the work of Dean of Medicine at Rostock University and Nazi-party member Dr Werner Kollath, who advocated for eugenics, forced sterilisation and natural eating, coining the phrase “Leave our food as natural as possible”.

This emphasis on eating right for the Reich was partly about building the Aryan super race, partly an urge toward national food self-sufficiency (so as not to lose another war to encroaching hunger, as in WWI) and partly a recognition that a well-fed populace is a compliant populace: all of which stranded neatly into the “Blut und Boden” (Blood and Soil) ethos that wove localism, nationalism and racism into a single driving slogan.

Ben Stiller and Heidi Klum mock the Insta-pout.Credit:Caroline McCredie

Many commentators see a similar array of factors now: fake news, widespread fear, distrust of government, voluntary self-censorship, spiralling conspiracy theories, xenophobia and out-of-control corporate power. Such conditions can make a retreat to the primal, and to the self, seem reassuring.

As renowned German art theorist Isabelle Graw notes, “one of the conditions of neo-liberalism is that the market reaches into areas that were formerly considered 'private' and sheltered from its evaluative logic – such as the body, health, social relationships" making even these areas subject to economic optimisation.

Thus even our innermost lives – our hobbies, relationships, bodies – become, in essence, cost centres. If we fail to optimise them we feel frowned upon. Thus, wellbeing takes the place of morality but, far from energising us, it creates its own tyranny. For when self-perfection becomes the goal, narcissism becomes the disease. Too much wellbeing makes us sick.

I’m not saying healthy living is wrong. Hardly. But health is a means, not an end. Your body may be your temple but a temple should enable worship, not receive it. We’re in big trouble when our temples become our gods.

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