What’s the difference between “wellness” and “health”?

I don’t know. The former seems to be a profitable buzzword for charlatans.

Four decades later, wellness is not only a word you hear every day; it’s a global industry worth billions — one that includes wellness tourism, alternative medicine, and anti-aging treatments. The competition for a hunk of that market is intense: In Manhattan, two for-profit meditation studios are vying to become the SoulCycle of meditation, and Saks Fifth Avenue has temporarily converted its second floor into a “Wellery,” where you can experience aroma and light therapy in a glass booth filled with salt, or get plugged into a meditation app during a manicure. Every giant corporation has a wellness program: yoga at Goldman Sachs, communal sleep logs at JPMorgan Chase. A new magazine has debuted out on Long Island this summer, Hamptons Purist. (“Look around the city,” says its editor, Cristina Greeven, who came up with the idea on a surfboard in Costa Rica: “It used to be a butcher, a baker, and a hardware store. Now it’s SoulCycle, Juice Press, and a meditation place.”) It will have to compete with the Goop magazine, to be edited by Paltrow and published by Condé Nast, which this spring also announced the launch of Condé Nast Pharma, a division that offers “brand-safe” wellness-based content to pharmaceutical advertisers. The advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi has its own wellness division, capitalizing on “women’s unmet wellness needs” in the marketplace.

Wait, a “wellery”? This bullshit has really gone too far.

I think what “wellness” is about is selling a need — your chakras are out of alignment, you need to fix them. Gluten is poisoning you, you need more quinoa. You’re getting older, you need to stuff this random thing up your vagina. The Martians are trying to control your mind, you need to wear this lead-lined beanie. All those magazines aren’t about helping you, they’re about telling you what’s wrong with you, and then selling a non-solution to the problem they’ve just imagined.

It’s very profitable, though!

“It’s been overwhelming,” says Ashley Lewis, senior director of wellness at Goop. “We sold over $100,000 worth of vitamins on day one, and that trajectory has just continued.”

The best advice comes from the author’s doctor.

My lovely, thorough, and smart GP says every year at my annual checkup: Please tell me you’re not taking any supplements. At best, she says, you’re doing no harm, you’re just giving yourself some very expensive pee.


  1. Siobhan says

    It will have to compete with the Goop magazine, to be edited by Paltrow and published by Condé Nast,

    In other news, Ken Ham has been appointed the editor of an astrophysics journal.


  2. cartomancer says

    The sociolinguistics of this are quite interesting, I think.

    When people want to make something sound sciency and medical and precise they tend to use Latinate or Greek-sounding words, like science does. Nobody would think that Sticking Warm Plants On Yourself is a valid treatment, but call it Adhesive Thermophyte Therapy and you’re well on your way to bilking thousands from the gullible.

    “Wellness” and “Wellery” are almost brazenly Anglo-Saxon in texture though. It’s a rejection of the sort of language that science and medicine uses, rather than a co-option of it. They’re deliberately going for something homelier and more intimate to attract people who are put off by all those injections and tablets and men in white coats who do things that actually work.

  3. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Following up on cartomancer @2, health itself is a Germanic word, derived from heal which was originally a causative form of whole (so “to make whole”). Interestingly, while health is fairly neutral, even clinical, call someone a healer and you’re entering woo territory.

    As for Latin and Greek, we’ve already co-opted their words for health in other domains–Latin for mental health (sanity) and Greek for cleanliness (hygiene).

  4. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Slight correction: Hygieia was the goddess of health, but didn’t necessarily mean “health”. The Greek word for “heal” gives us “therapy”; not sure what the nominal form is.

  5. Phiknight says

    I have kind of thought of it as “wellness” trying to be more inclusive of mental health and bring exercise and health related activities into your daily/work routines.

    Where I work, they are supposedly doing a Health and Wellness campaign that I should be taking better advantage of (I could get rebates for gym memberships and races if I did things like turn in receipts). I do like that it encourages me to get away from my computer and walk around more during the day. Me and one of my work buddies will get together for “walk and talk” meetings to catch up on work items.

    I’ve done yoga as part of my exercise routine and have used meditation as a means of helping me to concentrate/relax depending on what all is going on. I know ;the chakra stuff is meaningless but it never-the-less helps me “feel” better sometimes.

    Sorry, don’t have anything to add other than my personal experience. I like the linguistics lesson though!

  6. Owlmirror says

    New grift: Traditional Indian/Chinese Kundalini-Merdian-Leechcraft.

    The noble doctors of yore who used leeches had the right idea, but their methodology really needs to be synergized with the ancient Chinese knowledge of meridians and the Indian lore of Kundalini. The Chinese tradition of acupuncture is incomplete; sticking needles in the points isn’t really the best way to deal with problems. Your chakras may be blocked by negative energy accumulating at the meridian nodes. So our therapy prescribes sanitary medicinal leeches to suck the negative energy from the correct chakras and acupuncture nodes to unblock the flow of your natural energy and really make a difference in your complete wellness profile.

    (How long before something like this pops up for real?)

  7. says

    Every giant corporation has a wellness program: yoga at Goldman Sachs, communal sleep logs at JPMorgan Chase.

    This way you get to pretend you’re being nice to your employees, even while maintaining the work schedules that drive them to need all that wellness in the first place. I suspect if we had a more equitable society, a lot of this stuff would simply disappear, because people would no longer be stressed out of their minds.

  8. Dunc says

    Owlmirror @7: I’ve long thought that there’s probably a market opportunity for somebody in China to start pushing “Traditional Galenic Medicine”…

  9. Rich Woods says

    @Whatb A Maroon #5:

    The Greek word for “heal” gives us “therapy”; not sure what the nominal form is.

    Therapod? ;-)

  10. Rich Woods says

    @Dunc #10:

    “Traditional Galenic Medicine”

    Does it come with a lead-lined guarantee?

    Reminds me of my dad’s favourite rhyme:

    “It was the coughing which carried him off.
    It was the coffin they carried him off in.”

  11. says

    Rich Woods
    “Therapod” Obviously a beastly healer of feet!

    Rich Woods
    I learnt that as:
    It isn’t the cough
    That carries you off,
    It’s the coffin
    They carry you off in.

  12. says

    Dunc@10, I’m sure if you look hard enough you could find Chinese folks with money to burn who have been sucked into some form of Western style woo. After all if you’re a hip young Chinese entrepreneur why would you want to use the same folk medicine Granny used?

    Years ago I read a book called Under the Care of the Fatherly Leader by Bradley K. Martin, a look at Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Despite Communism’s supposed belief in the superiority of science the North Korean government spent a lot of time investigating traditional Korean folk medicine, in the hope of keeping Kim Il Sung alive as long as possible. One suggestion was that he eat dog penises of at least 7 centimeters in length. I remembering reading at some point that Mao Zedong often favoured traditional Chinese folk remedies over modern medicine as well.

  13. komarov says

    “We sold over $100,000 worth of vitamins on day one, and that trajectory has just continued.”

    Uh, question. Did they sell vitamins that were actually worth $100,000 or did they just sell vitamins and charge $100,000 in total?

    Re: Cartomancer (#2):

    “Wellness” and “Wellery” are almost brazenly Anglo-Saxon in texture though. It’s a rejection of the sort of language that science and medicine uses, rather than a co-option of it. They’re deliberately going for something homelier and more intimate to attract people who are put off by all those injections and tablets and men in white coats who do things that actually work.

    I suppose all that would make the customers “Wellies”. I believe Billy Conolly had a health-related song about those, but maybe I’m just confusing them with something else…

  14. says

    There’s another one in a similar vein but I’m not sure I will render it correctly:
    “Ton thé t’a-t-il ôté ta toux?”
    (did your tea make your cough better?)

  15. jazzlet says

    timgueguen @#14 Mao Zedong promoted the use of traditional Chinese medicine for the masses because of a severe shortage of medically trained staff and of facilities. TCM healers could be trained cheaply and quickly unlike rmedical staff, TCM consulting rooms didn’t require any particular equipment so again were cheap and quick to build unlike hospitals. Him an the rest of the ruling elite stuck firmly to proper medicine for themselves.

  16. hotspurphd says

    I agree with pretty much everything that’s been said here. However it’s not all woo. There is some benefit from meditation according to a number of studies. In my own experience the guided body scan by Jon Kabat-Zinn has markedly reduced my chronic low back pain. During the part of the 45 minute exercise where I imagine directing my breath to the painful area the pain very quickly diminishes or vanishes. This has been the case since 2004. Five years ago I went to a psychologist who specializes in treatment of pain and sleep disorders. His technician hooked me up to a biofeedback machine which measures muscle tension at the painful spots via EMG and he proceeded with the body scan technique almost word for word the same as what I had been doing for eight years and at the point where I imagined my breath directed to the painful spots the machine indicated a reduction in muscle tension and I simultaneously felt a marked reduction in pain. I continue to find it quite astonishing and I cannot imagine what the mechanism is here. I can see how general relaxation could lead to pain reduction if muscle tension is the cause but how can it work so specifically as it does in this case. Studies in auto-Benicia training from many decades ago found that people could raise the temperature of their foreheads by a similar technique . The temp went up because of increased blood flow to the forehead. Any insights anybody?

  17. nathanaelnerode says

    Meditation really can do all kinds of strange and useful things; the studies are clear about this. My father knew, way back int he 1930s, a yogi who *knew* what medidation could do, from personal experience and observation (he was from a long yogi tradition in India), and he was so curious about why it worked he got a PhD in biology and became a neurobiologist to try to figure it out. (I can’t say that he figured out why it worked, but it resulted in some fascinating studies which gave some clues.)

    Vitamins? Seriously, I’m never going to knock vitamin supplements, nobody should, and many people should be taking vitamins,… though most multivitamins are indigestible. It takes some serious research to figure out what vitamins you will absorb and to spot that something could be a vitamin deficiency. And the doctors are lazy and won’t do the research, so you have to do it yourself.

    I had an undiagnosed magnesium deficiency for a while. You can’t diagnose it with blood tests for magnesium, because blood levels don’t predict the quantiy in the muscles and other organs, which is what matters. It causes an inability to absorb potassium, so I had a potassium deficiency, but no matter how much potassium it ingested, I still had a potassium deficiency. I started taking magnesium, the potassium deficiency went away. Magnesium deficiencies are common because soil is magnesium-depleted relative to its situation 100 years ago because of failure to fertilize with animal dung. All of these points are perfectly well-documented in scientific papers, which *I had to find myself*.

    Of course most of the idiots with MDs who act as doctors acted like this was “woo”, because they’re fools who hadn’t bothered to do any research at all.

    Biology is complicated, mkay? You know this.

    Medicine is subject to faddism — a doctor finds a treatment for ONE thing and starts acting like it will cure everything. Then there’s a backlash against the fad and the establishment acts like it’s good for nothing. In reality, it’s typically good for the one thing it was originally developed for…

    If you filter out the fad behavior, you find that almost all of the fads had an origin which is actually real. Even homeopathy. Hanhemann was originally using large enough doses to actually have something other than water, and he originally was successfully treating people with ALLERGIES — it’s very clear now. We have rediscovered the concept of treating people with allergies with microdose exposure to the thing they’re allergic to, within the last decade. If the medical establishment hadn’t been so arrogant and contemptuous towards Hahnemann… they migh thave figured it out 100 years ago. Because Hahnemann did figure it out. Before he went down the crazy-train “one cure for everything” road.

    Vitamins — a real issue. Late 19th century, they went nuts and thought they would cure everything. Vitamins are still important and are the cure for some things, but you wouldn’t know it from talking to doctors today.

    Surgery. In the 1950s they went nuts and thought surgery was the cure for everything — a particularly vicious, awful, and destructive fad. Which is still in vogue among gastroenterologists (who are generally worthless butchers; an entire new field was founded just to study what happend in the gut that wasn’t surgical).

    Antibiotics. Great for bacterial infections. Worthless and counterproductive for everything else, so you guessed it, they were treated as a cure-all, and now we’re facing antibiotic resistance because of antibiotic abuse among farmers.

    The don’t-eat-fat fad. This started with people who were eating completely ridiculous diets with over 50% of their calories from saturated fat (often more). Deep fried pork rinds and buttered marbled steak. Turns out, yeah, “eat less fat” is good advice for them. This was of course exaggerated wildly out of proportion until people were eating zero-fat diets, which were unhealthy… and now, in the backlash, we have people saying that there was never any evidence that you should eat less fat. But there was. It was just taken out of context (the context of an all-fat diet).

    And so on and so on. The *whole of medicine* is like this. Someone finds one good thing which works for a limited area of problems. It turns into a fad, exaggerated way beyond the initial evidence, and gets used for a zillion things it doesn’t work for and should never have been used for. Then there’s an equally insane backlash and the entire thing is dismissed by arrogant idiots who didn’t bother to do their research — even though it actually *did* work for the one thing it was originally used for.

    It’s exceedingly frustrating to watch this. It must be some sort of human psychological habit which creates the good idea – fad – excessive backlash cycle. Don’t fall for it.

    There are supplements which certain people should be taking; the fact that this has turned into a ludicrous over-the-top “megasupplements for everybody!” industry is just the usual mad faddism of medicine. But if you never go out in the sun, you should probably take Vitamin D supplements, to prevent excess rates of infection (this one is proven in rat studies). For example.

  18. mailliw says

    I would like to take this opportunity to promote my series of workshops that reveal the ancient, mystical secrets understood only by middle-aged, middle-class men from the north-east of England.

  19. says

    nathanaelnerode @ 21: The original (and still best) medical advice, as per the Temple of Apollo: “Everything in moderation”.

    The problem with fads is people forget the whole point about “moderation”.

    mailliw @ 23: Does this start with purposeful contemplation in the shed? Possibly after having been asked to do something about the garden or around the house? (I have ancestors from the North of England, and have observed their sacred rituals in secret…)

  20. militantagnostic says

    nathanealnerode @21

    We have rediscovered the concept of treating people with allergies with microdose exposure to the thing they’re allergic to, within the last decade.

    You must have spent a good portion of your life traveling at relativistic speeds. I was getting allergy shots in the 60s. Idiot

    The theoretical underpinning of homeopathy had nothing to do with allergies. Hahnemann believed that if a substance caused a symptom then a small dose would cure that symptom even if it was caused by something else. Onion juice injections would have worked as well ragweed or cat dander..

  21. militantagnostic says

    hotspurphd @20 regarding meditation and pain.

    Any insights anybody?

    Many years ago I went to the ER on a Saturday evening (with the inevitable long wait) with a painful bladder infection I managed to reduce the pain by imagining a fog spreading down my torso. This was a meditation technique I invented on the spot out of desperation. I had no prior training in any type of meditation.