We’ve had a decade of ‘wellness’, but are we any more well?

The 2010s were the decade wellbeing moved from the trippy dippy crystal shop to the mainstream.

By 2014, the wellness industry was already three times bigger than the global pharmaceutical industry. Today, it is worth about $4.5 trillion.

The wellness industry has grown exponentially, but are we any better off? It’s complicated. Credit:Getty

There were Goops like Gwyneth Paltrow who let bees sting them as “therapy” (ill-advised given a woman died from the "treatment" last year) and the downright dangerous advice of those like convicted con Belle Gibson, claiming to cure cancer through nutrition. (Thankfully, the internet sees most snake oil stymied as fast as it’s spread.)

But even your average person has subscribed to plenty of wellness trends over the last decade for better or for worse.

We’ve witnessed the rise of hemp and wholefoods, kombucha and kale, probiotics and positive psychology, clean eating and collagen (Instagram has a lot to answer for). We’ve bought rose quartz-infused drink bottles for good vibes in our water. We’ve watched Wim Hof's followers freeze their gonads in ice baths and Tony Robbins spawn a generation of life coaches and motivational speakers who promise us we can do, have and be exactly as we wish … followed swiftly by a counter-culture teaching us the "subtle art of not giving a f—" and rejecting the “mindless positivity” of the self-help movement.

We’ve debated whether nut mylk is really milk, pondered the point of vitamin tablets, gone gluten-free, shunned sugar and embraced full fat (in both food and the body positive movement). We’ve discussed the virtues of journaling and colouring-in for our ever-increasing stress levels, had the international year of quinoa, donned blue light glasses and got high on productivity and lifehacking.

We've debated detox cleanses and CBD oil, activated almonds and dopamine fasting. We’ve consciously uncoupled (Paltrow also has a lot to answer for), killed ourselves at CrossFit, found ourselves at F45 and eaten into our house deposit with avocado toast.

We’ve swapped the Paleo steaks for pea protein and the environmental promise of veganism, and we’ve discovered the (apparently) life-changing magic of cleaning up, overloading poor Vinnies with our unwanted crap for the sake of minimalism before rebelling against it all for the sake of our sanity.

Our workplaces and schools have started implementing wellbeing programs, while wellness tourism and wellness real estate are helping to drive the growth of the sector.

The big question is: are we any better off?

Rising rates of obesity, lifestyle-related disease and mental illness, would indicate the answer is no. But Dr Sean O’Connor from the University of Sydney says the reality is more complex.

One argument is that rates of certain illnesses have not increased so much as we have increased our awareness of them. Another is that the world around us is changing but we are struggling to keep up, despite more of us being “more actively engaged” in our wellbeing than ever before.

We’ve consciously uncoupled (Paltrow also has a lot to answer for), killed ourselves at CrossFit, found ourselves at F45 and eaten into our house deposit with avocado toast.

While we're more aware of our wellbeing, our environment is geared towards us being increasingly sedentary at the same time we are exposed to a greater array of highly processed foods that are more convenient, more highly palatable and more affordable than ever. Added to this, the pace of technological change in our world has accelerated beyond our control, creating anxiety.

“We’re searching for meaning and trying to make sense of things in a world that’s moving so fast, it’s hard to make sense of,” says Dr O'Connor, an expert in coaching, positive psychology and wellbeing. “I think that’s why the wellbeing industry has grown.”

Dr O'Connor adds that while the research “seems to suggest we’re not getting any happier”, it does indicate we have a greater sense of meaning and are seeking purpose and wellbeing in our lives.

“We are starting to understand the relationship between things like performance, mental wellbeing, physical wellbeing, what we eat and how we treat our bodies … awareness is definitely something that has increased.”

He says he thinks the wellbeing trend is generally heading in a positive direction.

“We are more engaged in our lives, we are getting more meaning from our work and we are more connected in different ways. People are seeking purpose in their careers much earlier … And there’s a lot of benefit in terms of the wellbeing programs organisations are putting into place.”

At the moment, there is a gap between our knowledge, our awareness and its application. There also remains a gap between the rich and the poor, as not everyone has the resources to engage in the multi-trillion-dollar wellbeing industry. And, while research into the efficacy of wellbeing practices is improving, ”there is a lot of crazy stuff going on as well”, Dr O'Connor warns.

In short: while we're on the right track, it's no wonder we're not all there yet.

But, we're doing our best. Change starts with awareness and wellness is a journey, not a destination, so we don't need to get it right, right away.

In fact, we don't need to get it right at all. We just need to keep working to close the gaps, refining and redefining what does and doesn't work for us and ensure we don't take our pursuit of wellness so seriously it makes us less well.

And we have time for that; bring on 2020.

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