My generation is obsessed with the cult of wellness – but all that striving to be your best self can be dangerous

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: rbkomar/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: rbkomar/Getty Images

I have spent a huge part of my 20s learning to accept that I will never be healthy, after being diagnosed with an incurable illness – Crohn’s disease – two weeks after my 19th birthday. And although being “healthy” has never been a priority for me (I’ve never stepped foot in a gym and find it impossible to eat 10 portions of fruit and veg a day) my ambivalence towards “wellness” grew as I dealt with being permanently unwell. It has also made me an anomaly among my peers.

From my bed, unable to move, I watched my generation become obsessed with being their best selves. We have become utterly transfixed with the idea that wellness is the key to a successful life; that our relationships, careers, friendships and mental health will all suffer unless we pursue being “well” above all else.

We seem to have arrived at the collective assumption that if you aren’t actively preventing ill health then you’re an irresponsible nihilist. It is no longer enough to simply deal with sickness as it comes – we must be actively battling against it at all times. Where wellness was once a niche lifestyle pursuit peddled by Hollywood stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Kourtney Kardashian, it has become commonplace to partake in practices many would once have ridiculed: juice cleanses, vitamin drips and sunrise yoga sessions have replaced trips to the hairdressers and a simple slick of lippy.

What’s more, it is just as common to find health advice on social media as it is influencers’ fashion hauls or hot takes by political pundits. We are urged to consider our health and wellbeing as a determining factor in every decision we make, and are constantly looking for ways to improve our existence by optimising our insides. Wellness, in the 21st century, has replaced religion as the moral signposting by which we live our lives. We no longer avoid sinning for fear we’ll be shut out of heaven; instead, we avoid unhealthy behaviour for fear it will make us sick.

Millennials drink alcohol less often than the generation before them, while Gen Z drink 20% less than millennials, and 87% of them exercise more than three times a week. Smoking is no longer cool, recreational drug use is for losers, and being “well” is the most impressive thing you can do for yourself. It’s implied that the key to a happy life is to be well – and that contentment is impossible without good health.

On the surface, it’s hard to find the fault in the way that health has shifted from being purely a medical concern to an all-encompassing way of life. Understanding how your body works and what it needs is, surely, no bad thing. But placing health concerns and responsibilities on individuals, rather than pushing for improved government legislation, creates more problems than it solves. Especially when, for many of us, absolute health is an unattainable goal. As long as there is no cure for Crohn’s disease, I will always be considered as lesser than those who can dedicate their lives to whichever wellness fad is trending that week.

In the 80s, political economist Robert Crawford theorised that a then recent move towards prioritising individual health had become popular in response to disappointment at the lack of positive change during the politically charged 60s and 70s. With traditional activism appearing stagnant, and our governments failing us both then and now, it appears many have once again turned inwards – feeling the world around them to be immovable.

Chronic illness aside, only a tiny portion of society can afford to pour its income into wellness treatments, the effectiveness of which often remains unproven. Pseudoscientific treatments, diet plans and supplements can also contribute to false information infiltrating social media feeds under the guise of health advice. But ultimately, so long as we view our health as an individual plight, we’re letting elected health officials off the hook. As we guzzle down the newest superfood, the NHS is being stretched beyond its means. Our infatuation with wellness continues to set a dangerous precedent that as long as we take care of ourselves, we shouldn’t need it at all.

Ione Gamble is the author of Poor Little Sick Girls: A Love Letter to Unacceptable Women

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