‘Wellness’ and ‘mindfulness’ have become incorporated into the everyday reality of digital capitalism. But while they proclaim to free us from stressors and anxieties, they actually turn our personal wellbeing and neurobiology into just another commodity.
Recently, many things have become ‘a part of the conversation.’ It’s an odd phrase, ‘a part of the conversation.’ People say it as though it means something but, when you think about it, you realise that it doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s a phrase that begs the question, which conversation? In our digital world, millions of conversations are happening, often simultaneously. Over the course of a single day, there will be billions of contentious topics that are tossed around and turned over by people who each believe that they alone have the faintest idea of what they’re talking about. ‘A part of the conversation’ is one of those phrases that that sort of person uses. It is a strangely euphemistic phrase, beloved by bureaucrats and politicians; for them, it’s an ingenious way of appearing as though they know something without actually having to know anything. Another phrase, ‘full of hot air,’ springs to mind. But I digress; my point is simply that many things have become ‘a part of the conversation’ over the last few decades that perhaps weren’t, say, fifty years ago.
Mental health is one of these things. The impact of psychological illness is becoming more widely known in contemporary society. Mental health is a subject that we are slowly becoming more comfortable with, as more people than ever are encouraged into therapy, Prince Harry becomes the Chief Impact Officer at BetterUp, and closer to home, the Duke of Cambridge speaks out about the importance of men’s mental health. As each generation passes the taboo surrounding mental illness will hopefully subside further, until going to your doctor to speak about your anxiety will be as normal as going to your doctor about that strange mole on your knee that looks a bit like Luxembourg if you squint hard enough. This is a good thing, I think we can agree. There are undoubtedly some people that don’t agree, of course. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt since the birth of social media, it’s that there are always people that don’t agree. However, these people are a minority, no matter what Twitter would have you believe.
Wellness is another. Mental health and wellness are often used interchangeably. There are those among us who would argue that the two phrases are analogous, that you can’t speak of one without talk invariably turning to the other. However, these two phrases are not synonymous. The former belongs to an established branch of science – you can argue whether that is a social or natural science in your own time – whilst the latter is something quite different. Talk of wellness is not the next natural consequence of serious psychological inquiry conducted by professors at the world’s greatest universities. Wellness is a cultural buzzword. It is used as a placeholder for serious discussion of our own and others’ mental health. Around us, products aimed at caring for our minds and our bodies are thrust upon us, and each of them has one binding characteristic; none of them deal with the root cause of the stress and anxiety endemic in our society. Whether it’s a sleep-inducing pillow spray or a scented candle that promotes ‘mindfulness,’ all these products do is simply encourage you to spend more and consume more.
Whilst wellness has been embraced in the retail sector, mainly as a way of getting us to buy more, we’re feeling the effects of this craze most markedly within the very corporations we work for. Any liberal-minded institution that likes to think of itself as having its finger on the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist will have a meditation room, a subscription subsidy for apps that purport to help us deal with stress, and a yoga ball in the corner of the office for employees that want to work on their abdominal muscles between Zoom calls. Amazon made global headlines when they installed ‘AmaZen’ booths in their warehouses for employees to escape the stress and perilous working conditions that they subject their staff to. Elsewhere, employees at Grammarly can enjoy ‘good vibe Mondays,’ Google is home to free massage parlours for their office workers, and there are even companies offering burnt-out teachers’ a monthly subscription to Calm. On the surface, it might seem as though these companies believe in the importance of wellbeing amongst their staff. It might seem a little cynical of me to sit here and sneer at cycle-to-work schemes and discounts on group therapy sessions. In all honesty, it is cynical of me. I cannot help but think that next they’ll be buying everyone in digital marketing bath bombs, or treating HR to a day out at London Zoo.
Yet somehow, underneath the honest exterior presented by these companies, something insidious lurks. The problem, I think, can be summarised by the entry for wellness in the Cambridge Dictionary. The Cambridge Dictionary explains ‘wellness’ in a sentence as, ‘Employers who emphasise worker wellness get a healthy return on their investment.’ This, in a nutshell, is the problem with wellness. Whilst it is framed as a form of self-care, wellness is in fact a tool used by corporations that want to maximise their profits by increasing employee productivity. Phrases such as wellness and self-care might be common parlance on yogi blogs and teenage girls’ Instagram accounts, but these phrases are out of place in such settings. They really exist to further the interests of organisations. We have been encouraged to interact with and respond to these phrases because in doing so, we are proliferating this narrative that corporations’ wellness tactics are doing us good.
However, wellness and mindfulness and everything in between, are merely symptoms of a society that sees life as human capital. Biopolitics refers to the impact of political power on all aspects of human life, including our own biology.In The Birth of Biopolitics Michel Foucault, the influential French poststructuralist, argued that biopolitics and neoliberalism are closely linked. For Foucault, Biopolitics is that ‘life-administering power’ that exists at the heart of late-twentieth-century neoliberalism; it is this power that is ‘bent on generating forces, optimising them, making them grow, and ordering them.’ In other words, our own mental health has become a commodity, and is being turned into something companies can utilise. Although mental health was misunderstood in the time Foucault was writing, one cannot help but think that had he been writing in the twenty-first century, he would undoubtedly have something to say about our penchant for sleep mists.
The constant optimisation of ourselves and our workload benefits those in power more than it benefits us. Foucault identified this as a key aspect of the modern neoliberal order. Foucault says that ‘in neoliberalism… Homo economicus is an entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of themselves.’ As neoliberalism treats everybody as an entrepreneur of themselves, companies must shift to allow employees the space to be individuals. We all remember Margaret Thatcher’s battle cry: ‘there is no such thing as society.’ Under neoliberalism, she’s quite right, there isn’t; we are simply a collection of individuals whose very own individuality is harnessed for the wellbeing, not of ourselves, but of those who hold the most power.
As the daily grind begins to catch up with us in the form of stress, anxiety, and the unshakable feeling that our lives exist only to fortify the few with enough wealth and power as to literally build rockets to escape the judgment of ordinary people, the neoliberal workforce must shift. Workplaces must allow individuals within it the space to work on their physical and mental wellbeing. If they don’t, corporations will be accused of cruelty, and the individuality that we believe in and are constantly striving towards will lead ordinary, working people to leave industries in their drove. We can see this happening; in the US recently, employees protested what they saw as the disregard of their financial and emotional wellbeing, in what has become known as the Great Resignation. If corporations want to avoid this they must show, or feign, interest in the lives of their employees. Hence, the yoga balls and the meditation apps and the endless bath bombs.
The problem is that the principles of neoliberalism have taught companies, and by extension ourselves, to see people as investments. We ought to define ourselves in terms of our goals, our productivity, and the value we add to whatever setting we find ourselves in. An individuals’ private struggle with their mental health can only inhibit that; therefore, it makes sense to turn that persons’ mental wellbeing into something manageable – thus, wellness was born. Wellness is a phrase used to sidestep the glaringly obvious; that it is the companies pushing wellness on us that are responsible for creating the conditions in which we have a need for wellness. Wellness is, in the twenty-first century, indeed a ‘part of the conversation.’ By co-opting wellness and self-care as a part of the cultural zeitgeist, it is easier for the state that controls our lives to deflect responsibility for creating the mental health crisis in the first place.
Rebecca Clayton is a freelance writer and a recent graduate of modern literature at UCL. Her research interests include the works of George Orwell, the role of the artist within society in both the past and present, and contemporary ideas surrounding neoliberalism and late-stage capitalism.