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The government of New Zealand will start, with next year’s budget, to measure the nation’s wellbeing. Happiness experts, environmentalists and socialists have been promoting the idea for decades, but this may be the first formal attempt in the developed world to measure how happy citizens are alongside the wealth indicator of GDP.

The frequency with which the NZ media highlight mental illness and suicide among Kiwis suggests that it is high time for such a move. The same could be said of most Western countries. A new Gallup poll informs us that humanity had its gloomiest year in more than a decade in 2017.

But not everyone has been waiting around for their political representatives to cheer them up. In fact, people have taken things into their own hands and are flocking to purveyors of “wellness” for advice and products designed to make them feel better. This may overlap with but is largely distinct from salutary trends towards more healthy diets and habits. 

The most famous practitioner of the arts of wellness is actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who first came to our attention in 1996 as the eponymous heroine of the movie “Emma”, a Jane Austen character who learns the hard way not to give advice for which she is unqualified.

Nothing daunted, Paltrow launched the lifestyle brand Goop in 2008 with a weekly email newsletter advising followers to, for example, “police your thoughts” and “eliminate white foods”, under the slogan “Nourish the Inner Aspect”. With its move into wellness products, ranging from Emotional Detox Bath Soap to vitamin supplements, Goop has become a lifestyle empire valued at $250 million.

Beyond that, according to a recent article in Quartz by lifestyle brands consultant Sarah Wilson, wellness has grown over the past five years from “a fringe interest for a mostly female audience to a multi-trillion-dollar industry encompassing nutritional supplements, on-demand massage, period-friendly underwear, CBD-enhanced teas, mushroom elixirs, and then some.” Like, adding a pinch of activated charcoal to your drink. It’s called “self-care”.

And it goes beyond simple wellbeing, presenting itself in part as an alternative to conventional medicine. While this infuriates the medical establishment, it answers to a sense among a section of the population that there must be something nicer and more effective than the pills and potions of Big Pharma. Women in particular often feel their symptoms are not taken seriously by doctors, and there’s the persistent belief that vaccines make you sicker, such as causing autism in children.

Wellness harks back to the 1970s New Age movement and connects with the current yoga and mindfulness trends, with social media to drive it all. “Wellness potions in beautiful jars with untested ingredients of unknown purity are practically packaged for Instagram,” sniffs California doctor Jan Gunter.

Gunter and others writing on the wellness phenomenon haven’t missed its role as a placebo for religion either. The headings on their stories: “Worshipping the False Idols of Wellness”, “How did wellness become our new religion?” and “Have you joined the wellness cult?” And for people who have grown up without any formal religion the movement may seem to fill a gap that human nature abhors.

It provides meaning and purpose. It explains to people how they “work” in a holistic fashion and invites them to become “the best possible version of themselves.” To that end, it offers “authoritative” teaching. Its gurus are attractive and well-toned exemplars of truth of their doctrines.

It provides a community of intention and support – online, for the most part, but also in local groups, “summits” and special interest conventions. An example of the latter is Beautycon, a convention that, says Wilson in her Quartz piece, “draws a thoroughly diverse group of young people who connect to each other through all things makeup, finally at home in a community where they are allowed to feel free and beautiful for expressing themselves as they choose.”

There are rituals – anything from lighting a scented candle at home in the evening, to group meditation, which stands in for interiority, or prayer. There’s even asceticism, sometimes of a rigorous nature, as the author of the “wellness cult” article mentioned above shows in describing his Sunday morning with a “wellness collective” in Los Angeles.

At this regular meeting, the group did meditation, guided breathing exercises, and a steep hike through a valley, during which the 30-odd people stopped to form a circle, arms outstretched and eyes shut, while their leader told them to release all their tension into “those areas of discomfort [their aching arms] and perfectly relax.” The leader, Bryan Ellis, is a yoga instructor and musician who does 30-day water fasts (that is, 30 days consuming only water). He says the fast gives him clarity and energy and “your strength is unreal.”

That regime would put the average Sunday churchgoer to shame.

And yet, superficially similar as wellness and traditional religious practices may be, they are by nature very different, and neither self-care nor simply becoming the best version of oneself can take fill the gap where religion should be.

That is because religion, at least in the monotheistic faiths, is directed in the first place not to the self but to God, the transcendent being who is our origin and destiny, and to our neighbour. Thus the “great commandment” of the Judeo-Christian faith is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart … and your neighbour as yourself.” It’s not about self-realisation but about love, receiving and giving love.

Striving to live up to this commandment, with the grace of God, will undoubtedly make us the best version of ourselves in the long run, and that is something we should want, but it is not the religious person’s prime motivation. That has to be love, a self-forgetful and generous impulse towards the other.

Self-care or self-improvement is ultimately going to let the person down –as well as cost a lot – because it will turn her in on herself and isolate her, or him. Religious people owe it to those going down this path to show, not just talk about, what they are missing out on. But that’s another story.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet