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The Wellness Syndrome

By Peter Bloom.


Carl Cederström and André Spicer, The Wellness Syndrome (Polity, 2015)

The contemporary age is marked by what appears a definite contradiction. On the one hand, public and social institutions tasked with meeting human needs are struggling under the weight of a continued recession and an economic order that increasingly prioritizes profit at the expense of general welfare. On the other hand, popular discourse and private organizations are progressively emphasizing the centrality of “wellness” for citizens and employees. The Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederström and André Spicer provides an important and sophisticated critical understanding of this seemingly paradoxical phenomenon. Their book reveals concisely and accessibly—without sacrificing theoretical subtlety—how our current age is marked by a pathological and dangerous fixation with “health” and “wellness,” an obsession that effectively targets individuals with its market-based rhetoric of personal and professional well-being, while strategically masking deeper contradictions of modern neo-liberal capitalism.

Overall, The Wellness Syndrome is a comprehensive but readable account of the rise of this titular “syndrome.” It takes aim simultaneously at the “wellness” industry and at the growing common sense assumptions that are fueling this lucrative trend. It can be found in places as diverse as innovative tech companies like Google to American evangelical congregations. Further, even where it is not being implemented, it remains a tantalizing desire for many twenty-first-century citizens—a dream of “work/life balance” that may be reserved only for the privileged few but can one day also be their own.

Yet the book soars beyond being a purely sociological account, which in and of itself would be significant enough. Rather, it delves deeper into what this embrace of “wellness,” so innocuous on the surface, means for our contemporary identities. As the title suggests, it positions this discourse as a “syndrome”: a threatening modern pathology that has turned inward on itself so that it now subjugates and disciplines individuals as capitalist subjects. As Cederström and Spicer write:

Today wellness is not just something we choose. It is a moral obligation. We must consider it at every turn of our lives. While we often see it spelled out in advertisements and life-style magazines, this command is also transmitted more insidiously, so that we don’t know whether it is imparted from the outside or spontaneously arises within ourselves. This is what we call the wellness command. In addition to identifying the emergence of this wellness command, we want to show how this injunction now works against us.

Can we ever be healthy enough? Will we ever find enough balance? What do I need to do to achieve both my life and my career goals? It is these questions that not only drive so many individuals today but also regulate them to be ever more employable, productive, and self-disciplining workers. Further, such questions sustain individuals’ dreams and identities in a world that is increasingly granting them less opportunities and a greater precarity simply to survive, let alone be well.

The Wellness Syndrome proceeds in an exceedingly clear manner. The authors view “wellness” as a modern ideology, one that is simultaneously a perceived “natural” and insidious part of contemporary life:

Our concern in this book is not with wellness per se. Our concern is how wellness has become an ideology. As such, it offers a package of ideas and beliefs which people may find seductive and desirable, although, for the most part, these ideas appear as natural or even inevitable. The ideological element of wellness is particularly visible when considering the prevailing attitudes towards those who fail to look after their bodies. These people are demonized as lazy, feeble or weak willed. They are seen as obscene deviants, unlawfully and unabashedly enjoying what every sensible person should resist.

Moreover, they explicitly link this “ideological shift” to the internalization of free-market values whereby improving your health is seen as “a necessary strategy to improve your personal market value.”

The authors highlight, in this respect, the rise of the “coached self,” associated with the effort by individuals to become “healthy” through turning to a “life coach.” They argue that this social identity reinforces neoliberalism, as it represents

the self that is often best equipped to meet the contradictory demands of present-day capitalism: to be simultaneously extroverted and introspective, flexible and focused, adaptable and idiosyncratic. In other words, coaching does not just seek to improve people’s wellbeing, or to teach them how to enjoy more. It is a technique aimed at reshaping the self.

They similarly depict the modern workplace as now obsessed with “health,” witnessed in the providing of employees with free gym passes to the use of the “treadmill desk” and the “bicycle desk.” According to Cederström and Spicer, the “healthy individual” is a “healthy worker,” so much so that “the image of the idealized worker has transformed from the workaholic Stakhanov of Soviet Russia into the exercise-addicted corporate athlete who is able to carry out a hard day of creative labor while happily leading an exercise class after work.”

As the book makes clear, this almost pathological desire to be “healthy” also extends to mental wellness. The modern individual is increasingly expected to adopt a “positive” and “pro-active” attitude so that they can fulfill their personal and professional potential. The author’s maintain that this demand to “be happy” legitimizes inequality and poverty—failure is now blamed on having the “wrong” attitude and material deprivation presented as no barrier to achieving emotional “happiness.” Cederström and Spicer take this critique even further, linking “happiness” and professional success to one’s spiritual “wellbeing”. This turn toward spirituality represents a new form of capitalist self-disciplining as employment and indeed unemployment are transformed from a material necessity into an opportunity for spiritual growth. This perspective, they write, “displaces structural issues onto the individual. If you can’t get a job, it is not due to the economy or any other external causes. It is because of your inability to overcome your inner obstacles.”

The book praises, by contrast, those who resist the “wellness syndrome” by explicitly rejecting the pressures to be physically, mentally and spiritually healthy. For Cederström and Spicer the pleasure of being “unwell” serves as a temporary “escape” from this oppressively “healthy” culture. Nevertheless, they warn that seemingly subversive ideas of “fat acceptance” or “barebacking” can remain “firmly in the grip” of the “wellness” demand to actualize ourselves and be authentic. They conclude with an almost poetic defense of the need to look past our pathological fixation with wellness toward a more full view and mature view of life:

What makes most important things in life worthwhile is the inevitable failures and pain they entail. Truth often makes us miserable. Political action may involve direct threats and danger. Beauty is often soaked in sorrow. Love usually tears us apart. They may hurt, but not more … than they are worth.

It is not surprising that The Wellness Syndrome has garnered such wide attention in both the academic and popular presses. The text is full of interesting case studies and is pleasantly free from the esotericism that often plagues theoretical works. However, the book also contains an important and original critical argument, making it a potential landmark study of twenty-first-century capitalism.

Significantly, Cederström and Spicer present the dangerous appeal of neo-liberalism, one found in the promise that individuals can become “healthier” and “happier.” With compassion and rigor, they show repeatedly that these discourse arise out of a need by people, rich and poor alike, to invest in themselves in the face of a society that has stopped investing in them. It, therefore, makes the emotional and intellectual impact on the reader even more jarring that these healthy aspirations are so mercilessly used against them.

It is exactly here where the psychoanalytic perspective deployed in this book is so illuminating. The embrace of individual wellness is an understandable gesture toward trying to feel some empowerment in a world where there is often little to be found. It is the optimistic belief that “If you cannot change the system, you can at least change yourself!” The brilliance of The Wellness Syndrome is that it shows just how insidious and exploitive this desire has become. In the hands of managers and a 24/7 business environment, this longing to be healthy and fundamentally experience some type of agency is transformed into the insatiable superego demand to work harder and be ever more employable.

In doing so, the syndrome creates a new capitalist fantasy for individuals to invest in. The financial world order may be crumbling around them and there may not be any capitalist utopias on the horizon. Nevertheless, you can find personal happiness and professional fulfillment. With the right attitude, proper coaching and a willingness to sacrifice everything for your dreams, your possibilities are limitless. The failures, therefore, are not those of the system but entirely your own. However, do not despair, if at first you don’t succeed, as the saying goes, try, try again.

With this in mind, the book could have provided a more thorough account of the relation of this “wellness syndrome” to the larger structural reproduction of capitalism. Whereas the pervasiveness of this the syndrome is undeniably felt and explored, its concrete effect is sometimes less so. Interestingly, the authors have to a degree addressed this very issue in some of their current journalistic writings in The Washington Post—interrogating, for example, the ways this emphasis on “wellness” is used by Davos elites in the most recent G20 meeting to displace more fundamental critiques of financialization and austerity.

Moreover, there is relatively little attention paid to the emancipatory potential of this discourse. Drawing largely on a Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective provides a strong and enlightening foundation for critique. Yet it also, to a degree, misses that these inscriptive desires produce unintentional results, re-configuring social possibility in ways not necessarily completely complementary or salutary toward the market purpose they were in part engineered to serve. A broader treatment of this “syndrome” would have offered readers a glimpse at how these wellness discourses are dynamically changing the contours of social agency in interesting and potentially resistant directions.

These are, of course, ultimately minor critiques of an overall excellent book. The Wellness Syndrome reveals in stark and at time tragic-comic details the real “new spirit of capitalism” – where individuals are “responsible” for their own fate and wellbeing. An obligation that forces them to anxiously and constantly work on “bettering themselves,” overcoming any and all structural barriers that may be in their way. They will succeed not only through but in spite of an unfair market and financial system. And if they do not, they must hold themselves, not their social conditions, ruthlessly accountable.



Peter Bloom is a lecturer in the Department of People and Organizations at the Open University. He researches and publishes widely as an academic on issues related to rethinking modern power, politics and economics. His writings on these topics have also appeared in publications such as the New Statesman, The Washington Post, The Week, The Chicago Tribune, openDemocracy, and The Conversation.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015.