One of the most annoying phrases I hear when talk gets around to religion in social gatherings is “I’m not religious. I’m spiritual.” To this day, I have no idea what that means in practice. I am pretty sure I know what someone intends to signal, though. They are referencing a vague notion of Buddhism that they attempt to apply to daily life, and they most likely have a meditation app on their phone. While annoying, it is easy to forgive such a statement.
Many of us have been taken by the U.S. wellness industrial complex, and there are legitimately helpful parts of wellness culture, such as an acknowledgement of the mental root of many illnesses and a focus on humans as part of a much larger ecology. However, there is a detrimental side to the language of wellness that needs some background to understand. The earliest use of the word in English was in the 17th century, and it simply meant a contrast from illness. John Patrick Leary has outlined how the word, since the 1980s is used to denote “spiritual, psychological, and physiological health.”
This “open-ended positivity” that wellness signals now has led to the rise of the doctrine of positive thinking that runs the gambit from self-help pastors like Norman Vincent Peale and his intellectual descendants such as Joel Osteen to Silicon Valley CEOs-turned-gurus, such as Jack Dorsey. At its root, the wellness industry relies on pseudoscientific, and often extremely expensive, fixes to problems that are outside the average person’s ability to change.
Underneath its doctrine of positivity, wellness culture turns the blame on the individual when things go wrong. This blaming reached a ridiculous new low when author Rhonda Byrne claimed those killed in the 2004 tsunami could have saved themselves if they were putting ‘better vibes’ out into the universe. The wellness industry has become a culture of con-people and frauds who play on others’ most basic fears and desires, and in doing so it offers a toxic mix of traditional religion and positive psychology.
Just look at Oprah Winfrey’s decades-long vagueness about the type of spirituality she deals out through her media empire—an empire that gave the U.S. Dr Phil and Dr Oz’s quack medical advice.
Ross Douthat, a conservative, religious columnist for the New York Times, has devoted most of his career critiquing those who have just made up their own religions and sold them to millions. While I agree with almost nothing Douthat writes, his 2012 book Bad Religion is one I think about a lot these days. In it, he calls out Oprah and those who would follow in her footsteps who peddle in what can only be called American heresies. He sees three strands of religion in America: traditional, secular, and individualistic. Traditionalists want there to be a doctrinal basis for religion, while secularists want science to open up our understanding of humanity’s desire for something beyond the observable world. Douthat’s solution is to move back to tradition. My solution is, well, the opposite of that.
Oprah, he says, is part of the individualistic camp who sees a little god in everyone and “promises access to a secret and personalized wisdom, a gospel of health and wealth that insists the true spiritual adept will find both happiness and money.” How does someone explain inequality with such an equation? It is pretty simple. The wealthy are just more spiritually well.
Understanding the vague emptiness of wellness culture is critical not only because those like Oprah are making billions peddling it, but also because this culture creeps in where you least expect it. Currently, the Democratic Party has a wellness guru running for its nomination to the presidency. Marianne Williamson has made a life with her counselling/consulting/guru-ing business, mostly serving celebrities and the ultra-rich. ‘Oprah’s spiritual guru’ she is sometimes called. She has made infamous news with her opinions on how to deal with depression—don’t, because clinical depression is a scam—and why parents shouldn’t vaccinate their kids. Seriously! She is one of those.
Williamson’s advice went to dark places when, in the early 90s, she claimed that gay men suffering from AIDS could heal themselves. “The AIDS virus is not more powerful than God,” she declared. She has changed her position on depression and vaccines, of course, and she now denies she ever said those things about AIDS. Although many have been pleasantly surprised by her debate performances when she calls out the roots of our health and environmental crises, we cannot forget that this is a person who thought we could pray away Hurricane Dorian.
But my annoyance at wellness culture is not about Williamson specifically. She is a product of decades of corporate and now techno-neoliberal appropriation of Asian, traditional American religion, and our individual health. While the meaning of the word wellness has evolved over the past few centuries, its current usage has a dangerous vagueness to it. The word has been hijacked to mean a variety of things and to make billions for those like Williamson who sell shaky, dangerous notions about our bodies and our mental states.
What is most dangerous, though, is the DIY self-reliance of wellness culture. Leary makes the point that wellness really shifted in meaning during the Reagan era because it “dovetailed with a Reaganite use of a moral vocabulary of economic self-reliance.” I can’t blame the spiritual-not-religious people hungry for some relief that contemporary life seems never to afford—except to those who can afford it. And we could all probably benefit from a little meditation and healthfulness. However, to say it is our fault if we do not meet a certain standard of wellness is ridiculous and dangerous, but it is also the way we do it in America.