Get Well Soon

Put down that chocolate and pick up some broccoli! Improve your attitude and you can do anything! Scott McLemee looks into a new book on the critique of self-improvement.

May 6, 2015

You can’t judge a book by its neologisms, but the coinages appearing in the first chapter or two of Carl Cederström and André Spicer’s The Wellness Syndrome (Polity) serve as pretty reliable landmarks for the ground its argument covers. We might start with “orthorexia,” which spell-check regards with suspicion, unlike “anorexia,” its older and better-established cousin.

Where the anorexic person avoids food as much as possible, the orthorexic is fixated on eating correctly -- that is, in accord with a strict and punitive understanding of what’s healthy to eat, and in what quantities, as well as what must be avoided as the culinary equivalent of a toxic landfill. It is a sensible attitude turned pathological by anxiety. And in the authors’ interpretation, that anxiety is socially driven: the product of “biomorality,” meaning “the moral demand to be happy and healthy,” as expressed in countless ways in a culture that makes chefs celebrities while stigmatizing the poor for eating junk food.

But diet is only one bailiwick for “wantologists,” somewhat better known as “life coaches,” whose mission it is to “help you figure out what you really want” in life. Cederström is an assistant professor of organizational theory at Stockholm University, while Spicer is a professor of organizational behavior at City University, London. I take it from their account that the wantological professions (there are certification programs) extend beyond one-on-one consulting to include the market in self-improvement and motivational goods and services such as books, workshops and so on. The goal in each case is the combination of physical fitness and positive mental attitude that amounts to an “ideal performance state” for the contemporary employee.

“A recent survey by RAND,” we learn, “found that just over half of U.S. employers with more than 50 staff offer some kind of workplace wellness program,” while 70 percent of companies in the Fortune 200 do so. “In total, U.S. employers spend about $6 billion a year on such programs,” which “are often tied up with employees’ health insurance.”

“Know Yourself, Control Yourself, Improve Yourself” reads one of the chapter subheads, as if to list the slogans from some Orwellian Ministry of Wellness. But where Big Brother ruled through the repression of desire and personal identity, the cultural regime defined by what the authors call “the wellness command” makes every possible concession to individuality and contentment. Indeed, it demands them. Every aspect of life becomes “an opportunity to optimize pleasure and become more productive,” and the experts warn that faking it won’t help: the satisfaction and self-realization must be authentic. We are all the captains of our fates and masters of our souls. Failure to stay healthy and happy -- and flexible enough to adapt to whatever circumstances the labor market may throw at you -- is ultimately a personal and moral failure. So you’d better get some life coaching if you know what’s good for you, and maybe especially if you don’t.

“What is crucial is not what you have achieved,” write Cederström and Spicer, “but what you can become. What counts is your potential self, not your actual self.”  The titular syndrome refers to the cumulative strain of trying to respond to all the wellness commands, which are numerous, conflicting and changeable -- a perfect recipe for chronic anxiety, of which an obsession with eating correctly seems like an exemplary symptom. On first reading, I took “orthorexia” to be the authors’ own addition to the language (like “the insourcing of responsibility” and “authenticrat,” per the tendencies described a moment ago) but in fact it turns out to be an unofficial diagnosis in the running for future lists of psychiatric disorders.

The Wellness Syndrome offers, by turns, both a recognizable survey of recent cultural trends and a collage of insights drawn from more original works of social analysis and theory. Much of it will seem more than a little familiar to readers already acquainted with Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski’s The New Spirit of Capitalism, Slavoj Zizek’s sundry discussions of the contemporary superego, or any given book by Zygmunt Bauman or Barbara Ehrenreich published in the past twenty years. These works are duly cited but the ideas not pushed in any new direction. The common principle subtending them all is that cynicism about institutions or the possibility of large-scale social change creates a privatized, moralistic ideology that traps people into punitive introspection or the fine-tuning of lifestyles. Unfortunately much of The Wellness Syndrome reads as if such trends began under the administrations of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

Alas, no. They were already visible 40 years ago as baby boomers began signing up for weekend explorations in self-discovery with unlicensed therapists who yelled insults at them and wouldn’t let them use the bathroom. Nothing in the new book points to any means or agency capable of changing things in any fundamental way, or even of imagining such a change. Social scientists aren't obliged to be prophets and, of course, they seldom do a very good job when they try; at best they describe and analyze change once it's discernable, not before. But after seven or eight years of shocks and aftershocks from a global financial crisis, it's time for books that do more than put new labels on decades-old problems.


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