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Nice work if you can get it

The $4trn quest for a better you

Wellness titan Gwyneth Paltrow, 2020. Rachel Murray/Getty

Wellness is at once “an idealised state of being” and “pure marketing gold”, says Meghan Cox Gurdon in The Wall Street Journal. In her book The Gospel of Wellness, Rina Raphael sets out to find what drives the $4.4trn industry. The ambiguity of the term means “virtually anything” can be attached to it, from turmeric tablets to detox drinks and mindfulness apps. These products may promise to maximise personal excellence, but most of them fail to deliver. “Natural” products are not necessarily safer (they may just rot faster), and no woman needs “gluten-free shampoo” unless she’s planning to drink the stuff. “We would be wise on occasion to consult our brains.”

These products are mostly geared towards middle- and upper-income women. After all, in America they make two-thirds of domestic spending decisions and four-fifths of those regarding health. According to Raphael, they’re especially vulnerable to faddish fixes as their lives are “unfairly hectic” – mothers are denied inexpensive childcare and shoulder the “lioness’s share of domestic labour”. In truth, many Americans are looking to wellness to “supply something it can’t”: a replacement for organised religion. Two decades ago, 70% of US citizens belonged to a church, mosque or synagogue; today, it’s less than half. For Raphael, our resort to “loopy” products – tarot cards, psychic readings and astrology – encourage orientation “toward the self and its narcissistic satisfaction”. “Beware the false promises of false gods,” she suggests.