I am fifty five years old and still occasionally smoke. I admit it’s gone down to about twice a year (usually with my old pal Al, we used to work together as cleaners and called ourselves ‘the scrubbers’ – but that is a story for later). Anyway, those couple of rolled-up fags always taste like the very best of times. I also love red wine, particularly large glasses of Primativo – and full-fat milk. I eat chocolate almost every day. These treats used to be considered quite ordinary, but are nowadays in the realm of decadence. Especially since veganism and well-being hit the mainstream.
I don’t have particularly strong opinions on vegans; it is up to everyone what they put in their mouth, or certainly should be. The 4 percent or so of the UK population who say they’re vegan raise important issues about animal cruelty and intensive farming, though some are loudly contested (see this by rewilding queen Isabella Tree for example). But I digress. Because I save my ire for much of the well-being industrial complex.
4.3 trillion dollars of well-being
Before well-being there was mindfulness. Based on a clearly defined process of mental training and practise, it aims ‘to bring your attention to physical and emotional sensations’. Mindfulness could be poncy, but it was pretty inclusive. Well-being has no agreed definition, nor practise. It is, says the Cambridge dictionary “the state of feeling healthy and happy.” Which is so vague it’s useless. Nonetheless, well-being has become a revenue-busting exclusive business boomer. Across our increasingly jittery and troubled world it generated some 4.3 trillion dollars in 2020 (mainly for rich on and offline gurus). That’s a lot of ice-baths, breath-work retreats and Hot Yoga. For those who can afford it.
So here’s my grievance. Right now well-being is a vaccuous term that many companies roll out ad hoc to show they are doing something to help stressed out underpaid staff. Or it is gift-wrapped for rich people to indulge themselves, expensive hieroglyphics, a ‘journey’ or manifesting that mean whatever the ‘teacher’ claims it does. In the UK there are brilliant local initiatives that strive to support communities. But well-being is also a political issue. Relentless goverment cuts mean many people across the UK have no access to resources nor support to help them become a bit healthier and more joyful. And if this sounds a bit ranty it is because these deprivations have devastating consequences. To cite one haunting example, the single biggest killer of men in the UK under fifty, is still suicide.
speaking as a labrador
Sometimes I describe myself as a human labrador: take me out for a daily walk (please!), feed me a glass of wine a few times a week and some good meals and I’m glowing. But seriously. I recognise that people have different capabilities of happiness (see this by brainbox Yuval Harari). I’m also convinced that enjoying our bad habits is part of the overall mosaic of a good life, so long as they don’t ruin us. It’s good to be flippant sometimes, and silly and to laugh at ourselves. Hey, I start my day with kefir, then beetroot juice and raw garlic. As a wise friend once said to me ‘everything in moderation, including moderation’.
Well-being has a vital role to play, and needs to get out more. To be more defined by and based on practical support for tough challenges like suicide and depression, and democratised (I mean government funded) so it doesn’t only serve to make money but is affordable. Then it can kick ass.
See these resources if you need a nudge, plus these wonderful examples of communities working together. Or try this free online ‘psychology and the good life’ course by Laurie Santos – it’s the most popular class in the history of Yale University (you heard it here first!). Keep up the good and some of the bad habits ‘cos they both matter. Decide what well-being actually means to you, not some online fluffhead influencer. And remember to to be kind. Most of all to yourself.