a3nm's blog

Politiser le bien-être

I have read the book Politiser le bien-être by Camille Teste. A possible English translation of the title would be: “Making wellness political”.

I found the book interesting, so I wrote this blogpost to summarize it. Maybe this can help make the book's message available to a larger audience: the book is written in French, and not freely available online. Of course, these notes are just my personal work: I am not affiliated to the author, and they do not claim to be a substitute to the book.

The high-level structure of the book is in three parts:

  • Define wellness as it is usually understood, and present its shortcomings.
  • Analyze how and why activist movements reject wellness, even though wellness can be useful to such movements.
  • Propose how to build a political form of wellness, which can address its limits, support political activism, and enable change.

Wellness and its shortcomings

Wellness can be understood as health in the far-reaching sense of the constitution of the World Health Organization: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” It can also be understood as encompassing various sectors, inspired by the list of the Global Wellness Institute (a wellness trade group):

These practices are a significant sector of economic activity. Indeed, they represent an economy whose worldwide value is estimated by GWI to be $4.9 trillion in 2019, with expectations of growth despite a dip during COVID. This amounts to a few percents of the world economy, which the World bank estimates to $133 trillion in 2019.

So, there is a large industry that aims at making people feel better. What's not to like about it? The book argues that wellness can be criticized in at least three main ways:

  • The need for wellness nowadays is made more acute by the capitalistic system2 which is powering the wellness industry:
    • One leading cause is wage labor, which pushes people to work long hours at demanding and sometimes physically harmful jobs, sacrificing their well-being.
    • More insidiously, we can suffer because of the loss of meaning at work, and the possible harmful effects of one's work on the planet.
    • Other social trends makes wellness more necessary to some groups. For instance, patriarchy has negative effects on the well-being of women specifically, e.g., mental load, social pressure (e.g., to conform to beauty standards), and of course aggression risks. So women are especially in need of what wellness can offer3. One can make similar points about racism. In other words, the wellness industry exists in a system that actively works against the well-being of some people.
  • Well-being practices are normative and not inclusive:
    • They drive away many people who do not conform, e.g., physical practices (yoga, etc.) are not marketed towards people who are too fat according to dominant standards.
    • Also, they are expensive, so they mostly cater to the needs of the rich, even though they are typically not the ones who need it most.
  • Some wellness practices are actually a Trojan horse for problematic doctrines:
    • Essentializing gender or biology;
    • Cultural appropriation of non-Western practices;
    • Quackery, e.g., people favoring ineffective alternative medicine over effective conventional treatments, and facing dire health consequences;
    • Taking advantage of psychologically vulnerable people, e.g., selling them expensive therapy, or enlisting them in cults.

So, the effects of the wellness industry are sef-defeating because they happen in a system that works against wellness; they are misallocated, often problematic, and mostly try to alleviate the symptoms rather than fixing the root causes of unhappiness. The book further points out the deeper problem that our perception of well-being is wrong:

  • The wellness industry leads people to believe that well-being is something that they can buy4, reducing happiness to a financial question: you will be happy if you earn enough and consume enough. This makes us forget about alternatives such as downshifting or simple living: doing less, working less, simplifying our lives, being happy with less, etc.
  • Well-being is presented as a purely individual pursuit, with approaches focusing on the self (think of exercise, dieting, meditation, yoga, etc.). This can give us a fake sense of control, i.e., it gives the impression that we can be happy through our individual actions. However, the wellness industry is in fact neglecting the collective factors of happiness: cultivating meaningful relationships, being connected, feeling helpful, etc. It is also distracting us from the political causes of our unhappiness. For instance, it put individual workers in charge of dealing with their problems (e.g., working conditions, work-life balance), even though these are better understood as a collective struggle (e.g., via labor unions).
  • The individual approach to well-being comes with a form of moral imperative: you have a personal responsibility towards others to become the best version of yourself. Instead, we should see this more at a collective level (again: caring for each other), and at a political level (aiming for a system which would make it easier for everyone to be happy).

This warped perception of well-being is part of a individualistic trend where we are less and less willing to rely on each other5 and to believe in the value of collective action, or even in the fact that collective action is possible.

Wellness and activist movements

Having presented this picture of wellness, the book moves on to the question of how wellness is perceived by activist movements. (The book uses “the left” as shorthand to talk about activist groups that seek to effect change towards some worthy goals, but I find this a bit polarizing so will stick with more neutral terminology.) It starts by a concrete example: a wellness week-end organized by Extinction Rebellion for its members, which drew significant criticism from other activist groups:

  • The spiritual overtones of such initiatives are seen with skepticism because they are perceived as incompatible with a rational, fact-based approach. This may make the movement less effective (e.g., if spiritual practices are substituted to evidence-based practices), and may also harm the credibility of the movement (e.g., on scientific issues like climate change).
  • Further, they are reminiscent of organized religion, but left-wing movements (in particular marxism) typically see religion as a tool used by those in power to justify the current world order (e.g., via promises of a happier afterlife).
  • Last, the use of spirituality by cults, and the closeness between wellness and cultish practices, may mislead outside observers and make them see activist groups as cults.

There are other apparent reasons why, arguably, activist movements should not focus on wellness:

  • Wellness activities are less urgent and less effective than direct action, e.g., an activist group should focus on its goals first and foremost, and not the well-being of its members. Likewise, the public perception of individual activists is often that they should be ready to give everything to support their cause, instead of wallowing in self-care.
  • Focusing on one's well-being is a privilege, and one that the underprivileged typically do not have. Hence, activist movements may be seen as hypocritical if they present to act towards social justice but end up focusing on wellness activities that are intended for their privileged members.
  • In any case, pragmatically, in an individual sense, activism is often tiring and disheartening, so it is often not a good way to be happy.

The book proposes the following retorts to these arguments:

  • The goal of progressist movements should be, ultimately, to promote some form of well-being. In this light, wellness practices are a way to stay in touch with the long-term goals of the movement. It is short-sighted and productivist to aim to effect “maximal change” without stopping and paying attention to the conditions in which this change takes place and which effect it has on the members of the movement6.
  • We should not accept the “warrior monk” image of tireless activist leaders who give everything they have. It is probably influenced by toxic masculinity, given that many of these charismatic leaders are male. In fact, they would often be better inspired to do less, spend less time in the spotlight, and be aware of their own limits, emotions, and weaknesses. Further, activist movements should make it possible for their members and leaders to express vulnerability instead of pressuring them to project an image of flawlessness. In fact, the common perception that activists must be perfect (in French, “pureté militante”) is really a double standard that we should reject.
  • Typically, activists are in need of wellness, more so than the general population. First, activism is often done in addition to a full-time job, so activists will be more busy than non-activists; further, activists are often overwhelmed because there is too much to do for the cause and not enough helping hands. Second, specifically in activist movements that campaign for the rights of minorities, the members often come from the minorities in question, so this is especially hard for them: they must shoulder both the disadvantages that society imposes to that minority, and the work that must be done in order to effect change.
  • In the long term, movements are not effective if their members burn out. Further, if they are too demanding, then they may also scare away potential newcomers. For this reason as well, paying attention to the wellness of activists is a good long-term strategy for activist movements.

In fact, the book argues that it is necessary for activist movements to openly talk about wellness and care. Indeed, there is a risk that this emotional labor will be done anyway in an invisible fashion (and, disproportionately, by women), and that it will not be recognized. Further, the very act of taking care of oneself and of other community members can be a political act, namely, saying that your well-being matters: especially if you are from a minority that society does not care about.

Building a suitable form of wellness for activists

After defusing this criticism of wellness in an activist context, the book concludes by presenting its end goal: developing a notion of wellness which both addresses the problems pointed out in the first part, and can serve activist movements as explained in the second part. That is, wellness should be compatible with the end goal of activist movements (i.e., with the world that they want to make happen), and also be compatible with the path to get there (i.e., it should help political struggle, make activists stronger, and make activist movements more attractive).

The book offers some general guidelines for wellness practitioners (e.g., teachers):

  • Wellness practitioners should strive at welcoming all people, including those who do not conform to the conventional idea of attractiveness. They should make this explicit and visible in their communication, and focus on exercises that all their participants can do, including those who have a disability. This means that, instead of leaving some behind, wellness should cultivate the art of caring for each other and including everyone (e.g., when going for a walk, going at the pace of the slowest person).
  • Wellness should respect people's boundaries: practitioners should only touch participants with affirmative and easily revocable consent, and making it easy to opt-out or leave instead of being trapped by group dynamics. Of course, in the current majority culture, participants may find it difficult to feel what they genuinely want, or to express their needs: for this reason, wellness practitioners should explore communication approaches that aim at empowering participants. The general idea is that participants should not be asked to ”let go” and passively receive what is offered, but that they should be actively choosing what will happen.
  • Wellness should be horizontal rather than vertical. It should not be organized as an all-knowing teacher having hierarchical power over students. It should be more horizontal, with teachers and participants working towards a common goal. It should also aim at empowering students, making them autonomous in the practice, instead of making them dependent on the teacher's knowledge.
  • Wellness should be financially available to those who need it most, e.g., with fees that depend on revenue. Wellness professionals should also think about how they structure their activity, e.g., investigating cooperative models.
  • Wellness practitioners should be careful about which ideology they promote. For instance, they should eschew the law of attraction which claims that wanting something is enough to get it (hence making individuals responsible for their misery by not “wanting” the right things); they should avoid gender essentialism; etc.
  • Wellness practitioners should be aware of the risk of cultural appropriation. This is the situation where Western practitioners teach non-Western practices (e.g., yoga) and often misunderstand them, or bowdlerize them to be compatible with a Western capitalistic worldview.

The book thus identifies deeper positive functions of wellness that are needed in today's society and in activist movements:

  • Wellness approaches can reconnect us to traditional roots that we have lost in the name of modernity and rationality. Indeed, the use of non-Western esotericism in wellness can be understood in a colonial way. Specifically, we have assimilated non-Western cultures, we have essentialized their exoticism, and we give them the role of helping us escape from our purely rationalist worldview, while still considering them as inferior. In the face of this, wellness practices can help us acknowledge the fact that the path to our own well-being is sometimes beyond the reach of rational thinking.
  • Wellness approaches can reconnect us to our body, and remind us that we are embodied beings. They should make us rediscover pleasure, especially physical pleasure, e.g., via sex positivity. They should encourage us take our time and do less, e.g., via silent walks, meditation, etc. They should free us from the tyranny of having to constantly improve, and leave us space to just live. This goes against a productivist view which makes us forget the needs of our body and tame it to follow the rules of the system. They can also help us change our mindset by making our bodies stronger, training them to take more space rather than being subdued (especially for women and other minorities), and teaching them to defend us (e.g., with self-defense, in particular for women).
  • Wellness approaches can make us aware of the true causes of our suffering, in particular systemic causes. They can also help us support one another with our vulnerabilities. They can also help us notice and accept how we are currently influenced by the system that we wish to change. In so doing, they can lead people towards collective political action.
  • Last, wellness approaches can reconnect us to the importance of spirituality. The book argues for a personal form of spirituality, in particular one intended to connect us to nature. It perceives spirituality as a way to give importance to what matters to us, and thus to support political action.

  1. While it is intuitively obvious, is not completely clear to me why wellness does not typically include the commonly understood notion of medicine, e.g., evidence-based medicine. My intuitive understanding is that people see usual medicine with a kind of “problem-fixing” attitude, e.g., curing a disease or addressing a health issue, rather than as a well-being endeavor. Of course, I guess the distinction can be blurry for some kinds of problems, e.g., chronic pain, mental health and its symptoms (sleep...), general well-being, etc. 

  2. One thing that I did not find in the book is a discussion of how economic development, which has happened simultaneously to the expansion of capitalism, may also have made people happier. Indeed, the harmful effects of capitalism should be compared with the effects of extreme poverty that economic growth is arguably helping to eradicate: e.g., starvation, illness, etc. For instance, the book would say that the wealth of Western countries is what draws people to an individualistic lifestyle which can make them isolated and lonely. Sure; however, poverty-induced promiscuity is certainly also an obstacle to well-being. So we can certainly criticize capitalism and its terrible inequalities in wealth, but it is also important to remember global trends: extreme poverty is decreasing, life expectancy is increasing, etc. Further, it does seem that people are happier in richer countries -- though it is not clear that happiness has been increasing over time. My point is that some of these improvements (e.g., in nutrition and health) are hard to separate from capitalism. Specifically, I doubt we would be happier if we completely reverted to a pre-industrial society (with no medicine, scarce food, none of our modern comforts, etc.): I believe a better goal would be to amplify the positive effects of economic development (e.g., better access to food) while addressing the negative ones (e.g., reducing inequalities, harm to the environment, etc.). 

  3. Coincidentally, the wellness industry seems mostly marketed to (rich) women. This is not just because they are unhappier because of patriarchy: it is also, e.g., because they are more incentivized to take care of their appearance, use beauty products, etc. 

  4. This is again a complicated question: I think the common view is that money tends to make people happier but only up to a certain point. Further, many of the contributing factors to happiness cannot be bought directly (e.g., relationships, health), even if money can make it easier for us to focus on them. In any case, certainly it is naive to believe that the way to be truly happy is simply to pay more for wellness goods and services. (Even if, in our capitalist society, I suspect that investing money for one's well-being can also have a purely performative beneficial effect: when we are buying well-being services, we are effectively telling ourselves that our well-being is something worth paying for.) 

  5. Paradoxically, the rise of individualism seems to go together with the development of a sharing economy where we are more and more willing to trust strangers for rideshares, second-hand clothing, vacation rentals... 

  6. Translating this from activist groups to individuals, the corresponding piece of life advice would be the following: if you are trying to be happy in the long run, but are currently miserable because you are sacrificing your present happiness, then maybe you are doing things wrong. 

comments welcome at a3nm<REMOVETHIS>@a3nm.net