The twisted logic of biomorality

The Wellness Syndrome is a new book, published this year, that explores the growing trend of “wellness”: an increasingly obsessive pursuit of happiness. The authors argue that “the ever-present pressure to maximise our wellness has started to work against us, making us feel worse and provoking us to withdraw into ourselves”. The book follows obsessive individuals who calculate and measure almost every aspect of their lives in the pursuit for wellness. Below is a condensed and edited extract:

Today, wellness is a moral demand about which we are tirelessly reminded. To be a good person, as Hervé Juvin reminds us in the epigraph, is to constantly find new sources of pleasure. It means turning life into an exercise in wellness optimisation. At work, we are offered a place on “wellbeing programmes”. As consumers, we are required to curate a lifestyle aimed at maximising our wellbeing. When we engage in boring activities, such as washing up at home, we should think of them as improving our mindfulness. Even baking a loaf of bread is now recast as a way of nurturing our wellbeing.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives us two definitions of the word “syndrome”. The first refers to “a group of symptoms that consistently occur together”. Keeping this definition in mind, we can say the wellness syndrome refers to symptoms such as anxiety, self-blame and guilt – to name a few. As we see throughout the book, the wellness syndrome is based on an assumption about the individual as someone autonomous, potent, strong-willed and relentlessly striving to improve herself. This insistence that the individual is able to choose her own fate, we argue, provokes a sense of guilt and anxiety. We are thought to be in control of our own lives, even in situations where circumstances are not in our favour. Jobseekers experience this in difficult economic times when they are told not to mention the crisis, but instead to focus their attention on themselves.

Finding a job, they are told, is about willpower and choice.

Not time but energy
“Our most important currency is not time but energy. It is easy to keep people at work around the clock. Minds are willing. You have to fight the biology.”

This is how one banker described his workplace when interviewed by academic and former banker Alexandra Michel. Like his colleagues, he would work 120 hours a week, sleep little and have almost all his bodily needs catered for by the company.

For one junior banker, the bank is “like an artificial world. Instead of going home, after 5pm, people switch into leisure clothes, turn on the music and the firm orders dinner for you. Ironically, you end up working a lot more because it is convenient.” One banker described his work “like a psych experiment where the light is always on”.

Another new management health fad is the walking meeting. In a recent TED Talk, technology executive Nilofer Merchant warned “sitting has become the smoking of our generation”. Echoing the concerns of many others, she points out how much time we spend sitting each day (9.4 hours for the average American) and the negative health consequences this has. To combat the sin of sitting, she suggests business people “kill their meeting room” and opt for “walking and talking”. This has clear health benefits, creates better connections between team members and turns people’s attention from the potential escape of their mobile devices.

Walking meetings
Walking meetings are also thought to do more. A Huffington Post article notes “little diversions, like catching sight of a beautiful bird, could be the spark your brain has been waiting for to unleash that brilliant idea”.

A further step to blurring working in and working out is in office equipment: the treadmill desk and its cousin, the bicycle desk. The former allows employees to walk slowly while they continue to work at their desk. It was invented by James Levine, an endocrinologist who became concerned about the health risks of people’s increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Attaching a treadmill to a workstation, Levine aimed to get people working out while working. Google, Microsoft and Hyatt-Marriott have purchased these work(out) machines. They have also proved popular with home-based freelancers.

Richard Klein, author of Eat Fat, says: “In our culture, fat is evil. Eating it or wearing it, feeding it or bearing it is a sign of some moral deficiency. Aesthetically, physically and morally, fat is a badge of shame.”

Such obsessive attention lavished on diets and cookery reminds us eating has taken on a new meaning. As Pascal Bruckner (whose work focuses on society and culture) puts it: “The dining table is no longer the altar of succulent delights, a place for sharing a meal and conversation.” It has become “a pharmacy counter where we keep an eye on our fats and calories and conscientiously eat food reduced to a form of medication”.

Improved wellness
All of the pleasures we used to indulge in are now pleasures with one ultimate objective – to improve our wellness. Wine or fat are fine, if you can fit them into your wellness plan. As Steven Poole suggests in You Aren’t What You Eat, food has become our ideology. For foodists, eating is more than just a lifestyle; it is a metaphysical adventure.

Having lost our faith in politicians and priests, Poole argues, we now turn to celebrity chefs and nutritionists to find answers to the big questions. And, unsurprisingly, given the importance that foodism attributes to eating correctly, the obsession with this – orthorexia – has become a new idiosyncratic disorder. (Medical research organisation Mayo Clinic defines orthorexia as an obsession “with the ‘perfect diet’?”. People “fixate” on eating food that makes them feel “pure and healthy” while obsessively avoiding any “unclean” foods.)

The kind of pathos that so often leads middle-class reformers such as Jamie Oliver to suddenly recognise the suffering of the world and declare that “something must be done” is channelled into ever narrower furrows. While this leaves many of the broader – and arguably more vital – issues of true political importance off the table, it allows the incensed middle-class activist to think that he or she has indeed done something worthy and concrete.

Such is the logic of biomorality: it gives a sense of smug righteousness, making you think you’re on the right side of the moral law. If only people would be more like you – or Jamie Oliver – the world would be a much better place. Not just a happier place, but a healthier place too.

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