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These days, wellness is everywhere — an industry so large, it now outpaces the pharmaceutical industry. It’s captioned in Instagram posts, sold in smoothies and yoga classes, and nearly universally agreed-upon as something we could all use more of. But what is wellness, and how does one achieve it, anyway? Why do we want it so badly? Such is the premise of author and journalist Brigid Delaney’s Wellmania, a glimpse into the now multi-trillion-dollar industry.
“I really noticed a rise in spa culture, retreats, wellness packages,” says Delaney, a senior writer for Guardian Australia, “and I wanted to know what was driving that industry.”
“There’s this guilty feeling, and this feeling of, ‘I need to have more control over how I live,’” she adds. “And so, the wellness industry — whether it’s a 30-day detox, or meal-replacement shakes, or gym memberships — gives us that sense of control back.”
In Wellmania, Delaney’s third book, she sets out to explore the most extreme and noteworthy trends of the wellness industry, trying them out and teasing apart the tried-and-true from the pseudo-science.
“One of the challenges with the wellness industry is to sort out what’s real — what’s actually helpful — and what’s complete B.S.,” says the Melbourne-born author. “What was really interesting [in] doing this book was the huge gap […] between the science and what wellness advocates actually say.”
“One of the challenges with the wellness industry is to sort out what’s real — what’s actually helpful — and what’s complete B.S.” – Brigid Delaney
One of the first things Delaney tries is a 101-day detox — the same that Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull credits with losing weight — in which the first two weeks, dieters are allowed only a mixture of herbs.
“The sales pitch says, ‘you’ll be treated with Chinese herbs that will keep you feeling full and give you all the energy and nutrients that you need.’ And then you actually experience the detox, and it’s horrendous,” she says. “I could barely get out of bed.”
Later, she visits a wellness retreat that claims to condense years of therapy work into one week.
“They’re quite confronting,” says Delaney. “In front of the group, you had to tell them what your biggest shame was. There was primal scream therapy. There was hitting things with rubber bats, lots of yelling… it was the most intense week of my life.”
Some claims are more harmful. She points to Australia’s Belle Gibson, a blogger who falsely claimed to have cured her brain cancer through eating more healthily. She signed a book deal and released an app, The Whole Pantry, only to admit in 2015 that she had never had cancer in the first place.
“That’s where the wellness industry has its darkside. You’ve got people who are desperate for some sort of answer, or cure, or a remedy that doesn’t involve chemotherapy or drugs, then you have someone come along and exploit that need.”
As for what helps? Delaney has an idea or two.
“If I could go back to 2007 and make sure the iPhone never got invented, it would be a different world.” – Brigid Delaney
“It’s very boring, but the kind of well and well-adjusted people are the people that just do kind of what our grandparents did a few generations ago: get a decent amount of sleep, spend time with your family and friends, spend time outside… give up social media,” she says. “If I could go back to 2007 and make sure the iPhone never got invented, it would be a different world.”
Along with that, she suggests, perhaps it’s time for a little less focus on the self — and in turn, greater focus on the whole.
“We have to return to a more communal way of living our lives,” says Delaney, “and nothing feels as good as helping other people.”
Photo of Brigid Delaney by James Brickwood.