Wellness Culture Today Forgot About One Giant Idea From the Original 1970s Movement

Wellness wasn’t all colonics and Goop cruises.

Diverse yoga enthusiasts focus on calming breath exercises and meditation on mats by the peaceful ri...
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Today, the wellness industry encompasses a $4.5 trillion commercial enterprise, selling everything from personalized vitamins to sauna blankets and even luxury spas with claims that any one of them is essential to healthy living. But this couldn’t be further from wellness’ origins, argues author James Riley in his new book.

In Well Beings: How the Seventies Lost Its Mind and Taught Us to Find Ourselves, which came out last month via Icon Books, Riley, a lecturer in English literature at the University of Cambridge, uncovers wellness’ roots, which runs at least 50 years deep, and reveals how a once radical practice became “philosophically diluted” into a packaged, purchasable lifestyle.

In Well Beings, James Riley explores how wellness has changed since its advent in the 1970s.

Anna Morrison and Icon Books

Why did you write this book? How did you get interested in wellness?

In 2019, I published a book called The Bad Trip about the cultural history of the late 1960s. After finishing it, I knew the 1970s needed a book of their own. To me, the effort to change the world (the 1960s) gave rise to an effort to change the self (the 1970s). This led to a rise in personal growth centers, retreat centers, alternative therapies, and religious movements. Wellness seemed to mean something very specific in the decade, and something also that we've lost.

How has the concept of wellness changed over the last 50 years?

In the 1970s, there was almost a social agenda connected to it, about the need to engage with one's community. Conviviality was a key idea. Then you are also connected to a much wider social ecology as well. That's the difference between wellness then and wellness now because wellness now is much more reward-based me-time, self-indulgence, and self-examination as a kind of retreat from the world.

What's an important lesson contemporary wellness could apply from the 1970s?

The idea that a good life is also inextricably connected to the lives of others.

Was there a turning point that changed wellness from a radical philosophy into a product?

That business-led, can-we-commercialize-this concept has always been there. I think the shift at the moment is the wide proliferation of heavily entrepreneurial interests. It's become almost obligatory for celebrities, film stars, and social media stars. The next thing after the reality series and the autobiography is some kind of vaguely defined wellness product. The branding is almost like a kind of merchandise for something else. Because it necessitates the podcast, it necessitates the online presence.

Take the Aslan Institute, in Minnesota, which was one of the U.S.'s first holistic wellness centers. The Aslan Institute is still with us, it was started in 1962. The mid-1970s was sort of the peak of its popularity, but also the lowest point in terms of its finances. There were a lot of voices amongst its board members to say, ‘To survive, you've got to make this into a franchise, there needs to be an Aslan Resort across the world.’

Is it possible, in 2024, to pursue the 1970s philosophy of wellness without spending money on products, classes, or experiences?

It is possible. The popular wellness books of the 1970s, such as John Travis’ Wellness Workbook and Arthur Janov’s The Primal Scream, are still available.

It becomes a problem when some of these resources become income-dependent. You can’t just get a therapist. That is where institutional support comes in. In the same way that you can go to a machine and get some coffee, there needs to be that level of convenience in terms of these other resources. We also have a sense of terror for being mollycoddles, which is nonsense. But also there's all that infrastructure that's currently there is based around you meeting the bar of expectation and performance. That’s what needs to be the paradigm shift.

Has there been any scientific investigation into 1970s-era practices, like primal screaming, that refutes or supports those practices as effective?

There have been British Medical Association analyses and evaluations that find them not without usage, but there's nothing in primal scream therapy that you can't get from another form of psychodramatic-based practice and therapy. The contemporary retrospective reassessment is not to say that people can't get any benefit from doing this. It's the fact that there's no measurable additional benefit from expressing oneself in this particular way that you cannot get from another form of talking-based or person-based therapy.

What aspects of 1970s wellness could be improved?

The gender balance of it and the racial balance as well. That’s to say a lot of the practitioners are white and male.

I think one of the most productive takes on it [is] the work that the Black Panther Party was doing in Oakland in the 1970s. They talked about self-care, but they didn't mean it in terms of me time. The Black Panthers were during the 1970s running community clinics, and they were running ambulance services within their community, for example. They talked about ministering to the community, body, and soul, which is similar to what the wellness practitioners were talking about in terms of mind, body, and spirit.

Contemporary wellness now goes to extreme levels that encompass practices like biohacking to attempt to cheat death. Should we put limits on what wellness tries to do? Or should we push boundaries as far as science will let us?

If we were to look back to the 1970s, they're not preaching a discourse of immortality. What they're talking about is what constitutes a good life. For example, Donald Ardell’s (a pioneer in the wellness movement of the 1970s) perspective is not, ‘How can I hack my brain so I can live forever?’ His perspective is ‘How can I live the best life that's possible to me?’ He’s saying, ‘This is the amount of time that you have, and your time is limited.’ How can you make the best use of that? It's not about the live fast, die young sort of thing. It's not about, ‘be hedonistic because that's all you can do.’ It's about thinking carefully about what actually constitutes a good life.

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