A lot of the problems I have with wellness are highlighted in Verbinski’s 2016 film ‘A Cure for Wellness’, which centres around what appears to be a wellness cult and its charismatic leader, played by Jason Isaac. It’s been classified as psychological horror, and even that classification unveils the twisted underbelly of wellness and wellness cults. There is something shocking and horrific in this need for so-called purity—for unblemished and flawless skin without a single mark, for remaining forever young, for permanently-happy persons. There’s also something shocking about the racial dynamics at the center; it’s predominantly populated by white middle-aged people, and here the film makes a bold statement on wellness in the modern era—it’s bought by and directed at white people, at a white aesthetic.
The film was reportedly inspired by Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain. The protagonist leaves his family and friends and sets off for a sanatorium, where he seeks solace and wellness under the care of the sanatorium’s chief doctor and director Behrens, who persuades Castorp to stay in order to profit off of him. He lives there for seven years. The book drew on Mann’s 1912 novella Death in Venice, one of my favorite short stories about an older man who becomes infatuated with a young boy while both are holidaying in Venice. As Aschenbach spirals into obsession, Venice becomes riddled with cholera—the epidemic symbolizing the degradation of the old man. The idea of a sick soul engendering a sick mind is not a new one, of course, but the novella is wonderfully written and alludes to tragic classics that mirror its central themes—Aschenbach falls foul of the god Dionysus, who embodies excess and drunken passion.
A Cure for Wellness explores these issues also; a young man, played by Dane DeHaan (who I absolutely loved as Lucien Carr in Kill Your Darlings), seeks to rescue a colleague from a wellness centre in the Swiss Alps he recently fled to, threatening to never return. DeHaan’s protagonist realises pretty quickly that something is amiss at the “wellness” center; the patients never seem to really get better, and they never seem to actually leave. It soon becomes apparent that Isaac’s antagonist is profiting from his clients, and not just in a financial sense. Even the title (how can one be cured when one is well?) plays on the fact that wellness has become deeply entrenched in capitalism, and the two are now intertwined.
I think this capitalist-driven idea that we can buy wellness just isn’t true. Goop, a wellness company founded by Gwyneth Paltrow, sells an $84 amethyst crystal-infused water bottle, a gemstone heat therapy mat for $1,049, and a travel meditation kit for $119. As a freelance writer currently working in a supermarket while trying to save for beginning a PhD, I have no idea how anyone affords any of these things. And the thing is, people can choose to spend their money however they want to. But these products don’t fast-track you to wellness. Do you really need a $40 deck of 52 cards featuring little routes-to-happiness to feel well? I don’t really think you do.
Sure, it might make you feel a little better, but so might saving that $40 and making your own little happiness book, made up of things you know help you to feel better, or donating that money, or spending it on something for a friend. I mean, yes, meditation is really good for you. I think practicing meditation is a beautiful thing. But do you need to spend $119 dollars on a travel meditation kit? No. You can meditate on the grass, on the carpet, on the bathroom floor. Plato, writing about Socrates’ lectures to his followers, didn’t mention that they needed a $68 rose quartz crystal straw to live their best lives. He highlighted that our actions and emotions must be virtuous for us to live a life that is well—wellness not merely shorthand for happiness, but a term that encapsulates good living, living well. Wellness companies sell a watered down “wellness”—they sell the brief happiness you feel in buying a happiness book, but they don’t sell the tools you need to be happy and to live well.
Simply put: I don’t think wellness is found in things.