Well-being Inc.

It’s struck me more than once what an industry well-being is becoming. There’s the politics and economics of well-being, of course, and all the funding that think-tanks and academics can access there. There’s the life-coaching industry, which seems to be getting bigger and bigger. And then there’s the well-being retail industry – the massage therapists, the spa-owners, the holistic holiday retreats, the pamperers, the juicers, the astrologers, the homeopaths and huggers.

On that subject, I came across an interesting article in my favourite publication, ‘Stylist magazine’ (OK, I picked it up on the Tube). Stylist advertised one of its own events at a Mayfair hotel in March. For £45, you can learn how to be a ‘wellness entrepreneur‘: ‘Whatever your wellness business idea, whether it’s yogalates or a new skincare range so natural you can spread it on toast, let Stylist kickstart your vision’. An accompanying article explained the rise of Wellness Inc:

While the wellness revolution has been gaining ground for the last decade, it was the global recession that really kick-started the trend [Stylist magazine likes the word ‘kickstart’] for female-led wellness business: 2008 saw a dramatic 121% rise in bookings for holistic holidays, which was thought to be a response to the credit crunch. Over half a million people in the UK now regularly practise yoga. Wellness is big business, and it’s women who are reaping the rewards.

It may be a billion-pound industry in the UK, but globally Well-being Inc is worth at least a trillion-dollars, according to Paul Zane Pilzer, author of The Wellness Revolution: How to make a FORTUNE in the next TRILLION DOLLAR INDUSTRY. Paul tells us excitedly that, as more and more people become richer, they will spend a greater proportion of their wealth on wellness. Which means more $$$ for wellness entrepreneurs like him.

The New York Times likewise recently predicted a wellness boom:

At a health innovation and investment conference in California earlier this month, there was a lot of energy and excitement about the emerging health and wellness industry. The wellness movement, as it’s called, is seen as both a social phenomenon and a big investment opportunity. At one panel, Nancy Turett, an executive at Edelman, the big PR firm, said the company’s public opinion polling showed that health and wellness was now like “green,” meaning both a personal and social issue in America.

The business case, of course, is that an aging population, new Internet-era technology, and changing attitudes and reimbursement policies will increasingly focus on preventive health and wellness. New technology — low-cost computing, sensors, the Web and genetics — will play a crucial role in the transition.

Check out one example of this ‘new technology of wellness’: a CBT app called Buddy, now being rolled out across the NHS and beyond. I think we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of app / self-monitoring tech in Well-being Inc.

Buddy from sidekick studios on Vimeo.

Of course, we might not actually be getting richer in western economies, so the wellness industry could be hit (then again, we may need a lot of massages to get through the next decade of austerity). But not to worry – the biggest boom for Well-Being Inc., I suspect, will come from the BRIC economies, as they shift from break-neck capitalism to having some surplus cash and time which they can spend on well-being. A report from Ernst & Young, for example, predicted India’s wellness industry will grow annually by 30-35%.

The report classifies the wellness industry into seven core segments within different products and services, such as allopathy, alternative therapies, beauty, counselling, fitness and slimming, nutrition and rejuvenation. “Given the favourable demand and supply dynamics, wellness presents strong business potential,” said Farokh Balsara, partner for advisory services with Ernst and Young.

Unsurprising, then, that those smart people at The School of Life are going global, and launching franchise operations in South Korea, Brazil, Turkey, the USA, and elsewhere. The UK, and particularly Alain de Botton, has pioneered ‘philosophy as well-being techniques’, and now it’s taking that product to all those BRIC consumers searching for inner peace. Clever. That De Botton is a proper entrepreneur – I don’t mean that cynically, I admire it. It is not easy to make money from philosophy, and he has worked out how to do it.

The challenge, I guess, for ‘well-being entrepreneurs’ is how to balance market-savvy with authenticity, integrity, and a respect for quality. As Well-being Inc. becomes a boom market, the ‘experts’ who rise to the top will probably be the ones who shout the loudest and market themselves the slickest – like Martin Seligman in psychology, or Tim Ferriss and Anthony Robbins in self-help. What started off as an alternative to the rat-race becomes just another rat-race, with the obsessive self-promoters coming out on top.

Well-being Inc is trying to present something new, but within the framework of the old consumer capitalist system. So much self-help, as I recently wrote, is a religion for capitalists: an attempt to re-package religious and philosophical ideas and techniques within a hyper-capitalist framework, without ever challenging the tenets of capitalism. In fact, a lot of self-help actively promotes the connection between spiritual fulfilment, personal wealth and career advancement – the adverts for the weekend courses for Landmark coaching or Anthony Robbins, for example, often show people who say that after one course they were instantly promoted at their corporation. In place of the Platonic ascent to God, there is the capitalist ascent to senior manager.

I think there’s an inherent tension and contradiction there. It reminds me of the old argument between Socrates and Protagoras – both of them philosophers, both of them ‘life-coaches’, but Socrates gave his advice away for free, while Protagoras expected payment. As soon as you turn wisdom into a product, Socrates warns, you will attract shysters who will hype their wares and tell their audience whatever they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear.

Very true Socrates. But then you had the luxury of living in a prosperous small community supported by a large economy of slaves. How are the rest of us supposed to make a living?