Being in my fifties, I’ve been around the wellness industry long enough to see some significant changes emerge. Perhaps one of the biggest shifts has been the rise of mental well-being and the evolution of wellness into a far more holistic model than the one I grew up with. When I was growing up, if you talked about wellness, it was mostly about three things: diet, exercise and smoking—all aspects of physical health. Maybe the fourth thing on the list would have been stress, but only because it was associated with markers of physical health, such as hypertension and heart disease.
Even the spa industry, which often talked about the “mind, body, spirit” trifecta of wellness, has had far too much emphasis on the physical aspects of the experience. Spas usually marketed themselves around the facilities that they offer, the ingredients in their products or the treatment techniques of their therapists, putting the physical aspects of the experience at the fore.
Likewise, modern yoga of recent decades has primarily focused on the physical asana (or posture) practice. Most modern yogis seem to be only vaguely aware that the asana practice represents only one of the eight limbs of yoga—the other paths including things like mindfulness, concentration, ethics and self-awareness.
But in recent years, it feels like things have changed dramatically, and mental wellness has finally risen to the top of the wellness pyramid. I first noticed this a few years ago when I invited a group of students to meet with my team at Mandarin Oriental. I asked them to share their thoughts about wellness and they didn’t talk about diet or exercise or smoking at all. They talked about happiness and anxiety, managing the stress of technology and maintaining good personal relationships.
When asked how they maintain a sense of wellness in their life, they didn’t talk about going to the gym or eating more vegetables. They talked about taking time for rest and meditation, spending quality time with loved ones and taking breaks from technology.
Unfortunately, I think the shift to mental wellness is driven by the fact that our mental health is the most compromised by modern life. We have more or less figured out how to overcome the challenges to physical health (present pandemic notwithstanding) through modern medicine, nutrition and exercise principles. At least, we know what we should be doing to maintain our physical health, even if we don’t always achieve it.
But mental health has become far more elusive thanks to the vagaries of modern life. How do we balance work and family when mobile devices keep us constantly connected to work? How do we find time to process what is going on when the pace of change is faster than ever? How do we manage the overconsumption of information?
The precarious relationship we have with mental well-being has only become more fragile during COVID-19. We are dealing with the fear of a global health crisis, massive economic uncertainty, political discord and divisiveness and increased social isolation. This feels like a perfect storm for a mental-health crisis.
For this reason, mental wellness will be the topic of my column for the year ahead. I will attempt to explore strategies, practices and mindsets that can help us navigate the difficult landscape we find ourselves in. I can’t promise easy solutions because the challenges are real.
Mental wellness is often less about choosing our reality, and more about choosing how we respond to it. We can’t turn off our negative emotions, but we can try not to exacerbate them by stressing about being stressed. As mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Let’s go surfing together, shall we?