Are we in the midst of a wellbeing pandemic? The question may seem curious, even contradictory. But look around, the concept is everywhere and spreading: in the media, in government institutions and transnational organizations, in schools, in workplaces, and in the marketplace.
To be clear, it's not just wellbeing's infectiousness in public discourse that makes it pandemic-like. It's also the genuine malaise that can be caused by the term's misuse and exploitation.
Do you sense, for example, that your wellbeing is increasingly being scrutinized by peers, managers, and insurance companies? Are you noticing an increasing number of advertisements offering products and services that promise enhanced wellbeing through consumption? If so, you're not alone.
But we also need to ask whether this obsession with wellbeing is having the opposite to the desired effect. To understand why, it's important to look at the origins, politics, and complexities of wellbeing, including its strategic deployment in the process of what we call "wellbeing washing".
The halo effect
While concerns about wellbeing can be traced to antiquity, the term has emerged as a central feature of contemporary social life. One explanation is that it is often conflated with concepts as diverse as happiness, quality of life, life satisfaction, human flourishing, mindfulness, and "wellness".
Wellbeing is flexible, in the sense that it can be easily inserted into a diverse range of contexts. But it's also surrounded by a kind of halo, automatically bestowed with a positive meaning, similar to concepts such as motherhood, democracy, freedom, and liberty.
To contest the value and importance of such things is to risk being labeled a troublemaker, a non-believer, unpatriotic, or worse.
These days, there are two main concepts of wellbeing. The first – subjective wellbeing – emphasizes a holistic measure of an individual's mental, physical, and spiritual health. This perspective is perhaps best reflected in the World Health Organization's WHO-5 Index, designed in 1998 to measure people's subjective wellbeing according to five states: cheerfulness, calmness, vigor, restfulness, and fulfillment.
Translated into more than 30 languages, the overall influence of the WHO-5 Index should not be underestimated; both governments and corporations have embraced it and implemented policy based on it.
But the validity of the index, and others like it, has been questioned. They're prone to oversimplification and a tendency to marginalize alternative perspectives, including Indigenous approaches to physical and mental health.
The second perspective – objective wellbeing – was a response to rising social inequality. It focuses on offering an alternative to GDP as a measure of overall national prosperity.
One example of this is New Zealand's Living Standards Framework, which is guided by four operating principles: distribution, resilience, productivity, and sustainability. These new and purportedly more progressive measures of national economic and social outcomes signal societal change, optimism, and hope.
The trouble with such initiatives, however, is that they remain rooted within a particular neoliberal paradigm in which individual behavior is the linchpin for change, rather than the wider political and economic structures around us.
Arguably, this translates into more monitoring and "disciplining" of personal actions and activities. Intentionally or not, many organizations interpret and use
wellbeing principles and policies to reinforce existing structures and hierarchies.
Consider how the wellbeing agenda is playing out in your organization or workplace, for example. Chances are you have seen the growth of new departments, work units or committees, policies and programs, wellness workshops – all supposedly linked to health and wellbeing.
You may even have noticed the creation of new roles: wellbeing coaches, teams, or "champions". If not, then "lurk with intent" and be on the lookout for the emergence of yoga and meditation offerings, nature walks and a range of other "funtivities" to support your wellbeing.
The danger is that such initiatives now constitute another semi-obligatory work task, to the extent that non-participation could lead to stigmatization. This only adds to stress and, indeed, unwellness.
Deployed poorly or cynically, such schemes represent aspects of "wellbeing washing". It's a strategic attempt to use language, imagery, policies, and practices as part of an organization's "culture" to connote something positive and virtuous.
In reality, it could also be designed to enhance productivity and reduce costs, minimize and manage reputational risk, and promote conformity, control, and surveillance.
Ultimately, we argue that wellbeing now constitutes a "field of power"; not a neutral territory, but a place where parties advance their own interests, often at the expense of others.
As such, it's essential that scholars, policymakers, and citizens explore, as one author put it, "what and whose values are represented, which accounts dominate, what is their impact and on whom".
Because if wellbeing is becoming a pandemic, we may well need the "vaccine" of critical reflection.
Steven James Jackson, Professor and Co-Director, New Zealand Centre for Sport Policy & Politics, University of Otago; Marcelle Dawson, Associate Professor of Sociology, Gender Studies and Criminology, University of Otago, and Michael Sam, Associate Professor of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Otago