No one who dislikes their work or partner will offset the pain by mastering sleep, fitness or nutrition
“I shall not waste my days,” said Ian Fleming, quoting Jack London, “in trying to prolong them”. The studied loucheness of the epigram would grate had he not lived a life so unwaveringly faithful to it. Gonorrhoea at 19, death at 56, the uncountable Morlands that he smoked in between — the Rake of Oracabessa mastered the lost art of what we can only call unwellness. Oh, for its return. In the 1970s, medical researchers evolved the concept of Quality-Adjusted Life Years.
What mattered was not how much longer a treatment would keep someone alive for, but whether that extension was free from pain and distress. The hard-won reprieve was meaningless if it entailed a living hell. The modern cult of wellness ignores my own path-breaking addition to science: Pleasure-Adjusted Life Years. A brief, decadent existence can contain more “life”, I submit, than one that is prolonged by fastidious habits and Lenten self-denial. I calculate that, in PALYs, Fleming lived until he was around 90. Christopher Hitchens crammed 85 years into his nominal 62. Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones and other members of the 27 Club were all but centurions.
As for Isadora Duncan, she is more or less eternal. A stickler for wellness, on the other hand, a customer of Goop, might never see 30. If its betrayal of the pleasure principle were the worst thing about wellness, it would at least have a kind of austere honour going for it. Much worse is its dishonesty. The idea that tactical adjustments to one’s lifestyle can aggregate into deep wellbeing is the meanest of Paltrowism’s decrees to the credulous. It takes minimal life experience to know that happiness comes from a small number of disproportionately important things.
Perhaps as few as two. One is a fulfilling job. The other is a vital private life, which could mean, according to taste, devotion to one person or what George Michael hailed as “fast love”. Anyone who has these areas covered will have to put in an absolutely catastrophic showing in every other field of life to end up with a sense of overall disaffection. And the inverse is even truer. No one who dislikes their work or partner will ever offset the pain by mastering sleep, fitness, nutrition, digital abstention and other lifestyle marginalia. Lots try.
The problem with wellness is not its lapses into quackery and anti-science, then. It is that even the most rigorous of its advice tends to address the peripheral. There is a mismatch between the grandeur of its ambition — inner peace, transcendence — and the pettiness of its means. This manifests in the very 21st-century spectacle of people with dismal jobs or romantic lives obsessing over fractions of a percentage point in their daily screen time or Fitbit record. Never have so many so sweated such small stuff. True, there is something of elite sport in this eking out of marginal gains in bodily and mental sharpness.
The difference is that Team Sky and Bayern Munich know they are aiming to win narrow competitions in ultimately meaningless fields of endeavour. The wellness racket believes it is engaged in nothing less than the uplift of the human condition. Wellness 2020 Healthy lifestyles and ways to improve your well-being are explored in a series this week Part one Mountain refuge Part two Sleep tracking Part three Inside the happiness industry Part four Simon Kuper on drinking Part five Is art good for you? I can understand why people, including some of the least naive I know, pay good money to partake of this hokum. The alternative is to accept how much of life is shaped by one or two strategic decisions.
These determine what we do for around nine hours a day and what we come home to. Get them wrong, and very little can compensate for the loss in happiness. One foolish A-level choice or impetuous marriage is all it takes. Even scarier is that these are often not decisions at all so much as matters of chance. If they are reversible at all, it is at tremendous cost. What wellness supplies is the illusion of control. It promises that, with enough effort, enough attention to detail, a person can engineer a radically better life, well into middle age and beyond.
In truth, and in most cases, the improvement will be as small-bore as the means. A more candid industry would say so. Our wellness is set much earlier than it pretends, in fewer moments than we can bear to believe.