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  • Writer's pictureRicky

What the hell is Wellness?

The first “fun” feature I ever put on my website was Well-Being in the Wild. Since I was writing a dissertation on well-being anyway, I decided I would take a picture of the word ‘well-being’ wherever I found it outside and try to give it a snarky caption.

But over the past couple years, the well has run dry. No one uses the word ‘well-being’ anymore.

I thought this feature had run its course.

And what the hell is ‘Wellness’ anyway?

I always tell my students they should not begin an essay by quoting the dictionary, because dictionary definitions aren’t high-powered enough to do serious philosophy.

A dictionary definition is pretty good for giving us a sense of how people tend to use a word in practice. But our usage is often confused and contested. In these cases, the lexicographer who’s trying to unify our usages in a quick summary probably should be philosophically imprecise.

That’s why the dictionary can’t tell us what words ‘really’ mean, read more Dworkin, loser!

In my dissertation, I define my well-being as describing what’s ultimately good or bad for me. But that deceptively simply definition is the result of a long process of comparing existing definitions, addressing familiar critiques, and developing my own criticism that most definitions fall into one of two broad camps.

It took a long time for me to come up with a definition that was broadly continuous with previous usages, rigorous enough to do the work I needed, clear enough to distinguish ‘well-being’ from ‘self-interest’ in a useful way, and so on. It still takes two chapters for me to set up enough background to make the significance of this definition clear.

Anyway, defines ‘well-being’ as

noun 1. a good or satisfactory condition of existence; a state characterized by health, happiness, and prosperity; welfare:

This definition ends up making a ton of really controversial assumptions.

You can just take my word for it, but if you really wanna get in the weeds of my dissertation, let’s dig in!

  • If well-being is “a state characterized by health, happiness, and prosperity,” are those the only things at play? (Is the Hedonistic Theory—according to which only happiness ultimately matters—just definitionally false?)

  • What kind of thing is well-being anyway? Is it really “a state”? (Aristotle says well-being resides in action…)

  • If well-being is “a good or satisfactory condition of existence,” does that mean nothing’s good or bad for me once I’m dead? (I argue no in my dissertation, as long as I still exist ‘biographically.’)

  • Are ‘well-being’ and ‘welfare’ really just two ways of picking out the same thing? (I spend a whole chapter of my dissertation trying to clear up the relationship between these two…)

Wow it sure is hard to write a definition that won’t piss off a philosopher.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many philosophical definitions around. Even Elizabeth Barnes’s 2023 book Health Problems only mentions ‘wellness’ once! And a philpapers search looks unpromising:

This word is so new we have nowhere better to turn. So here’s’s definition of ‘wellness’:

noun 1. the quality or state of being healthy in body and mind, especially as the result of deliberate effort. 2. an approach to healthcare that emphasizes preventing illness and prolonging life, as opposed to emphasizing treating diseases.

Oh wow my brain hurts.

Definition no. 1 says ‘wellness’ = physical + mental health, with a moralistic side of personal responsibility.

Wow that’s like well-being but much worse and narrower and judgier and medicalized. Thanks I hate it!

The second definition is even weirder.

Definition no. 2 says wellness is an “approach to healthcare” (Like a framework for thinking about what healthcare is? Or for improving healthcare? Or practicing it?) in which we focus less on treating disease and more on avoiding illness and death.

That’s so weird I can’t even paraphrase it without messing it up, I have to plagiarize the position or I strawman it.

So you’re trying to care for my health without thinking in terms of treating disease. Instead I’m supposed to avoid illness (How do I do that? What if I have a chronic problem, like…a disease??) and postpone death (Wait how do I do that? Is this about hitting the gym more often??)

I think we really started saying ‘well-being’ way more during Covid, but ‘well-being’ is actually super open-ended—we’re talking about anything that could harm or benefit you. That includes grave injustices like hate speech and police brutality.

After the height of the Pandemic, the word ‘well-being’ was quietly replaced with a subtly different term that medicalizes the concept, individualizes your responsibility for it, flees from illness and death without seeking to treat disease, and elevates the surface-level signs of health over the deeper questions of what it means to be well. Welcome to neoliberalism, enjoy your full $1400, do not pass Go.

I don’t know, I’m close-reading a dictionary definition, which is like two steps away from close-reading a horoscope. Maybe it’s a fool’s errand to try to reconstruct a historical narrative in which the overnight, near-total replacement of a good word with a shittier one makes sense.

But at least I have something new to track. And that means Well-Being in the Wild is doing better than ever: Now its life has a purpose.

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