TV programmes, podcasts, blogs, diets and even holidays promise personal growth and self-improvement, yet we’re more miserable than we’ve ever been. Is the road to holistic happiness actually taking us where we want to go? asks Maresa Manara
‘Wellness’, holistic health and egg-white omelettes... Could all this striving to be better actually be making you miserable?
Thirteen years ago Andrew Hampson was living the high life, cruising through Sydney’s flash seaside suburbs in a convertible BMW. He deserved the Dh535,000 annual salary and tailored suits, the rewards of his job as sales manager for Fuji Xerox. Fulfilment and happiness were laid out before him; yet no matter how high up the corporate ladder Andrew climbed, he couldn’t quite reach them.
“I went travelling and when I got back I felt suffocated in the corporate world, where all anyone cared about was their next promotion or buying the newest car,” says Andrew, 45. “I resigned and trained as a yoga teacher. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t question the decisions I made on one or two occasions, but the truth is I’m a lot happier.”
Andrew is one of around 300 million ‘wellness consumers’ worldwide – a growing group of people looking to enrich and change their lives through activities including yoga, massages, detoxes, healthy eating and wellness retreats. It’s big business. According to US research institute SRI International, the wellness industry will be worth around $10 trillion (Dh37 trillion) by 2020 – a staggering figure if you consider that 40 years ago it barely existed at all.
Yet over those four decades since ‘wellness’ dropped into our household lingo, life’s got busier and stress has skyrocketed. Depression and associated mental illnesses are on the rise globally, according to theWorld Health Organisation, with an estimated 350 million people thought to be affected, and a recent report by the Office of National Statistics said one in five UK adults suffer from depression. Which begs the question: with so many options promising to make us better, why are we actually feeling worse?
A material world
“Depression is more common these days, mainly because our coping abilities are not as strong as they were before,” says Mary John, clinical psychologist at the Dubai Community Health Centre. “This is also due to a lack of strong bonding in relationships, and a lack of a close-knit network of good friends to care and offer genuine support.”
Sonja Lyubomirsky is a psychology professor at the University of California and author of The How of Happiness and TheMyths of Happiness. She says many people look for temporary happiness through material wealth and possessions, rather than making personal investments for long-term satisfaction.
“A lot of people think ‘when I buy that house I’ll be happy, when I move to that city I’ll be happy, when I have a baby I’ll be happy’,” she says. “Those things do make us happy, but they don’t make us happy forever. We adapt to what we have and then we want more. This pressure actually makes us less happy. The best way to bring happiness is not to focus directly on it; so being generous, thoughtful, learning new skills and doing kind acts for others make people happy for longer.”
But for plenty of stressed-out professionals, a detox holiday on the sunny shores of Antigua is far more
appealing than helping out at the local charity. We want people to make us feel better, not the other way around, and we’re willing to pay a lot for them to do it.
Wellness retreats – which can mean anything from yoga on the parched plains of Seville to massages beside Balinese rice paddy fields – cost thousands of dirhams, yet do we still reap the rewards once we’re back slumped at our desks, with our nutritious egg-white omelettes replaced by canteen doughnuts?
Some certainly think so. “You really see people transformed over the space of the week, the exhaustedlooking faces and furrowed brows go, they lose weight, catch a bit of sun,” says Kathryn Brierley, founder of The Healthy Holiday Company.
There are no easy answers
Some people believe that wellness retreats are simply grasping at easy answers – the psychological equivalent of slapping a plaster on a broken leg. “Patients come to us doing yoga, meditation, diets and gym every day,” says Mary. “They’re still anxious and when you look into their history you see they haven’t sorted out the cause of the problems. These things will definitely help in calming their nerves, but no amount of these will help unless you deal with the root problem.”
Another wellness cynic is Tanya Mah. The 29-yearold has done yoga-teacher training in Bali and visited spiritual teachers in Africa, yet she still feels the pressure of modern life weighing on her. “I’ve had huge anxieties over not being good, successful or capable enough. The pressure isn’t coming from anybody else – I created it,” she says. “I’ve set my own standards and expectations, some are working for me and keep me motivated and striving for more. Others are debilitating and annoying.”
So the question is, has our obsession with wellness become a distraction from the bigger, more serious psychological problems we all face? “It’s important that a mental health professional is consulted and a clear diagnosis made before any type of treatment is planned,” says Mary. “Spas, massages, retreats and yoga are all good for relieving stress, but not when it’s affecting our mental health. A wrong diagnosis and wrong management technique could lead to bigger problems.”
Back in Sydney, it’s 3pm and Andrew is leaving his studio for a late afternoon ocean swim. His gamble has paid off. Promotions and partnerships had been sparkling on the horizon, but rather than settling for the superficial, Andrew changed his lifestyle from the ground up.
“I have no doubt that if I was still at Xerox I’d be that guy driving that expensive car and yes, I might be happy with three fabulous holidays around the world each year,” he says. “But while I certainly earn a lot less money now, I really enjoy my lifestyle and I’ve made a difference in a lot of people’s lives.”
Andrew Hampson, above, swapped a high-paid job in a multinational to become a yoga teacher; whereas Tanya Mah, this picture, is still searching for happiness despite her wellness activities