Wellness, Happiness and Mindfulness
In the 1850s Dr. John Harvey Kellogg invented Corn Flakes but his reasoning behind the invention is surprising. He was obsessed with sin, and in particular masturbation, seeing bland foods as a suppressor of such appetites. There is more than a touch of the Kellogg motivation in modern wellness, happiness and mindfulness training. We are seen as in need of redemption with deficits that need corrected by HR. We are instructed on how to be well, happy and mindful… as that will lead to greater productivity. How on earth did this happen, that HR became the supposed masters of our innermost feelings?
A battery of techniques has emerged in organisations from the therapy culture that grew out of psychoanalysis and other fashionable social trends in the 1960s, such as meditation. Several narratives underpin these fads; the therapy narrative where all are in need of cognitive cures, deficit narrative where all suffer from some sort of emotional deficit and binary narratives where the language of deficits is reinforced; well - unwell, happy - unhappy, mindful - mindless. Yet, the evidence is strangely absent. What went wrong?
All is not well with wellness
This is a huge business, around $8 billion in the US alone. Yet it is largely based on articles of faith, not research. The first large, randomised-controlled trial of an employee Wellbeing programme suggested they are a waste of money. Jones et al (2018) in their study What Do Workplace Wellness Programmes Do, took 12000 employees, randomly assigned them into groups, but found no “significant causal effects of treatment on total medical expenditures, health behaviors, employee productivity, or self-reported health status in the first year”. This study is important, as it avoids the self-selecting nature of the audiences so prevalent in other studies on wellbeing. The lack of controls renders most studies in this field largely useless as the basis for recommendations.
Did they reduce sickness? No they didn’t. Did it result in staying in your job, getting promotion or a pay rise? No, it didn’t. Did it reduce medication or hospital visits? No, it didn’t. This was true for almost every one of the 37 features studied. The bottom line is that there is no bottom line, no return on investment. The interesting conclusion by the authors of the study is that wellness programmes, far from helping the intended audience (the obese, smokers etc.), simply screens out those who are already healthy, yet the burden of cost is borne by all.
Workplace ‘wellness’ programmes abound, largely surveys and weak documents no sooner read than forgotten. Since when did HR think they have the right to take over the role therapists and responsibility for the emotional welfare of employees? HR, rather than sticking to the worthy role of employee development, pay and rations, has always wanted to be taken more seriously. But what gave them the right to take control of our emotional lives? Why do they think they are qualified to become therapeutic and moral experts? In practice, this often means reading one or two self-help books or a short course run by people who themselves cobble together some evidence-free, PowerPoint and downloaded survey template. In truth it ends up being superficial, if not hollow.
And it is not only in the workplace that therapy culture has taken root. In schools, wellbeing is seen as a necessary condition for learning and attainment. Yet a longitudinal study that looked at the relationship between attainment and subjective wellbeing, measured three times over six months on 807, 790 and 792 students respectively, showed that wellbeing did not predict academic achievement.
In some US Universities, students are asked to sign Wellness contracts. The University of Massachusetts, along with many others, has a Campus Wellness Contract. Undergraduates are asked to sign a contract that commits them to a healthy lifestyle (roughly conforming to white, Christian values). Perhaps the last thing many need at that age of joy, curiosity, exploration and risk, is some contract that turns you into a dull, conformist. Is that the real goal of education, to be ‘well’, as defined by some dull, abstentious benchmark?
Wellness Syndrome by Carl Cederstrom and Andre Spicer, is another welcome antidote to this wave of woolliness. The authors rightly expose it as a faddish syndrome, really a moral obligation and imperative to regulate your feelings and behaviour. The well - unwell, happy - unhappy dualism slips into the good - bad moral imperative. What they posit as the real mechanism for this movement is an appeal to narcissism. It is a programme actually appeals to the ‘me’ in all of us. Their main point is that it is counterproductive. The more you seek wellness, the less well or happy you become.
If you have any doubts about the commercial pressure, remember the Australian ‘wellness’ blogger, Belle Gibson, who lied about having terminal cancer, just to sell her blog and book. Belle is a foolish young girl that deserves pity rather than scorn but many proponents of mindfulness, wellness and happiness are playing a similar game. It is a game that appears time and time again in HR. A book appears, training courses appear, ‘practitioners’ pop up, then an army of HR people get out there promising utopian increases in efficiency and organisational productivity on the back of their own self-propelled beliefs. The whole thing becomes a marketing exercise that uses its own hot air to fuel itself.
The wellness, happiness and now mindfulness debate goes back to the Greeks and reached its peak with Bentham, Mill and subsequent philosophical and political debate around `Utilitarianism’ in the late 19th C. ‘The Greatest Happiness Principle’ led to a definition of happiness in terms of pleasure and the absence of pain. However, Bentham’s ‘hedonic calculus’ proved too primitive and awkward to use in any practical sense. Mill opted for quality, not quantity, with a focus on higher pleasures, but there were still problems of definition, and measurability. The arguments that ‘happiness’ is vague, difficult to measure and cannot be used as a guide for moral or social well-being, remain a problem for positive psychology.
Unfortunately, just as we thought it had receded into history, specious psychoanalysis brought all of this back under another guise; therapy culture. It all started with Freud but it was Rogers and more recently Seligman, that dragged it into the world of education and training. The idea that ‘happiness’ is the sole purpose of life, or even an end-in-itself, seems to have taken root in our therapeutic culture. Life is not a simple calculus of happiness - unhappiness. Even a cursory look at the complexity of human feelings, emotions and behaviour make that idea seem childish. Even Seligman, the pied-piper of happiness, came to reject this simple term and moved towards ‘flourishing’.
Constantly worrying about how well you are is no way to live your life. In these two clever studies, Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness, two groups watched a happiness inducing video. Those who had undergone exposure to ‘happiness’ treatment before watching the video felt worse than those who had not. The authors argue that valuing happiness is self-defeating as the more it is valued, the more disappointed you become. It would seem that happiness expectations can lead to disappointment, and therefore feeling less happy, when faced with real world situations.
Unfortunately HR has caught a bad dose of ‘happy clapping’ and middle managers have latched onto the idea that we should try to engineer this happiness. You see it in the work-life balance debate (read work=unhappy, life=happy). You also see it within organisations, as HR tries to take control of the emotional welfare of employees. Self-appointed armies of mentors, coaches, counsellors and therapists are all over organisations searching for pathological deficits. Everyday emotions and ordinary contention are diagnosed as illnesses and people are offered cures, well bromides. This is not a plea for grumpiness, it is a plea for realism and sanity, before the therapeutic culture starts seeing the whole of society as an asylum full of pathological patients who need to pay for their sins. People deserve dignity at work, fair pay and conditions, a safe workplace and a good work environment. They are adults, not children. my happiness is MY business.
The great Barbara Ehrenreich, in Smile or Die, is one of many who have criticised the rise of positive psychology and thinking. She thinks the ‘wellness’ and ‘happiness’ movement replaces reality with positive illusions. You can think positively but “at the cost of less realism”. Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness was been seen by Ehrenreich as a “jumble of anecdotes” and found his formula for happiness banal: H = S+F+C (Happiness = set range, circumstances and voluntary control). In the Journal of Happiness Studies she reads study after study linking happiness to every conceivable outcome but it is a lop-sided view of the world, with no room for the realism of negative results.
More recently, a particular species of wellness swept through education and corporate training – mindfulness. In truth, it is not new at all. It goes back to Buddhism, Freud, then Rogers and the relentless effort to get therapeutic theory into education. But there is plenty of reasons for rejecting this particular manifestation of the wellbeing madness.
Mindfulness is yet another example of adults taking their new-age, adult fixations and forcing them on the young. It is not as if kids take naturally to such unnatural behaviours, as they are naturally exuberant. Education should be about opening up young minds not forcing them to do things that faddish adults think is right for them. Education is about both mind and body but that means being alive and kicking, socialising with others through play, games and sport. Kids are lively and locking them up for most of the day in classrooms, often accompanied by enforced silence, is bad enough, without forcing them to sit in even more complete, communal silence. They are gloriously alive at that age and should play and learn, be lively and curious, not mimic artificial, adult fads. Education is about both mind and body but that means being alive and kicking, socialising with others through play, games and sport. Kids are lively and locking them up for most of the day in classrooms, often accompanied by enforced silence, is bad enough, without forcing them to sit in even more complete, communal silence. They are gloriously alive at that age and should play and learn, be lively and curious, not mimic artificial, adult fads.
Enforced silence and focus can sometimes be in order, especially when learning to think, reflect and generate meaningful analysis, synthesis and written work but to fetishize non-productive silence as part of self-development, is a stretch. For adults, it represents an easy but illusory solution to what is actually quite difficult, facing up to the fact that many things in life are actually quite difficult and complex. When. The solution is to simply ignore this by periods of forced inaction, we are perhaps exacerbating problems, not solving them.
Mindfulness plays a neat trick. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing as it is actually mindless meditation under the guise of mindful attention. What we need is more mindful, external attention on learning, teachers and other people in learning. This means getting involved, not idle internalizing. It means being alert and attentive, as we know with certainty that outward-looking, psychological attention is a necessary condition for learning. The sort of internal attention that is needed for learning is to do with the coding, elaboration, scene setting, deep processing and practice, especially spaced practice, that leads to cognitive improvement.
The therapy business, and it is very much a business, finds it difficult to define ‘mindfulness’. Some relate it directly to Buddhist meditation, others to reflection on your physiological processes, others to internal cognitive reflection. In fact, it is somewhat contradictory, a stilling of the mind yet a strong sense of presence or attention to self, using a selfless, meditation-based practice. There’s no consistency as mindfulness is many things to many people. This is always a worry and often a sign that all is not well with a practice. It has all the hallmarks of a fad; not evidence-based (in terms of learning), promoted by celebrities and suddenly erupts as the ‘next big thing’. Of course mindfulness will have been long forgotten in a few of years’ time, as another temporary bromide hits the market.
Behind every fad, there is often a book. In this case, it is Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside by David Gelles. His evidence is largely anecdotal, mainly the testimonies of the stressed-out executives who dabble a little in meditation, like it and do a top-down job applying their hobby to their employees. Even when workplace studies are considered they are of such poor design that they can be discounted. The key examples are, of course, companies who have the luxury of trying this stuff out. Already, massively successful, cash-rich companies in tech, health insurance and finance. Google, Aetna and Goldman Sachs - yes Goldman Sachs! Imagine using the company that was instrumental in the financial crisis, disastrous destruction of the Greek economy and participator in Malaysian corruption, to sell the idea of being ‘mindful’. A company that has inflicted financial misery on millions used as an argument for increasing ‘compassion’? This is an Orwellian world, where crooks define good behaviour. Hedge-fund managers are even quoted. Meditate in order to rape the markets but feel good about yourself at the same time.
Ultimately Gelles does not answer the key question, that many of these companies are in the game of making huge profits, avoiding tax. It is capitalism, not compassion that drives them. Mindfulness schemes allow them to mask heir compassion and pretend to be compassionate. These therapeutic approaches in the workplace are fundamentally about PR and money, not mental health. "Militaries round the globe are using it for their snipers,” says Gelles. Well that is good to know. Feel calm while you blow someone’s brains out.
Here is a thought experiment. Let’s suppose you run a factory or hours billable law firm and you are faced with a recommendation for a ‘Mindfulness’ programme, which was recommended as 20 minutes a day. In a 40 hour week you’d have to guarantee a 4.6 % increase in productivity just to break even. Note that in the Gelles book, there is only one solitary example of this being used in a blue collar environment, for good reason. Are we being asked to believe that factories, shops, rubbish collection, bar staff and dozens of other jobs will see these increases in productivity through meditation? Of course not. It is a luxury only the swindlers can justify.
Learning styles, L/R brain theory, whole word literacy, Brain Gym, playing Mozart while kids learn –we have seen this stuff served up in real schools, driven by nothing more than the need for ‘fillers’ in ill-organised INSET days. Education does itself no favours by snatching at these crazes. It opens teachers and trainers up to the sort of unnecessary mocking that their enemies adore. Similarly in organisational training, where adults are increasingly having to participate in what many regard as infantile crazes.
When it comes to the evidence, let’s be careful here and ask the usual questions. What is the source? What was the method? There are far too many self-proclaimed, survey-monkey theorists ready to promote something which they already make a living from. As John Higgins (to be fair a supporter of wellness programmes) says, the evidence for the impact of these programmes is never clear, as “those who took advantage of the programs were likely individuals who already highly driven, motivated, and oriented toward self-improvement”. This has far more to do with the on-going obsession HR has with binary, therapeutic and even Silicon Valley narratives, than science.
The dominant narrative that underlies all three is the therapeutic narrative that goes back to Freud but includes many others, especially Carl Rogers. This narrative lies deeper than the one above, as it draws on a Freudian view of the world that sees almost everyone in need of therapy. It has its origins in Europe but reached its apotheosis in the US and California in particular. Carl Rogers is known as the founder of 'client-centred' therapy and his promotion of counselling. He also had a keen interest in education and his therapy-oriented methods became widely adopted in education and training through coaching and mentoring. His influence can be felt everywhere in the learning world, especially through counselling and therapeutic techniques in education and the workplace.
This narrative refuses to die and has morphed from fairly benign mentoring to more intrusive counselling and now onto wellness, happiness and mindfulness. Descriptive definitions suddenly become prescriptive techniques to be applied to all. Just as the underlying Freudian theory fades, this narrative, the therapeutic narrative, described well by Frank Furedi in Therapy Culture (2004) gets resurrected. Employees are not patients, the workplace is not an experimental therapy sandbox and HR are not psychotherapists.
The language plays into another more general narrative that lies beneath therapy culture – the deficit narrative. The weird assumption that all learners and employees are mentally deficient and in need of therapeutic help from educators and HR has taken hold, resulting in mindfulness, wellness and happiness jargon being bandied about like ant-depression tablets. Well-meaning but , they assume emotional deficits in us all and demand that it be reduced through half-baked, new age fads.
The conceit of therapy culture is that the answer to school attainment or productivity is always more wellness, happiness or mindfulness. The glass is always half empty. We always seem to have deep 'deficits' and his deficit mindset calls for reducing the deficit. What is worse is education and training’s tendency to turn the deficit definition of emotions into something far worse – the pathological definition of education and training, where our emotional well-being and health is a key target for schooling and training. When education and training is seen as a cure and cognitive deficiency a disease, we need to worry.
False binary narratives
We can applaud attempts to make life less stressful and the use of therapy techniques for mental illness but there is a dangerous line that is crossed with wellness, happiness and mindfulness. That line is the push of therapy culture into the workplace. While these three mini-movements are different, they are all part of the same broad pathological narrative, where employees are seen as having something wrong, a form of original sin. The language used betrays the problem.
Wellness v unwell
With wellness or wellbeing, the hidden assumption is that we are unwell and need to be made ‘well’ by whatever craze hits the HR conference circuit. Those who do not take part in dancing to the new company tune are branded as the unwell. It is an odd form of binary benchmarking.
Happiness v unhappiness
With the cult of happiness we have the simplistic ‘unhappy’ versus ‘happy’ assumption. If you are not being made happy, you are dysfunctional and unhappy. In practice, the emotional landscape of all humans is far more complex that this binary suggests. People have complex emotional lives that are tied up with their lives at home and outside the workplace. People are neuro-diverse and rarely fit into this sort of classification.
Mindful v mindless
Note the odd juxtaposition of ‘mindful’ with ‘mindless’. Am I really less fulfilled in my life than those who practice Mindfulness? Mindfulness becomes righteousness when it dismisses the rest of us as falling short of its some self-proclaimed cognitive and moral standard because we don’t practice an obscure meditative technique. That is where the line is crossed, the assumption that one is not mindful if not practicing some meditative technique.
These are precisely the false binary choices that these movements lever to peddle one-sided solutions. It poses mutually exclusive language to artificially bolster a case for the product (usually consultancy or a training course). By all means make the workplace a better place but these simple, binary oppositions in no way reflect the rich and complex mental states of people at work. These programmes assume simple dualisms. Treat people well, respect them, make sure they are fairly rewarded, listen to what they have to say, develop their skills but don't cross that line and become their pseudo-therapist.
Beware of words ending in –ness – wellness, happiness, mindfulness. They are catch-all terms that seem to mean everything but in the end, when implemented by HR in organisations, mean nothing. Life and work is not an illness. There is no problem in anyone choosing to partake in yoga, reflexology, mindfulness, wellness, laughter therapy, happiness – whatever – but that is a lifestyle choice, not a workplace imperative. This lifestyle training is something HR are neither qualified nor suited to manage. Often perfunctory conference talks or potboiler paperbacks on the subject, get turned into designing or buying ‘courses’, with the dubious and non-evidence-based claim that it will transform the business. What is far more likely to solve psychological problems in the workplace are direct actions that reduce pressures, from more equity on pay, professional management, good working conditions to flexible working. It is not the organisations job to solve mental health problems. Indeed this sort of meddling may make things worse.
Jones, D., Molitor, D. and Reif, J., 2019. What do workplace wellness programs do? Evidence from the Illinois workplace wellness study. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 134(4), pp.1747-1791.
Mauss, I.B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C.L. and Savino, N.S., 2011. Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4), p.807.
Yang, Q., Tian, L., Huebner, E.S. and Zhu, X., 2019. Relations among academic achievement, self-esteem, and subjective well-being in school among elementary school students: A longitudinal mediation model. School Psychology, 34(3), p.328.
Seligman, M.E., 2012. Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster.
Barbara Ehrenreich, 2010. Smile or die: How positive thinking fooled America and the world. Granta books.
Furedi, F., 2004. Therapy culture: Cultivating vulnerability in an uncertain age. Psychology Press.
Gelles, D., 2015. Mindful work: How meditation is changing business from the inside out. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.