Mental wellness is neither a modern concept nor a new practice. Since the beginning of civilization, humans have sought out ways to understand and improve ourselves, to find wholeness and happiness, to comprehend and cope with life’s mysteries, to work toward a moral good, and to please the gods. Over the last 50–60 years, many of these efforts have come to be associated with the pursuit of mental wellness—from meditation to self-help, from stress gadgets to sound baths, and from sleep aids to brain supplements.
All of these practices have deep roots in ancient culture, healing traditions, spirituality, philosophy, and literature, spanning every corner of the globe. However, the commercialization of these products and services and the coalescing of a “mental wellness industry” is a modern development. (See Appendix C of GWI’s research report, Defining the Mental Wellness Economy, for a more detailed history of various mental wellness practices.)
The hippies brought mental wellness practices to a mainstream Western audience.
Almost every mental wellness practice that we know today was brought to a modern, mainstream, Western audience by the hippies and counterculture movement in the 1960s-1970s.¹ In fact, the various labels applied to this era – the “Me Decade,” the “New Age movement,” the “psychedelic era” – illustrate the prominent role that mental wellness practices played during this time. The “New Age movement” captures the exploration of Eastern and occult spirituality, mysticism, alternative lifestyles, and holistic and natural medicine. Meditation and yoga first took off in the West during this era, alongside a resurgence of ancient traditions such as sound healing (e.g., chanting, singing bowls), energy healing, crystals, aromatherapy, worry stones, and more. During the “psychedelic era” there was widespread experimentation with psychedelic drugs, acid trips, and altered states of consciousness. The “Me Decade” (a label coined by author Tom Wolfe²) popularized the concepts of self-actualization, personal well-being, recovery, and spiritual growth, marking the take-off of the modern self-help industry. During this period, many holistic wellness centers, retreat centers, ashrams, communes, and intentional communities sprung up across the United States and Europe, becoming centers for teaching and spreading practices related to mind-body connection, humanistic psychology, self-actualization, and many other fringe mental wellness ideas that have now become mainstream.
Gurus, sages, and celebrities are foundational to the development and spread of mental wellness, bringing both credibility and quackery to these practices.
Guruism is central to the development of many mental wellness practices. Today’s self-help books have their roots in ancient works of literature and philosophy, in which philosophers and sages provided maxims and guidance on how to live (e.g., Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Boethius, Machiavelli, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Rumi). Modern interest in self-help exploded in the 1980s-1990s, as people turned to media celebrities and writers for bite-sized wisdom to address daily problems. Oprah has had tremendous influence in bringing pop psychology and self-improvement concepts to a mainstream, worldwide audience, turning a number of personalities into overnight best-selling self-help gurus. Gurus and celebrities also played a key role in the rise of meditation and yoga, which were introduced to the West in the mid-20th century by Eastern spiritual masters who gave lectures and established communities of followers. In the 1980s and 1990s, yoga and meditation attracted a high-profile following among celebrities and athletes, making these practices hip and bringing them from the fringe into mainstream culture.
Today, gurus and self-help pundits have moved beyond the bookshelf and ashram, creating a multi- media self-help empire: TED talks, television channels, websites, social media, streaming platforms, apps, workshops, retreats, and more. Ever since the first modern self-help book was published in 1859 (Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help), self-help authors have been criticized for quackery and hypocrisy, for being frauds, and for capitalizing on people’s insecurities. Those criticisms have reached an apex today, now that anyone can become a guru if they can collect enough Instagram followers or celebrity endorsements. Some self- help gurus are real psychologists with academic pedigrees, and some meditation gurus have studied with renowned spiritual masters, while others may simply be peddling pseudoscience and hollow promises. It is ever more challenging for people to decipher the difference.
Modern science, medicine, and psychology are starting to catch up and legitimize traditional mental wellness practices.
For most of history, mental wellness practices remained in the realms of spirituality, philosophy, literature, intellectualism, and alternative/traditional medicine. In the last 150 years, advances in the physical sciences, biological sciences, neuroscience, and medicine have brought new discoveries and technologies that are allowing researchers to understand and document whether, and how, many popular mental wellness practices actually “work.” In particular, medical imaging technologies and neuroscience (e.g., EEG, ultrasound, CT scanning, MRI) have paved the way for new research and scientific understanding of sleep, meditation, circadian rhythms, sound and vibration, aromatherapy, psychoactive drugs, and plant- based healing, as well as the critical connections between the mind and the body. In the future, building up a stronger body of scientific and clinical evidence for various mental wellness modalities will continue to be essential in legitimizing their efficacy, bringing them into the mainstream medical and psychological communities as effective treatment options, and encouraging public policy changes and investments in preventive mental wellness strategies. Scientific evidence is also essential to help consumers cut through the “guru culture” and “cult of celebrity,” and to understand which mental wellness businesses, products, services, and solutions are real, and which are just woo-woo pseudoscience.
Technology and media are democratizing access to mental wellness practices, while simultaneously exposing us to mental wellness risks.
Technology and media platforms have helped to popularize and democratize many mental wellness practices, in particular, yoga, meditation, and self-help. In the 1960s and 1970s, Richard Hittleman’s TV programs, such as “Yoga for Health,” introduced yoga to millions of Americans. Through the 1980s-1990s, self-help gurus like Tony Robbins built up millions of new followers via TV broadcasts and infomercials. Bill Moyers’ pioneering 1993 TV documentary, “Healing and the Mind,” has introduced 40 million viewers to mind-body healing practices. Oprah’s media empire brought meditation to millions of mainstream consumers when she promoted Deepak Chopra’s 1993 book Ageless Body, Timeless Mind on her show. Today, mobile technologies, apps, streaming services, and social media are proliferating access to mental wellness concepts, guidance, and programming to new audiences around the world. The most notable trend is the booming business of meditation and mindfulness apps, with an estimated 2,000 new meditation apps launched just between 2015-2018 (and the number is certainly much higher today).³
And yet, technology has a fraught relationship with mental wellness. Our use of technology is increasingly recognized as having a negative impact on our mental and physical health. Our culture of constant connectivity creates stress, reduces sleep quality, and affects our attention and productivity. Screen time and social media usage can reduce the quality of our social relationships, affect childhood cognitive development, and have been linked with depression and anxiety.4
There is a deep irony in apps’ use of activity tracking, gamification, push notifications, and social media sharing to promote a sense of calm
and mindfulness. Sometimes, the most mindful thing we can do is to turn off our mobile phones and all of our digital screens entirely.
Mental wellness has a long but complex relationship with spirituality.
Most of today’s mental wellness practices are rooted in ancient spiritual traditions, but have been adapted by the modern wellness movement into secularized forms. In spite of these spiritual underpinnings, mental wellness has a complex and often uncomfortable relationship with religion. In particular, the spread of secular forms of meditation and yoga have created many controversies in Christian and Muslim religious communities around the world. Simultaneously, the secularization and commercialization of meditation (e.g., its adoption by Silicon Valley and the corporate world as an employee wellness offering and productivity-boosting measure) has been criticized as “McMindfulness,” or the co-opting of Buddhist spiritual practices as a capitalist commodity.5
People around the world turn to prayer and religion as a source of coping, resilience, solace, and emotional and social support. Religion and spirituality are positively associated with emotional well-being and better mental health, and some people see a high level of mental wellness (“flourishing”) as being associated with the spiritual and mystical concepts of self-transcendence and higher purpose.6
And yet, the mental wellness field, the wellness movement overall, and the fields of psychology and psychiatry have all tended to distance themselves from questions of spirituality and religion. This relationship has become even more challenging as our modern era increasingly demands scientific evidence that different health and wellness practices are effective – a movement that is antithetical to the very nature of spirituality. Many aspects of mental wellness are subjective and existential, and they may never be “proven” to the satisfaction of those who are wedded to the existing methods of scientific inquiry.
3 Potkewitz, H. (2018, Dec. 15). Headspace vs. Calm: The Meditation Battle That’s Anything but Zen. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/headspace-vs-calm-the-meditation-battle-thats-anything- but-zen-11544889606.
4 McCarthy, J., Bauer, B., et al (2018, April). Wellness in the Age of the Smartphone. Global Wellness Institute Digital Wellness Initiative. Miami, FL: GWI. https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/initiatives/ initiative-projects/wellness-in-the-age-of-the- smartphone-whitepaper/.
5 See: 1) Purser, R., and Loy, D. (2013, Aug. 31). Beyond McMindfulness. Huffington Post. https://www. huffpost.com/entry/beyond-mcmindfulness_b_3519289. 2) Safran, J.D. (2014, June 13). McMindfulness: The Marketing of Well-Being. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/straight- talk/201406/mcmindfulness.
6 See: 1) Vallas, M. (2015, June 3). The Meeting of Spirituality and Mental Health. Psychiatry Advisor. https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/practice-management/the-meeting-of-spirituality-and- mental-health/. 2) What Role Do Religion and Spirituality Play In Mental Health? American Psychological Association. March 2013. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2013/03/religion-spirituality.