Understanding global wellness in relation to social and economic status

This essay was inspired by Andreas Braun’s keynote at The Global Wellness Summit, which was held Oct. 17–19, 2016, in Tyrol, Austria. It is published by permission of the Global Wellness Summit.

One of the most insistent arguments, resounding through most sessions at the 2016 Global Wellness Summit was the need for wellness to reach beyond rich elites, according to the Global Wellness Summit Report, 8 Wellness Trends for 2017—and Beyond.

Leading economists painted the new—sudden—global picture: a world where a rising sense of unfairness is unleashing a global storm of populism. Economist Thierry Malleret, Founder, The Monthly Barometer, presented a keynote that explored a crucial paradox: In a world where global economic abundance has never been higher, why is not only global un-wellness—such as obesity and mental illness—rising, and why is a wave of populist conservatism underway.

Malleret postulated that it’s not as simple as how well nations or individuals are doing economical—a simple matter of richer or poorer—but the fact that humans are hardwired down to our DNA for fairness.

And a rising, global sense of unfairness is unleashing a whole lot of unhappiness.

We all need global wellness

We All Need Wellness

What are ghettos of wellness? You know them—people flying to that dreamy tropical island for a stay at a dreamy, five-star wellness retreat and driving past slums as they enter the gates.

Or you might wonder if that amazing local practitioner is actually being paid just a few dollars while the resort is charging you over $200 for a 90-minute massage.

Ghettos of wellness exist in all the things you can now purchase in the name of wellness in our ever-richer, gentrified global cities, against the backdrop of ever-sharpening income inequalities beyond that city—and worldwide.

The media has two distinct voices when it reports on wellness. One is the avalanche of stories and blogs on the latest trends that the beautiful, young elites are adopting. The second is a rising, smart, mini-industry of wellness bashing.

That second media argument: The pursuit of wellness is intrinsically a culture of narcissism, an inward-turned obsession with self-optimization at the expense of real socioeconomic change.

While reducing wellness to its richest, sometimes grotesque, varietals is increasingly understandable; it is, of course, not quite accurate.

It’s the growth of the global middle class that’s most fueling growth for the vast, $3.7-trillion wellness market. (This is according to the Global Wellness Institute’s new research on the seemingly unstoppable expansion for the healthy food, beauty, fitness, alternative medicine, spa and markets).

However, throwing out the wellness-and-prevention concept with the elitist bathwater is a terrible idea, evidenced by stats like the number of obese and overweight people more than doubling since 1980, to almost 2 billion adults, according to the World Health Organization. Preventable diseases like heart disease are now the world’s top killers.

Inequality of Well-Being

With the latest United Nations World Happiness Report showing a disturbing increase in the last few years in people’s perceptions that there is now more inequality of well-being, you can feel the criticism of a wellness industry overly preoccupied with serving rich elites start to ratchet up.

We live in an age of socioeconomic wake-up calls, with new, world-shocking evidence of what perceived gaps between the happy and the unhappy, the elites and those who revile them, can actually do.

Global Wellness Summit experts discussed several key ways that the wellness industry must—and will—change in this new world:

  • More giving back and doing something to bring more wellness services to more people. And if many wellness businesses already have charitable initiatives, the future is a giving-back and community-building model baked deep into the business model.
  • A new Wellness Tourism 2.0, where wellness is not merely the province of elites behind the resort’s gated walls. The future is a shift from a property focus to developing and promoting towns, regions, and even nations, where more authentic, comprehensive wellness is packaged: from positive environmental policies to access to sustainable, healthy food to broader social justice, benefiting tourists and locals alike.
  • A proliferation of lower-cost wellness products and services: from a new spate of affordable, healthy grocery stores to low-cost spa chains.
  • A focus on the well-being of employed practitioners who actually deliver all this wellness. So, lower prices, still, but a conversation about fair price and the state of wellness labor as well.

Giving more for global wellness

Give More

The future of well-being is every profitable wellness business giving more to communities, charities and those in need, and bringing more wellness services to people who can’t afford them.

As Columbia & Oxford Universities Professor Gerry Bodeker, Ed.D., M.S.C., said at the Global Wellness Summit, it can be as simple as spas figuring how many hours a week their therapists just sit there, and sending them out to eldercare facilities or women’s shelters. Everyone, from massage therapists to yoga, meditation and fitness teachers, needs to take what they do outside of their narrow pasture.

For instance, the Beauty Becomes You Foundation sends spa and salon therapists—who donate their time—out into the senior community to deliver desperately needed touch and aesthetic services.

The nonprofit Yoga Gives Back has organized so that the yoga community gives back to the poorest mothers and children in yoga’s home, India, whether through micro-loans or sending destitute children to school.

Miraval’s Give Back program allows people to nominate someone going through hard times and who needs wellness support but lacks the financial resources, to stay for free.

And if wellness culture has been derided as essentially a-political, consider that Deborah Szekely, the 94-year-old founder of Mexico’s Rancho La Puerta and the Golden Door, has the new policywell.com, which refutes that charge.

This new activist resource rates how each of the 535 members of the U.S. House and Senate vote around bills that affect the health of all Americans, whether related to food justice, public health, unregulated toxins or natural resources.

Renowned futurist, Edie Weiner, C.E.O. of The Future Hunters, argued at the Wellness Summit that more companies in the future will not only be green, they will be blue, meaning they will actually give back to the environment and the community, more than they take.

And the future of wellness businesses is giving not only as an add-on, but as foundational to their very model.

For instance, the Golden Door in California gives every dime of net profits to charity, especially those with a women’s focus.

Le Monastère des Augustins, in Quebec, Canada, a wellness hotel set in a 17th-century monastery and hospital, gives all profits to the care of patients and for complimentary hotel-spa stays for their caregivers.

The magnificent Fogo Island, off of Newfoundland, Canada, proudly defies the remote-island-property-as-wellness-ghetto stereotype: It was designed from the ground up, through its Shorefast Foundation, to restore the economic fortunes of the people there—one of Canada’s oldest rural cultures—and every Canadian dollar goes back into that local community.

Global Wellness Tourism 2.0

Wellness travel development and promotion heretofore has been all about the property: that destination spa or yoga retreat and what transpires within their walls. Which, of course, can sometimes lead to ghettos of wellness, a lot of health and happiness inside, and jarringly little without.

At the Wellness Tourism Roundtable, Franz Linser, Ph.D., C.E.O. of Linser Hospitality, argued that in the future the wellness tourism focus will shift beyond properties to destinations, whether a town, region or a country, where more authentic, complete wellness can be developed and experienced.

This includes clean air, protected nature, access to healthy food and green markets, and safer societies because of happier people.

Wellness development will increasingly be a public-private collaboration, with an eye to both the wellness of the local community and tourists: Like the ambitious Llanelli Wellness and Life Science Village under development in socially forward-thinking Wales, which combines life science research facilities, an education center to deliver health and wellbeing training, a neuro-village with living facilities for the cognitively impaired, a tourism-focused wellness hotel, spa and wellbeing center, and even a wellness primary school.

The Price-of-Services Issue

The elite ghettos of wellness will be broken down by a coming wave of wellness products and services at lower price-points: from the new, affordable healthy supermarkets and fast-food concepts to affordable spa chain brands and wellness hotels.

We have mainstream, affordable hotel brands like EVEN, with six in the U.S. and more in the pipeline that are 100 percent wellness focused, from healthy food to in-room fitness zones.

Affordable, healthy grocery stores are especially booming in the U.S., like Whole Food’s new 365 brand, Sprouts Farmers Markets and Fresh Thyme Farmers Markets. New, healthy fast-food chains are exploding, like Leon, Sweetgreen and LYFE Kitchen

And the social justice models are creative: for instance, the new, healthy chain, Everytable, in Los Angeles, will have different prices based on the median income of residents in that neighborhood. And of course the low-priced spa chains … have put massage and facials in the reach of the other 99 percent.

The increasingly complex issue of a backlash against incredibly pricey wellness services and a lack of wellness for too many who work delivering it was a topic at the Global Wellness Summit’s panel of heavy-hitting wellness media. One top editor (at a major UK daily) discussed how she (and other writers) simply will not cover “ridiculously-priced” treatments on principle.

Another discussed how few “star” spa therapists are in the media: while we have celeb fitness/wellness gurus that garner endless ink, there seems to be a problem in the press with naming the equivalent spa therapist stars, thereby disempowering them.

Having a therapist do 14 treatments in a row is a real, not sustainable, problem. And consumers need to be educated about labor costs so that they realize that cheap is often not fair, and that businesses that want to attract and retain the best practitioners—their most serious business problem—will need to put a much stronger focus on their employees’ own well-being.

Looking at the future of global wellness

Economic Forces of the Future

Income and well-being inequalities only look to widen, with so many big economic forces at work, from more people worldwide working in the new wage-stagnating gig economy or new sharing economies, which economist Malleret called a “sharing-the-scraps” economy. Artificial intelligence and robotics are pushing people out of jobs.

Globally, there are not yet effective plans to deal with ever more severe inequality.

As Nobel economist Robert J. Shiller, Ph.D., argued, today’s economic inequality becomes tomorrow’s social and political catastrophe, by giving rise to an explosion in populism. This is a reality we keep watching unfold.

And of course, more income inequality means more inequality in the wellness space: People’s access to healthy food, fitness and all kinds of wellness services—when those who have less need it more than ever.

We seem at a potential perceptual tipping-point, where the elite ghettos of wellness seem more unacceptable, unless these businesses give more back and work to bring what they do to more people lower down the socioeconomic ladder.

It’s really about authenticity in intention … a getting real about what true wellness is and should be.

The wellness businesses of the future that are truly sustainable—and that people will increasingly feel good about—will adopt new models, whether wellness tourism development that thinks beyond the property; to the whole community; to lower, but fair, prices for wellness products and services; to more wellness for the workers in wellness.

About the Authors

Susie Ellis  Beth Mcgroarty.smaller   Susie Ellis is chairman and CEO of the Global Wellness Summit. Beth McGroarty is director of research for the Global Wellness Summit. Andreas Braun, Ph.D., is CEO of Destinations Wattens, Austria.