A version of this post originally appeared on Oxygen Blog’s “The Zeitgeist” in 2019.
By all accounts, my life is stressful. I’m balancing both finishing a PhD and getting married via a highly international, cross-cultural wedding in the next year, with applying for jobs, and setting up what the next academic project will be. My current moment life is in some ways the most stable, least hectic and least stressful, and most supported period of my life thus far. For the first time in a very long time, I’m not working multiple jobs, or commuting hours per week and watching the cost of doing work eat into the earnings of said work. I don’t need to worry about what I’m going to eat, where I’m going to live, or if I need a week of relying on public transportation or even taxis if I don’t have the energy to walk around the city dragging twenty books with me everywhere. I’m supported by both my fiancé and my college in such a way that my basic needs – and beyond – are taken care of. Because of this, I can afford to have weekly therapy appointments and take yoga classes on average four times a week, and visit a physical therapist as needed to deal with the mental, emotional, and physical ramifications of a stressful life while also being a productive scholar, writing when I want to, and doing volunteer work I care about. I am incredibly privileged to be able to put my mental, physical, and emotional health first, in a holistic way, the way in which the current attitude towards “wellness” or “mindfulness” peddles as the secret to happiness in an ever-more precarious world.
From college campuses to corporate strategy to what feels like every fifth Instagram hashtag, “wellness” and “mindfulness” sometimes seem to have replaced the chi bracelets and essential oils of several years ago (never mind yoga-as-cure-for-all-ills) as the “health” movements du jour. It’s a wonderful fantasy – if only we could all just tap into a sense of inner peace, live our lives more deliberately, well, we’d all be so much healthier. We’d all just be able to put aside our stress and insecurity and precarity and be happy with what we have. Again, it is a wonderful, wishful fantasy, that the right mindset is all one needs to overcome all odds.
However, it is also an attitude towards health, and what it means to be healthy in society, that is highly problematic in the face of structural inequities that consistently undermine the security of society’s most vulnerable, on top of being incredibly classist, racist, and ableist, as well as often Orientalizing or co-opting specific cultural practices to fit Western narratives of “wellness.” Like most “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap” arguments, such thinking puts the onus on the people struggling to “just do better”: as such it is a form of victim-blaming that ignores that it is only possible to buy into these movements if you are not struggling just to cover your basic needs. One very concrete example of this as explored by Christine Byrne for HuffPost US is the swell of “simple” or “budget-friendly” cooking tips, to keep children and families healthy. However, as Byrne explores, most of these tips and cookbooks actually ignore that such practices as bulk-buying and relying on instant pot recipes require a certain amount of time and money that the proponents of such measures take for granted while essentially pointing a finger and crying “why don’t they just…” in the direction of people struggling. A budget crockpot or slow-cooker on Amazon is about $40 – the most inexpensive instant pot I could find was about $68. The fact of the matter is that if you already work multiple jobs and are still not sure about being able to feed yourself, you are not going to be dropping that kind of money on an appliance. Essentially, the attitude to “wellness” and “mindfulness” are the same – you need to have your basic needs secure (think the base of the pyramid from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) before you can start to think about self-actualization.
When we direct people to wellness and mindfulness, under the guise of just practicing self-care, we are making a lot of assumptions about both their health and their resources while putting the onus on them to deal with adversity better, rather than addressing the causes of adversity in the first place. Telling someone to meditate or practice mindfulness as a way to “cure” their anxiety regarding their financial precarity is a bit like telling someone to light some incense to “cure” a broken arm because they cannot afford the hospital bill. It doesn’t work. While practices like meditation have greatly improved my own life, I am very aware that it is in part because I’m not in a precarious position, and I have an actual doctor that I work with on my mental health as well. My self-care is expensive – maybe it shouldn’t be, but it doesn’t change the fact that ignoring the expense related to such care will not fix the systemic problems that contribute to poor mental health among freelancers and other precarious workers. The only way to fix those problems is to stop focusing on ‘life-hacks’ and shortcuts, and start demanding change in terms of how freelancers are undervalued and even then still do not get paid on time. In other words, it’s not about making self-care ‘affordable’ or ‘accessible’ or something that can ‘be done quickly on your own time,’ if the wellness industry actually cares about the mental health and wellbeing for people facing precarity it needs to start using its considerable voice to advocate for systemic change.