The class huddles around the projection screen at the front of the room. It’s Thursday morning, and we’re watching a grainy image of novelist Rachel Heng, Skyping in from Austin, tell us about what inspired her to write her debut novel, “Suicide Club.”
The novel (2018) explores a dystopian New York City where government-subsidized life-extension treatments and a health-obsessed culture have put the upper echelons of humanity on the road to immortality.
Heng cites her experience working in London’s financial sector as a major source for the types of characters and ideas she engages with. Her high-powered co-workers preoccupied themselves with what Heng calls “competitive wellness,” locked in a constant battle to one-up each other with the amount of vegetables in their lunch and how fast they ran their marathons. Their obsession with health, Heng said, was ironically far from healthy, and became not only a way to flaunt their wealth but an attempt to exercise control over their own mortality.
“It’s like you’re slowly accumulating karma points for not dying,” Heng said. “It’s almost as if you feel like, ‘oh, if I eat enough avocados, I won’t have to deal with this.’”
It’s not too difficult to see the ways in which this “competitive wellness” has leaked into our culture more broadly. The so-called “wellness industry” was estimated to be worth a staggering 3.7 trillion dollars in 2015, and it’s growing.
On Eckerd’s campus, too, wellness culture abounds. A growing number of students adopt alternative diets, including vegan, paleo and ketogenic diets. Eckerd offers a number of group fitness classes weekly, ranging from zumba to pilates to cycling to yoga. There has been a recent push for dining establishments on campus to offer healthier options, many of which are plant-based.
Herein lies the rub: nothing about these things immediately stands out as problematic. One might be hard-pressed to find someone with an opinion that dips below neutral. Heng pointed out in our discussion that it was difficult for her to react with even a hint of criticism to her coworkers’ lifestyles, because all of them had the same response. What could possibly be wrong with trying to be healthy?
According to Ronald Porter, head of the Office of Service-Learning, the problem with “competitive wellness” lies in the word “competitive.”
“We live in a society that’s very ‘Type A,’” Porter said. “To the point where we kind of don’t have anything else to compete with each other for anymore. We start to find these other small things to try to compete with each other for, and I think that wellness has also become one of these competitive factors.”
But where does this competitive drive come from?
“Some people call that human nature,” Porter said. “I think that’s just an excuse. I don’t think that’s human nature. I think it’s insecurity.”
In Porter’s mind, it’s insecurity driven by the barrage of information we’re subjected to on a daily basis, from Instagram to podcasts to thousands of ads. Our desire for instant gratification, coupled with a culture of consumerism – as Porter says, the ability to create a need where there was not a need before – is a tale as old as time. But the technological advances of the past several years have elevated that culture to unprecedented extremes, and it’s taking its toll on us.
“This stuff has been around,” Porter said. “Like, you can go back and think about people trying to sell snake oil. The human psyche kind of has this way of trying to turn lead into gold. But today we are so bombarded with information and different ways of how to be… we’re kind of easily led astray, in a lot of ways, I think, from our own true natures and our true selves and our true desires.”
So how can we maintain a true sense of wellness – which Porter defines as the sense of peace and contentment that consumerism attempts to strip away from us – in the face of a world that constantly tells us we’re incomplete? For junior Marina Garmendia, who’s been leading Pilates classes at Eckerd for the past two years, the answer rests in a comfortable in-between.
“It’s like everything else,” she said. “You have to balance everything out, whether it’s good or bad for you.”
She was quick to point out how a little competition can actually be good for us. Seeing another person lifting heavier weights or running faster on the treadmill at the gym, for instance, can inspire people to push themselves further or try new exercises. Problems arise, Garmendia said, only when people take things to the extreme: eat so little that they don’t have the energy to work out, or push themselves too hard because they are unable to accept that fitness is a long process that requires patience, dedication and careful listening to one’s body.
Porter agrees with Garmendia, citing his training in yoga as his motivation to live in a balanced way. Yoga, Porter said, also taught him the concept of santosha, or contentment, and he thinks that’s what our culture lacks most.
“It’s great that people are getting into these modalities of wellness,” Porter said. “But in my mind, the point of these modalities of wellness is to come to a point of peace, and… if we’re constantly competing with each other all the time, we’re not content. Rather than competing with each other for wellness, if we can support each other in that wellness, I think that that’s fantastic.”
College, with its numerous stressors piled on top of the already present stressors of consumerist culture, can be a difficult place to learn contentment – but it can also be the best place. In college, both Garmendia and Porter pointed out, we have a unique chance to explore, to have new experiences and learn new things. If we dedicate ourselves to learning contentment in the place we are most encouraged to learn, we may well be able to carry that knowledge with us when we leave.
“We as human beings at this point in our history have to find some way to be content,” Porter said. Laughing, he added, “If we don’t find that honestly, we will destroy this planet and everyone along with it.