HOW ARE YOU?
It’s quite remarkable how the usual question of choice inside an elevator tends to be, at the same time, one of the most difficult to answer. Because, really, how are we? Our lips respond, almost automatically, “fine”. But
if we were to give it more thought, or if we were really honest, our answer would require hitting the “stop” button in the elevator and structuring a speech full of contradictions and, probably, with an inconclusive ending.
Human beings have been seeking to be well for all of history. But that does not mean that they have been looking for the same thing all their history. The idea of wellbeing, as such, is more or less recent. It is like the recurring anecdote that the Eskimos have dozens of words to refer to snow: in Western societies, as we have gained in wellbeing, we have been forced to branch out, evolve and expand the concept itself. Because, just as in remote times (or remote places) being well was almost synonymous with being alive, now, for our societies, accustomed as they are to having their basic needs amply covered, the search for greater, more intense, deeper wellbeing has become the next great collective goal.
But it is an elusive goal. Although we have reached levels of wellbeing that were unimaginable decades ago -let alone centuries-, the process does not seem to have an end. We never reach that chimerical state of absolute or definitive wellbeing.
So, either that state, as such, does not exist or we are mistaken in our prescriptions. Or, surely, a bit of both. A holistic, constant and perennial state of wellbeing is probably unattainable but that doesn’t mean we should stop pursuing it (after all, what greater goal can we have as a species than continuous improvement?).
So there is only one framework for action left: rethink the recipes.
Let’s be honest: we’re not doing well. In the same parts of the world where we have supposedly reached the heights of what we have so far considered wellbeing, new endemic problems are emerging and plaguing our moods: anxiety, depression, lack of meaning, addictions, loneliness, emptiness. This is no coincidence. We do not live in a neutral system, but we are conditioned by a logic on which we have based our culture, our medicine and our values: capitalism.
And, following this logic, we have treated welbeing as we treat everything else: as an industry. So, during the last century we have tried to palliate our suffering through production and consumption, dangerously linking “to be” with “to have” and “to consume”. To be well we needed to have a job, a house, a partner. And to be better? More money, a bigger house, a more attractive partner. More, more, more. Fortunately, starting in the 1960s, we began to rethink that conception of wellbeing to also work on the spiritual part, the connection, the creation of meaning. The hippie movement, the new age and a whole series of well-meaning ideas emerged which, however, ended up being phagocytized by the system itself and turned into business. The same happened to a large extent with wellness.
Let’s clarify concepts.
The Global Wellness Institute defines wellness as the “active pursuit of activities, choices and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health”. This last part is particularly interesting: holistic health: this definition meant a qualitative leap in the development of the concept: it was no longer a matter of covering basic needs, but broadened the focus to include emotional, spiritual, physical and environmental issues. This gave rise to a powerful industry that, although it has helped us to make qualitative progress in our search for wellness, it remained just that: an industry. Now, in order to be well, it was not enough to have a job, a house or a partner, but we also had to take some time to do yoga between each day, redecorate the apartment according to feng-shui and have long sessions of therapy. Of course, going through checkout each time. Let no one misunderstand: wellness has been a breakthrough and there is nothing wrong with this quest for individual improvement. The problem is that it is not enough. And it is not enough precisely because it is individual.
A person living in a Western capital and working in, let say, a technology startup, can reach a state of relaxation, connection and fulfillment after a long yoga session, yes, but then will take a shower with gas-heated water from an unstable country plagued by social unrest and external interference, will eat avocado toast grown in conditions of semi-slavery and will read in an online newspaper that another ancient glacier has just broken in the Arctic Circle. How can you be well, really well, in a world that is not well? How can you be well, really well, in a world that is not well,? What’s more, how can one be well precisely at the expense of it?
It is not enough to be, punctually, momentarily and individually well. That is why wellness is not the solution. We need a more solid and lasting wellbeing. In this sense, the concept of wellbeing is an evolution, as it transcends the search for “holistic health” based on specific activities to refer to a lasting state of something more similar to what we understand by happiness. In a somewhat simplistic but effective way, we could say that wellness suggests meditating 20 minutes a day, while wellbeing invites you to incorporate mindfulness and a sistemic awareness into your usual state of consciousness. Wellness offers “patches” and it’s passing; Wellbeing involves internalizing profound changes in pursuit of that state of being.
So, is wellbeing the solution? It is a step, but not the final one. Because, although it is more solid and lasting than wellness, we are missing another aspect to correct, one that is probably even more important: that of individuality. We need to make being good something constant (which is wellbeing), yes, but also something collective and integral.
In an increasingly connected world, the individualism that the capitalist system has so deeply instilled in us is not just outdated, but harmful and counterproductive. If our wellbeing disempowers others, destroys the planet and does not collaborate in making the world a better place, it is not wellbeing. And for that very reason, it does not satisfy us.
It is time to broaden our focus and add to our wellbeing also others´wellbeing and of the planet itself. We are well if our activities, choices and lifestyles lead to a state of holistic health, yes, but that holistic health cannot be limited to us. Holistic health and happiness must transcend our bodies and minds, our countries, our societies and even our species. They must even transcend time and space. Wellbeing must not only work for me: wellbeing must work for everyone, for everything and, ultimately, for itself.
This is the origin of the Metawellbeing concept, an absolute plenitude that is the fruit of a symbiotic will in which the wellbeing of others and the whole life-supporting structure becomes our own. A sort of selfish altruism, if you will.
Yes, it may sound somewhat idealistic, even utopian, but of course, no one can deny that it is also logical. The old recipes are not working, how about trying something new? Maybe then, one day, we won’t even ask “how are you?” in the elevator, because we’ll know in advance what the answer is.