Back in March, I published a popular piece on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency parodying the worst extremes I’ve seen in wellness and life-hacking trends. The practices are familiar, but the details are ludicrous: when the narrator makes a green smoothie, it has 56 ingredients. Her most efficient workout? A single, 100-pound kettlebell swing. Her email strategy? So well batched and automated, she hasn’t responded personally in nine years.
I was overwhelmed by the response. Many people wrote to me to tell me they enjoyed the article, that it gave them permission to laugh at themselves. Far, far more people, however, did not understand that it was a joke. At first, I thought some of them were dragging out the joke, unsuccessfully – if there were ever a place for sarcasm to fail, it’s written communication between strangers – but much of the sincerity was unmistakable. I was offered contracts as a life coach, invited to contribute to wellness blogs, even asked to speak at events. At first, it was funny. Then it was scary.
I kept asking myself, why are these extremes so normal?
I found a post on a life-hacking forum evaluating some of my “suggestions.” The author specifically approved of using seven Vitamix blender pitchers throughout the week, washing them all on Sundays. Was he not put off by the money, kitchen space, and lack of olfactory nerve required to make that practical? Another reader only grew suspicious when he saw Irish Moss (carrageenan) among the 56 smoothie ingredients, as it is a “known gut irritant.”
You’ve figured me out. Only once I’ve irritated my competitors’ guts can I ascend to my rightful throne as queen of Pinstachatbook!
Sarcasm aside, many of the practices wellness gurus and life-hackers promote are genuinely good. I would never discourage anyone from meditating, journaling, preparing healthy meals, exercising efficiently, or batching tasks in whatever form and frequency suits them best. The problem is how these practices become undermined by attempts to monetize them. Old advice gets repackaged into a glut of content that both requires and promises ever more.
Should we seek to eliminate the superfluous to better focus on what matters most to us? Sure, but many life-hackers and wellness enthusiasts now consider any extra body fat or idle moment (not spent in meditation) to be superfluous.
You’re not a world traveling entrepreneur with a perfect body by 30? Why should we listen to you?
Life-hacking and lifestyle engineering are exciting because they’ve done away with mainstream expectations for our lives, but are these extremes that replaced them necessarily healthy? Somewhere, the narrative shifted from “your life doesn’t have to look like everyone else’s” to “your life should look like mine. Here, buy this, and validate me.”
A likely cause of these new extremes is sheer saturation. Wellness has gone mainstream; you can now find yoga pants and kombucha at Wal Mart. A friend’s grandmother in rural Tennessee is doing a raw vegan challenge with her knitting circle. Remote work, passive income, and lifestyle entrepreneurship aren’t the suburban sacrilege they used to be, either. Exponentially more people are becoming lifestyle bloggers and coaches, and it takes ever more to set them apart as innovators. “Tribes” of followers remain willing to try and buy. Their expectations of content have risen, but their tendency to question it has slackened. I imagine this is how I wound up scrolling through Amazon.com, thinking “I guess I have to buy some shilajit powder now,” while listening to an audiobook about eliminating the superfluous.
The wellness and life-hack industries are industries like any other; some sellers are out to create and exploit our insecurity. The holistic sheen of “wellness” makes this exploitation a deeper betrayal than the marketing of conventional, mainstream offerings. Of course the diet plan hawkers want me to feel fat. But wellness folks? I thought you wanted me to feel complete.
I consume a lot of these products and content. Sometimes I enjoy it. Often, I wonder whether I would do so at all if I didn’t feel so pressured toward thinness, purity, and achievement.
Of those who didn’t get the joke, a group of young lifestyle engineers from Silicon Valley stands out most. I hope that they didn’t read the article, but used some social media keyword trawler for lead generation to find me (is that even a thing?), because one of their members “has spent [his] entire life refining the fine art and science of bullshit detection.” Maybe the synchronized email, friend request, LinkedIn request, Twitter follow, and homing pigeon (heirloom breed – nice touch) were just automated flukes. Maybe not.
They are well-coached in pitching themselves and writing SEO optimized copy. In their collective century, they’ve amassed a staggering volume of entrepreneurial experience. Just reading about them was exhausting. It’s cool to have given a TED talk, visited 70 countries, and trained with Ninjas by age 22.
It’s also not mandatory.
So, whether you’re a consumer of wellness content and orderer of dubious supplements (like myself) or a rising star entrepreneur with a viral e-book and booming life-coaching practice, please know that the point of that McSweeney’s piece was not to take a steaming dump on your interests or your industry, but to make you pause and make you laugh. See the big picture. Maybe enjoy some gluten.