There’s a secret force at play in American business, one that doesn’t have your best interests in mind. Call it the call of the quick fix, the capitalist desire to convince you that something’s wrong with you so that they can then sell you a cure. And no business sector is better at this racket than the pseudo-scientific health and wellness industry—purveyors of lotions, tonics, supplements, tinctures, books, apps, and $395 light therapy masks to fix what ails you.
This week, an especially credible source is here to offer some clarity about why we Americans are particularly vulnerable to these messages, because not so long ago Annie Daly was one of those hapless shoppers seeking happiness and well-being through all manner of products and purchases—until she finally had her aha moment and said no more.
A travel/wellness journalist and the author of the recently released Destination Wellness: Global Secrets for Better Living Wherever You Are, Annie graciously agreed to take a few questions from Foreword‘s Matt Sutherland. We’d like to thank Suzannah Weiss for penning a splendid review of the book for our March/April issue, as well as Chronicle Prism for helping with the interview arrangements.
Okay, you asked for this one: What is wellness? And is all the angst, time, and money we spend searching for it worth the effort? In other words, why should we seek wellness?
To me, wellness is all about feeling balanced, content, and whole right where I am. I like to think of it as a pendulum, where I swing back and forth every day, but am constantly aiming to get back to that sweet spot right in the middle. Doing so does require a bit of intentional effort, of course, but I definitely think it’s worth it—who wants to feel like an off-kilter version of themselves?!
The good news here is that, as I wrote in my book, getting yourself back to that centered middle spot is not as angsty as you may think. While the wellness industry loves to sell us on all of the latest lotions and potions and tonics and tinctures, seeking out genuine health and happiness is really about getting back to the basics: spending time in nature, connecting with your friends and family, eating fresh and seasonal foods, living in the moment, and more. These are all (actually affordable) things that make me feel good and help me get back to my core self when the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.
In your long career as a magazine lifestyle journalist, you’ve been bombarded by marketers pushing wellness products on you—from hi-vibe marinara sauce to chakra-healing candles—so much so, that you began to think of wellness as a commodity. Why do you think Americans are so susceptible to the idea that a product can offer wellbeing? What finally caused you to wake up to what was going on?
One word: capitalism! Rather than encouraging us to examine the root of our problems, American society often pushes us to go for the quick fix—because quick fixes pay the bills. After all, you can sell a product that promises to deliver happiness to your doorstep, but you can’t sell the time it takes to dig deep into your soul and find that happiness yourself.
All of this became quite clear on my travels leading up to the book. Once I started working in the wellness industry, I began to ask people I met on the road about their views on health and well-being—and that’s when I realized ohhhhhh, it’s not like this in many other parts of the world. They don’t do wellness the way we do. In fact, they don’t “do” wellness at all—it’s simply baked into the culture itself! When I asked my Croatian friend Zrinka if there were any workout classes I should check out while I was in Dubrovnik, she pointed to the Adriatic Sea and asked, “Why would I go to a class when I have the sea right here in my backyard, every day?” That’s when I started to really open my mind and begin thinking about wellness in a different way. I thought: I want to take a page out of Zrinka’s book. Why all the fuss?
Enigmatically, you write, “Generally speaking, wellness is not about adding—it’s about subtracting.” Can you expand on that thought, please, especially as it relates to those “things that have always made existence healthy and enjoyable … Human connection. Mother Earth. Whole foods. Soul.”
Here in the US, the commercial wellness industry thrives on the idea of more. Add these products to your life, they tell us, and then these, and then more of these, and then you will achieve well-being! What I learned on the road is that it’s not about buying those products at all. It’s about taking them away and asking yourself: How can I get back to the center of the pendulum without all of those fancy things? The answer is going back to the basics. In Brazil, I learned about the importance of hanging out with your friends and family as a wellness practice. In Jamaica, I chatted with Rastafari farmers who told me that growing their own food was the key to their well-being. In Norway, I went camping in the mountains and felt better out there in nature than I had in months. These are all simple ways to achieve well-being, but they work and have worked for centuries. We do not need to reinvent the wheel here; if anything, we need to get back to the wheel in the first place!
Your visit to Rastafari retreats in Jamaica submersed you in the “Ital is vital” mindset, with the freshest, locally grown food and herbal tonics, daily reminders that we are all part of a much bigger universe, and even the positive vibrations of reggae. Please talk about how you incorporate Ital into your life here in the US?
Ital is one of my favorite philosophies—and not just because I am a huge reggae fan! I love the idea that Ital is rooted in self-sufficiency. Historically, Rastafari developed Ital as a way to break free from their oppressors and live on their own terms, and today, it can be interpreted as any action that, as one Rasta I interviewed put it, helps you “unplug from some of the trappings of modern society.” To me, unplugging doesn’t necessarily mean going to live in a remote hut in the woods for a month, but trying to live a less commercial life right where I am. One Rastafari I interviewed told me that it’s all about creating a “bubble of vibes” in your apartment, ie, a little urban oasis sanctuary with your plants and your music and your cooking—so that’s what I do now. When I want to channel the Ital spirit, I head to the farmers’ market, pick up some fresh veggies, come home, throw on some reggae, light some candles, and get to chopping. I don’t listen to the news, I don’t watch Netflix, I don’t check my phone. It’s just me and my veggies and my plants and my tunes, and in that moment, I am away from the trappings of modern society—right in my own apartment.
Several of the places—Jamaica, Norway, Hawai’i, Japan—you visit happen to be near or on the water. Are you suggesting there’s a connection between wellness and water? How might that work?
Yes! To be honest, I did not do that intentionally, though I am definitely a firm believer in the healing powers of water—so perhaps it was subconscious?! I grew up in Rhode Island, aka the Ocean State, so I’ve always considered myself a water baby. And research has actually shown that being near water is linked to mental well-being—a phenomenon scientists refer to as a “blue mind.” It’s based on the idea that our ancestors needed to find water to survive, so we are programmed to feel at peace when we find it, too. And in today’s times, the “blue mind” is also the opposite of the “red mind,” which is the always-on, always-hyped mind that’s rooted in the modern world. Water soothes us, technology does not. But we don’t even need science to tell us that—this is a truth that many Indigenous cultures have known and practiced since the beginning of time! Just look at the Hawaiians, who’ve performed hi’uwais (cleansing rituals in the ocean) for centuries to rid themselves of stress. The ultimate takeaway here is: If you’re feeling stressed, or anxious, or off-kilter in any way, get to the water. Just being there will help you feel more at peace in the world.
Is it more accurate to think of wellness as a journey rather than a destination, and if that is true, would you also say that there are wellness/health benefits to travel?
Wellness is definitely a journey, in that it’s an ongoing day-to-day process that’s different every day. That said, the title—Destination Wellness—is based on the Henry Miller quote: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” In that way, wellness is a destination, because the destination is a new perspective. My hope with this book is to inspire people to see wellness in a different light.
The Norwegians believe Mother Nature is a healing power like no other. Can you talk about their term friluftsliv, and the role it plays in Norwegian life? And, isn’t it intimidatingly cold and rainy up there?
Isn’t friluftsliv the best? Translated, it means “the free air life,” but pretty much every Norwegian I spoke to has their own personal definition, too. The gist is that it’s about intentionally spending as much time outside as you possibly can so that Mother Nature can work her magic on you—no matter the weather. It can get quite cold and rainy in the winter, yes, but Norwegians love to tell you that “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” Many walk everywhere, rainy conditions aside, and they start this outdoor tradition young. The country has outdoor kindergartens, and many Norwegians even leave their babies in strollers outside in their yards, so that they feel comfortable sleeping in the great outdoors from the start.
But friluftsliv is also about making the time to get outside into deep nature, away from urban lights, to give yourself the chance to commune with Mother Earth. This is where the true mental clarity happens, the kind you can only achieve when you’re away from it all and you can finally relax. One Norwegian I interviewed described it perfectly: “It’s just this feeling that you get when you’re out in nature and you look around and you take a deep breath and it’s just … ahh.” Interestingly, friluftsliv isn’t necessarily about extreme nature sports, either. While I used to think that being an “outdoor person” meant I had to be one of those super active mountain climbers who subsists on power bars and adrenaline, it turns out that friluftsliv is a lot more chill—it’s more about getting yourself out into nature somewhere, maybe making a fire, drinking some coffee, and sighing ahh. That’s friluftsliv to me: one great big giant exhale.
Like so many ancient cultures, the Japanese have much to offer us Westerners. Please explain the importance of “being present,” in the Japanese sense? Would you also offer an example or two of how you incorporate it in your life?
I came away from my Japan trip absolutely obsessed with the term ichigo ichie, which translates to “one time, one meeting” or “once in a lifetime.” My hiking guide, Keigo, told me about it at the beginning of our trek through the Kumano Kodo—a pilgrimage trail through the mountains of the Kii peninsula—and I was instantly hooked. Rooted in Buddhism, it’s based on this very zen idea that nothing is permanent, and we must appreciate every interaction we have, because we’ll never have that exact same interaction in the same way again. Let’s say you meet a new neighbor in your building, for example. While it’s tempting to rush the conversation along because you’re in a hurry and you have to go do your life and all of that, ichigo ichie devotees would say: No. You’ve gotta stop. Make the time. Honor this moment. You may see your new neighbor again in the future, but you will never have this particular meeting again, where you’re meeting them for the first time, right now, today. This is it.
Thinking of my interactions in this way has truly helped me live in the moment, especially now that I’m back in New York, where everyone’s so busy all the time! Now I make a point to stop and chat with my bodega guy, and my coffee barista, and my neighbors as often as I can. It helps me ground myself in the day without thinking so much about the past and the future. All we have is now!