The radical 1970s roots of wellness

In the late-1970s wellness was kind of a big deal, although not as much of a big deal as it is today. Estimates vary as to the international value of the contemporary wellness industry, but such numbers usually reach into the trillions. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is the current market-leader, with an empire worth some $250m (£196,225), and it is Paltrow’s personal development ideas, celebrity gloss and expensive products, some of which have unverifiable health claims that have done much to inform public attitudes towards wellness. For some, wellness is a bespoke, individually focused approach to health that encompasses diet, fitness, spirituality and an awareness of the delicate balance between the mind and the body. For others, not least Sir Simon Stevens, former head of the UK’s National Health Service, Goop-style wellness is mere quackery: he accused Goop’s flagship Netflix series The Goop Lab (2020) of being full of “dodgy procedures” that greatly misinform and thus pose a “considerable health risk” to their large public audience.

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In the 1970s, though, wellness meant something different and a lot more specific. “Wellness” was not a ubiquitous umbrella term, but it instead signified a very particular practice among the burgeoning alternative health market and, for the most part, it alluded to the work of a former physician called Dr John Travis. In 1975 Travis, then in his early 30s, opened the Wellness Resource Centre in Mill Valley’s business district. The centre was a modest converted house decked out in redwood panelling with a hot tube in the basement. There, Travis would offer his clients services ranging from “Lifestyle Evolution Groups” to nutrition consultations and sessions with a biofeedback monitor, offering an array of electroencephalogram brain scans that could help trace stress reactions and anxiety triggers.

He worked with those who were exhausted, burnt-out, who had repeated migraines or persistent pain with no discernible cause. He helped people transform their diets, streamline their daily routines, and rethink their personal goals. The Wellness Resource Centre was not an alternative hospital and Travis had no intention of diagnosing, prescribing, or offering any medicinal treatment. Instead, as he put it in a 1979 interview with 60 Minutes, the aim was to help clients find out “why they are sick” and, from there, guide them towards the cultivation of optimal, energetic lifestyles.  

The man who invented ‘wellness’

Travis’ main influence was High-Level Wellness (1961) a little-known book by Halbert Dunn, a physician, biostatician and hospital administrator with links to the World Health Organisation. Dunn believed that in the post-war world it was possible to be far more than merely “not-ill”. He was the first to use “wellness” in its now modern sense to describe a holistic, all-encompassing approach to health that could put you in a super-charged state, “radiant with energy to burn”. The key to achieving this zest was to attend simultaneously to the body, the mind, and the spirit. Well-being, for Dunn, meant a combination of mental health, physical health and the pursuit of a life’s purpose. Dunn did not mean a metaphysical soul, when he used the word “spirit”, but an animating force, the drive that gets you up in the morning. In order to live well, argued Dunn, we need to thrive, not just survive and to do so, we need a target: a goal to which we can move with positivity and optimism.

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