Spas, sex and psychedelics: the history of the wellness industry

Ideas

Spas, sex and psychedelics: the history of the wellness industry

Two new volumes explore the origins of wellness, painting a fascinating picture of the origins of a new quasi-religion

Beatrice Hodgkin

Pre-pandemic, the wellness economy was worth $4.2-trillion, according to the Global Wellness Institute. It’s a contemporary obsession now addressed by two British writers, each of whom has set out to explore the origins of wellness. Their two journeys share a vast breadth of historical scope, though their cultural coordinates differ wildly. As bookends for a curious investigation, they make compelling counterparts.

In Health, Hedonism & Hypochondria, academic and theologian Ian Bradley focuses his gaze on spas, the “pioneers of the vast modern wellness industry”. He begins with Greek and Roman thermal mineral springs, and ends with a rather sad tour of the one-time pinnacles of European spa grandeur (now eclipsed by beach resorts in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean). Building these temples to physical health, Bradley posits, also laid a foundation for a broader social and cultural understanding of wellbeing.

In Retreat, journalist Matthew Ingram also puts therapeutic bolt-holes at the heart of his investigations. But his are retreats formed in the crucible of the countercultural explorations of the Beat Generation, the anti-psychiatrists and the hippies who took eastern philosophies and epically reinterpreted them through a “constellation” of 19th- and 20th-century thinkers and movements including Nietzsche, Gandhi, Wilhelm Reich and psychoanalysis. “It takes the gestalt of the counterculture,” he says, “to bring about their coalescence.”..

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