Alamy Don Draper (Jon Hamm) of Mad Men meditating with sea view in backgroundAlamy

The ‘wellness’ boom of the 1970s was encapsulated, albeit cynically, in Don Draper’s spiritual retreat at the very end of Mad Men (Credit: Alamy)

Today, ‘wellness’ is a huge global industry, associated with expensive products and some dubious scientific claims. But 50 years ago, it was born as a subversive project that sought to really rectify the damage done by the modern grind.

In 1977 Cyra McFadden published her debut novel The Serial. It was a well-observed account of a year in the lives of the neurotic and (sometimes) hedonistic 30 and 40-somethings of California’s Marin County, the affluent middle-class territory a short hop over the bay from San Francisco. What her friend Armistead Maupin would do for San Francisco’s gay scene in Tales of the City (1978), McFadden did for “Marvellous Marin”: the author, who sadly died last month, used The Serial to catalogue the idiosyncrasies of the area and its inhabitants.

But where Tales of the City was an affectionate look at the dreamers of Barbary Lane, The Serial was a biting satire. It played with the language of the soap opera but cut with the precision of a scalpel, particularly when it came to the distinguishing feature of Marin’s cultural landscape: its role as an unofficial hub for California’s “self-culture”. 

Getty Images Dynamic Meditation was one of the self-care practices popularised in the 1970s and 1980s (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

Dynamic Meditation was one of the self-care practices popularised in the 1970s and 1980s (Credit: Getty Images)

Until the late-1960s Marin, and its main city Mill Valley, was a blue-collar region that occasionally played host to writers and artists looking for a boho retreat. As the 1970s began, however, a wave of new money quickly gentrified the area into an enclave of young professionals, bustling bars and rising house prices. Along with them came the signs of California’s new economy, local outposts of existing alternative health and therapy groups like the Esalen Institute, the Arica School, Erhard Seminars Training and many others. This was the residue of the 1960s counterculture turned inside-out. It seemed that once the hippies got over the dreaded age of 30, they stopped trying to change the world and tried to change themselves instead.

Around the same time John Lennon and Yoko Ono were getting into Primal Scream Therapy at Arthur Janov’s clinic in Los Angeles, former radicals like Abbie Hoffman were turning away from protest marches and extolling the virtues of Tai Chi, while mercurial gurus like Shree Bhagwan Rajneesh (later known as Osho) were introducing western travellers to the delights of Dynamic Meditation and ferocious encounter groups at the Rajneesh Ashram in Pune, India. Encounter groups were, in theory, free-form discussions designed to get participants talking honestly about themselves and each other. In the Rajneesh circles, however, they could often be arenas of psychological and physical brutality.

The ‘me’ decade

Such a widespread focus on the self led authors like Tom Wolfe, writing for New York Magazine in 1976, to dub the still-in-progress 70s “The ‘Me’ Decade”, a view shared by the sociologist Christopher Lasch who later described the US as languishing in a “culture of narcissism”. It’s an image of the 70s that has endured. Despite the social complexity and political tumult of the decade, we tend to remember it as a great swerve away from the promises of the 60s, with solipsistic, self-justifying realisations replacing grand political gestures. Think of Don Draper at the end of Mad Men (2007-2015), om-ing his way into 1970 at a Californian coastal spiritual retreat very similar to the Esalen Institute’s main centre in Big Sur. His epiphany? He’s an adman, he’ll always be an adman and anything he’s learnt from his sojourn is to be funnelled straight into the next massive campaign.

For a while, in the decade’s later years, Marin was the absolute beating heart of this social and therapeutic fixation with the “I”.  The conditions were perfect. Marinites had money, they had time and by all accounts they also had problems. By the mid-70s,  Marin had high levels of drug use and alcoholism, up to 75 per cent of its marriages were ending in divorce, it had America’s highest number of psychiatrists per capita, and its suicide rate was twice the national average. This general picture of malaise fed into documentaries like Primal Therapy: In Search of the Real You (1976) and particularly the NBC-produced, Marin-focused I Want it All Now! (1978) which enthusiastically quoted such bleak statistics as if to once again prove that money doesn’t buy you happiness.

In the 1970s, wellness meant something different and a lot more specific, signifiying a very particular practice among the burgeoning alternative health market

This was the backdrop against which McFadden – herself a Marin resident – wrote The Serial. In charting the ups and downs of characters like off-and-on-again couple Kate and Harvey Holroyd, McFadden pulled away the veil of material success to reveal a fog of restless insecurity. Her Marin was a world of overwhelming self-regard and festering discontent; a circus of hot-tubs, five-Martini lunches and passive-aggressive dinner parties. People talk all the time in her book, but nobody really listens. Instead, to offset their affluenza, McFadden’s characters fall down a rabbit hole of fad diets and experimental health projects. They lose themselves in what we might now be tempted to call, a culture of “wellness”. 

Alamy The 'wellness' boom of the 1970s was encapsulated, albeit cynically, in Don Draper's spiritual retreat at the very end of Mad Men (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

The ‘wellness’ boom of the 1970s was encapsulated, albeit cynically, in Don Draper’s spiritual retreat at the very end of Mad Men (Credit: Alamy)

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.

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.

John Travis would often be told that he was merely pandering to those who were already “well” in the general sense, who were neither ill enough for the emergency room nor mentally unstable enough for the psychiatrist

High-Level Wellness came to Travis via a second-hand bookstore, just as he was becoming disillusioned with professional medicine. During his internship at San Francisco’s Public Health Service Hospital, he realised he was doing little more than medicating those suffering from stress and cardiovascular problems, illnesses he thought had more easily remediable “lifestyle” causes. Nothing, according to Travis, was being done to encourage an attitude of improvement or to alter the social pressures causing the patients’ problems in the first place. With Dunn’s book as his guide, Travis left professional medicine, and set out to galvanise his clients. The idea was to inspire a pro-active approach to personal health that also engaged with the problems of the modern world. Travis wanted his clients to spot stress triggers, to consider what was really important in their lives, to think about who they were and who they could become, beyond the grind of the commute, the promotional ladder and the next deadline.

Getty Images Gwyneth Paltrow and her brand Goop are the unofficial leaders of the modern 'wellness' movement (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images

Gwyneth Paltrow and her brand Goop are the unofficial leaders of the modern ‘wellness’ movement (Credit: Getty Images)

The Wellness Resource Centre makes a cameo appearance in The Serial. It’s where Kate Holroyd goes to see a “Life Goals Consultant” while trying to work through her marriage problems with Harvey. For McFadden, the centre is part of Marin’s conveyor-belt of health consumerism, a buyer’s market which allows those who are wealthy enough to develop their inner selves again and again. As Kate’s friend Naomi puts it, if Kate does not have “absolute, total confidence in the Wellness Resource Center”, she can just go to the “Center for Designed Change” where Naomi knows a “beautiful human being”.

It’s a prescient vignette that anticipates many of the contemporary attitudes to wellness: a diversion for the restless well-off. Certainly, Travis encountered much the same criticism from other quarters. He would often be told that he was merely pandering to those who were already “well” in the general sense, who were neither ill enough for the emergency room nor mentally unstable enough for the psychiatrist. Despite this, his services were in great demand. The centre was often booked and thanks to the 60 Minutes appearance, Travis’ take on wellness was known as “the ultimate in self-care”.

It’s that sense of care that is important. Today’s high profile, high net-worth version of wellness obscures the real social and human radicalism of Travis’ project. He was not offering a source of indulgence, he was trying to outline a theory and a practice of individual care that was attuned to the damage caused by the intensity of the modern, daily grind. One doesn’t have to be in the emergency room or the psychiatrist’s chair to be unwell. Then, as now, unwellness came in many forms – most invisible. Sometimes unwellness could be the feeling that things are just too much; that we want to cry because yet again, a million unimportant things have chewed away at us all day long. Travis knew how insidious such circumstances could be, and he wanted his clients to examine them with the intention of ultimately changing them. Things can improve, that was Travis’ basic message, and we are all the agents of that change.

Somewhere along the line, when corporate well-being became code for telling employees to deal with stress, not reduce it; and when being well became the privilege of the elite, this crucial message got lost. We would do well to remember it.  

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