1: Setting the plot 

 After logging into the Canadian Government’s Wellness Together portal and completing your initial assessment, a “progress graph” materializes. The graph marks three points of departure: “mood,” “well-being,” and “functioning.” If you obey the email prompts and periodically rate, on a scale from one to five, the frequency of thoughts of self-harm, your ability to “stop or control worrying,” and whether you feel “useful” with “energy to spare,” the graph should begin to head in some direction.

I began my own “wellness journey” in early 2021. I was motivated by an academic interest in wellness culture, not an expectation of psychological help. Not that I didn’t need that too—help. The details of my personal niche of suffering within that collectively horrible epoch are neither unique nor enlightening. Suffice it to say that sedated sleep descended at random in empty, dreamless boxes, and nights alone in protracted lockdown were spent re-reading the nineteenth-century novels that shaped my childhood and (like many others, according to anecdote, social media, and The New York Times) re-watching the television of my adolescence. In both, I now realize, I was grasping at some scaffolding of story. “Where’s my arc?” asks Christopher Moltasanti early in The Sopranos, as he fumbles to write a screenplay to prop his pathetic, morality-gutted existence against Coppola’s and Scorsese’s false mythologies. Unlike Christopher, I wasn’t expecting dramatic peaks and valleys: no glory, no gunfire. Life in cold, careful Toronto had set me on the parallel tracks of social distancing long before the term entered the vernacular. I would have been happy with a polite and gentle arc. But even so, I continued to watch stories, read stories, tell stories, and graph stories with some hope that they would, somehow, help me get better.

The Wellness Together portal courteously informs users that there are no fees involved: no wellness bonuses for entering a credit card number. Even so, with each bi-weekly log-on, I could not help but sense something was being sold—although it remains unclear exactly what that could be. There must be money here, somewhere. Alongside the Canadian government, corporate sponsors of the program include Homewood Health, a for-profit company working to help clients lead not only “healthier,” but “more productive” lives. There are no prices to be found on the website advertising Homewood’s private residences, but the words “elegant” and “individualized” market the facilities, in their own words, as a “luxury destination.” Wellness together, indeed.

It is the journey that matters, reads the Wellness Together copy, not the destination. But what, then, is promised by that X on the treasure map at the bottom of my screen? And, as the weeks pass and my plot points populate, why does the resulting flat line feel so much like failure?

screenshot of Wellness Together


2: From self-help to self-care

Wellness remains a slippery term. The word began circulating in ways that ideologically align with current North American usage post-WWII. But, as Anna Kirkland writes, “the roots of the concept extend far back into the history of American ideas about health, morality, and responsibility” (959).  Wellness carries connotations of generalized positive feelings, while also signaling the ability to fulfill goals which are often, like  so many ambitions, pecuniary. Wellness can be found in both financial gain (you feel better because you achieve wealth)  and as a purchasable product (what you can buy with that wealth makes you feel better). Colleen Derkatch describes the insatiability of the North American wellness industry, where “even at big box stores, we can buy wellness teas, juices, smoothies, and cereals … advice books, aromatic tinctures, candles, magazines, and yoga sets” (2-3). While the Wellness Together portal points out the obvious— “higher scores mean better,” and your graph should move upwards— the endpoint remains elusive. Derkatch aptly labels modern wellness as “self-generating,” and a “moving target” (5); if one can never attain the elusive total wellness, then there is always more to buy, and more to sell. The arc, in other words, never reaches its climax. The catchphrase “build back better,” associated with governmental responses to COVID-19, evokes the concept’s paradoxical valence. Wellness signals both a nostalgia for an unsullied edenic state, and an ever-changing future ideal.

Wellness culture may be a twentieth-century phenomenon, but the market for self-improvement is nothing new. In 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species troubled humanity’s centrality in the history of life on earth and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty emphasised the individual’s role in modern democracy. That same year, Samuel Smiles published Self-help. By 1904, this treatise on “Character and Conduct” by the Scottish physician, journalist, and social reformer had sold over a quarter of a million copies in Britain alone and was an international sensation. As John Hunter describes, “Self-help … represented an attitude to life, a response to the extraordinary conditions of its time, and, in the long term, a catch-all for a thousand theories on how each of us can become master of our own fate” (2).

from Punch, or The London Charivari (July 21, 1883)

With his eerily eponymous name, Smiles slides so smoothly into caricature that one can forget that he was real. The Victorian enthusiasm for self-fashioning has a proclivity for parody. Smiles, though, was no humourist, and certainly not one for indulgence or consumerism. There are no Homewood-like luxury destinations in Self-help: neither as goal, nor as cure. His steadfast work-ethic appears as the antithesis of the ideals made manifest in the Wellness Together graph. But while Smiles’s thesis of “industry, punctuality, and self denial” (343) may omit spas and smoothies, the difference between self-care and self-help may be one of copy as much as substance. Today, pleasure and rest are regularly repackaged as virtuous and useful. Both contemporary wellness culture and Victorian self-help connote productivity, optimization, and progress, and function through comparison, fear, and precarity. Not unlike Derkatch’s moving target, Smiles warns that our individual characters—the result of proper self-help—are always in danger of corruption; without vigilance, we can at any point slip into slovenly sloth.

One category in the Wellness Together questionnaire probes users’ “ability to work.” Depression’s impact on day-to-day life, including work, should not be taken lightly; the specter of wellness, however, has permeated the workplace in insidious ways. Across fields, endless emails promoting training modules, workshops, and wellness tips often feel like a colonization of scarce time and fading energy. This has only increased post-2020. “The pursuit of workplace happiness — and its associated price tag,” Emma Goldberg writes, “can seem like a corporate alchemy that tries to turn feelings into productivity.” An alchemy that I see brewing in the nineteenth century.

A 2016 article in the British Medical Journal links Smiles to contemporary Neoliberal rhetoric encouraging patient empowerment. Whether in the boardroom or the hospital room, the idea that each of us not only can but should remain dedicated to improving our wellness finds roots with the Victorians. And the nebulous goals of productivity and success imply more than personal happiness. “The strength, the industry, and the civilization of nations,” Smiles reminds readers, depend upon “individual character” (417). And if any man, “smaller and less known” (25) though they may be, has the potential to succeed, then every man has the obligation to do so. Put simply, “individuals, nations and races will obtain just so much as they deserve” (417). Today’s wellness industry markets itself on individual choices, but often implies national, or corporate, returns. The unwell—however defined—have a duty to get better, or at minimum to demonstrate effort. As I clicked on my next email prompt, Wellness Together felt less a source of community support and more a civic responsibility.


3: Chasing the arc  

Wellness journeys may be largely fictional, but can fiction reveal anything about real wellness? “We may even exaggerate the importance of literary culture,” warns Smiles. “We are apt to imagine that because we possess many libraries, institutes, and museums, we are making great progress,” while “such facilities may as often be a hindrance as a help to individual self-culture.” Smiles’s aversion to literature, and especially novels (“positively pernicious” [177]), speaks to what in 1859 was already a longstanding concern. Literacy and access to print expanded exponentially in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, and fiction reading rose amidst a growing middle class. From the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, who lists novels among the diversions that prevent (largely female) readers from becoming “useful to others” (88),  to George Eliot’s 1856 essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” many worried over the corrupting influence of fiction. Amusement in moderation can be “wholesome” (366), Smiles allows, but too much fantasy not only wastes valuable time, but fosters false expectations. Novels proved poor models for the kind of steady, accumulative personal growth Smiles so revered.

Yet Smiles does not dismiss fiction full stop. The bildungsroman, which came to surpass the gothic horrors and romances Smiles, Eliot, and Wollstonecraft so derided, remains one of the Victorians’ most enduring literary and cultural footprints. These “novels of formation” also frequently align with the ethos of Self-help. Consider Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, serialized the year after Smiles’s text, where the notoriously workaholic, insomniac author traces the trajectory of the poor orphan Pip for whom, as Dickens’s paraphrases Paradise Lost, “the world lay spread before” (160); with a blend of good luck and hard work comes the promise of social, financial, and personal progress. Smiles also includes multiple literary figures among his litany of success stories, noting Shakespeare’s powerful “influence on the formation of English character” (28). In fact, Self-help in many ways reads as an index of condensed bildungromans. While not a fiction writer, Smiles had early success penning biographies, where he deliberately included personal and anecdotal details—less appreciable data, so to speak—alongside historical facts and figures. While never abandoning his central thesis of labour and perseverance, Smiles admits to the importance of rest; not just recuperative sleep, but also “leisure” (348). Before Self-help, Smiles wrote a book on physical education, where he provides guidelines for how to spend a day. Alongside exercise, study, and sleep, he allots time for “play,” “rest,” and “light amusement” (188). We all require periods of unquantifiable aimlessness. Not every action needs to be plotted.

Depression can be described as life without narrative. Perhaps, though, the desire for a linear life-story also makes us hurt. After all, most lives—as Eliot reminds readers in her prelude to Middlemarch (1871)—are “mere inconsistency and formlessness” (n.p.). We rarely experience the tumultuous passions of a Gothic heroine, or the clear, developmental plot points of Dickens’s Pip. Even the progress-driven Smiles believes “character consists in little acts,” often immeasurable (Self-help 367), and that “happiness,” if it does exist, “may become habitual” (206): not a goal, but a by-product. I am not attempting a rehabilitation of Smiles. Neither his individualism, nor his sentimental, conservative morals hold appeal. But I do believe that his attention to the subtle, repetitive patterns of daily existence—emphasizing rhythms of work, play, and rest—speaks to an iterative wellness that remains difficult to graph. Eliot ends Middlemarch with another gesture toward the circularity of life and potentially of fiction. “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending” (881), she writes, before turning to something else the Wellness Together graph ironically elides: the collective. There remains the “incalculably diffusive” effect of our invisible, “unhistoric acts” (889), our stubbornly unplottable selves, on those who surround us.

Coda: How to live

I once visited someone I love at an expensive Homewood facility. We lay side by side on a large, soft bed made with five-star hotel precision. I thought about high thread counts and stiff hospital sheets and wondered which details would survive when I inevitably made this a story. Heavily medicated, she rambled in non-sequiturs about her fellow in-patients—rich anorexics, a former professional athlete, a local politician’s ex-wife. As I left, she offered me single-serving bottles of San Pellegrino. “Take a couple extra for the drive,” she whispered, cradling the emerald glass. “We can have as many as we want here.” This effervescent treasure, if only for a moment, seemed to occupy the enigmatic X on her wellness journey map, and her first impulse was to include me in this secret knowledge. The next time I saw her she had forgotten my visit and the scene was played out on repeat.

Alongside “build back better,” that other pandemic refrain– “we are all in this together”—felt like a cruel farce from the start. There is, unsurprisingly, no such pretense of community in Self-help. Smiles’s litany of individual success stories, from which he asks his readers to draw on as example, do not model togetherness. As I continued to watch my lonely lines reach along the Wellness Together graph, my journey felt equally devoid of connection. The Sopranos oddly, lays bare the isolation beneath Christopher’s (and my own) longing for narrative. “You know who has an arc?” a fellow mobster teases, “Noah.” Stories should not be solitary. Plot lines intersect, and memories and fantasies are renewed, retraced, and rewritten with each retelling. Nobody boards the arc alone.

At some point, I began to sleep. I occasionally remembered my dreams, and then forgot them. The days got longer, as they always do, and then shortened again. “The question is not how to get cured,” writes Joseph Conrad, just a few decades after Self-help. “The question is how to live” (199). Two years later, my phone occasionally lights up with a prompt from Wellness Together Canada. My next self-assessment awaits. Each time, I consider opening the email and logging on. I also think about unsubscribing and deleting the record; any results of this half-hearted experiment will remain forever inconclusive. Instead I do nothing, letting the messages amass as evidence of the radical vibrancy of going nowhere. This may, in time, become a piece of a story I will one day share: another gradation within the flat line of a well-lived life.

Cover image: The story of a man with toothache, his attempts at self help and the final resort visiting the dental surgeon: twenty-four vignettes. Coloured wood engraving by W. Busch, 1862. Wellcome Collection.

Works Cited:

Conrad, Joseph. Lord Jim. Penguin, 1989.

Derkatch, Colleen. Why Wellness Sells  : Natural Health in a Pharmaceutical Culture. 1st ed., Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022, https://librarysearch.library.utoronto.ca/permalink/01UTORONTO_INST/14bjeso/alma991107221954406196.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. Penguin Classics, 2002.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Vintage Books, 2007.

—. “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” The Westminster Review, Oct. 1856, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/silly-novels-by-lady-novelists-essay-by-george-eliot#:~:text=’Silly%20novels%20by%20Lady%20Novelists’%20is%20an%20essay%20by%20George,silliness’%20and%20disregard%20for%20reality.

Goldberg, Emma. “Are You Happy? Your Boss Is Asking.” The New York Ti     mes, 16 May 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/16/business/worker-happiness-management.html?smid=url-share.

Kirkland, Anna. “What Is Wellness Now?” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, vol. 39, no. 5, Oct. 2014, pp. 957–70, https://doi.org/10.1215/03616878-2813647.

“Self Management of Depression and Other Stories . . .” BMJ, Feb. 2016, p. i700., https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i700.

Smiles, Samuel. Physical Education: Or, The Nurture and Management of Children, Founded on Their Nature and Constitution. Oliver and Boyd, 1838, https://books.google.ca/books?id=Al4EAAAAQAAJ&pg=PP8#v=onepage&q&f=false.

—. Self-Help : With Illustrations of Character and Conduct. Ward Lock, 1850, https://librarysearch.library.utoronto.ca/permalink/01UTORONTO_INST/14bjeso/alma991106219989906196.

Wellness Together Canada. https://www.wellnesstogether.ca/en-CA. Accessed 22 May 2023.

Wollstonecraft, Mary, and Eileen Hunt Botting. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Yale University Press, 2014.

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