“Wellness is a 21st-century secular belief system that, psychologically speaking, is fundamentally directed at avoiding death anxiety.”
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When Jen Gunter went to wellness conference In Goop Health in New York on a recent weekend, she wasn’t surprised by the matcha lattes, the B-12 shots, or the moon juice.
Gunter knows Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s health and wellness brand, pretty well. A gynecologist, she’s regularly called them out on her blog for their questionable medical advice for women.
What Gunter wasn’t expecting was to be told emphatically, just a few hours into the morning, that death doesn’t exist. In back-to-back sessions, Gunter tells me, this theme persisted. The attendees were informed by a variety of professionals throughout the daylong conference: Death. Wasn’t. Real.
“It was really death-heavy, and not in what I would consider a medically productive way,” she says. “This was a health conference, not a religion conference, so I’m looking at it from a health perspective.” The speakers included a psychic medium (“death does not exist”) Laura Lynne Jackson, Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurologist who says he died and saw heaven, and Anita Moorjani, who told the audience that cancer could be cured by love.
Gunter writes on her blog that there were problems with their accounts. “Dr. Eben Alexander wrote Proof of Heaven and claims he was dead and saw heaven with his dead brain,” she wrote. “Shockingly there are some holes in his story. In reality he did not die, he had delirium and a medically induced coma, both of which can give vivid dreams and hallucinations. Yes, he was sick and had a great recovery but he did not die and he did not see heaven.”
Moorjani, who told the audience that her brain had died while fighting lymphoma, was also in a coma—not dead—and while she said things like, “Your body is smart, it will heal naturally,” “It is easier being dead than alive,” and, “You can heal cancer with love,”—she didn’t mention that she received chemotherapy (probably a factor in her recovery).
I reached out to Goop to ask why a conference dedicated to wellness might focus so much on death and death denial. A rep sent me In Goop Health’s complete schedule, saying that it was “a full day of cutting-edge panels featuring health-defining doctors and experts discussing a range of content.” It’s true that besides the “death panels” there were other subjects explored, as well as activities like yoga, Pilates, manicures, facials, meditation, and more.
To be clear, I wasn’t there, and am relying on Gunter’s memory of the day. But I still found myself wondering, why include the death stuff at all? And with a stance many would consider extreme, that death does not exist?
When I went to Goop’s website, I found death there too. They admit here, at least, to two theories of death: One where "our essence is extinguished with our final breath," and another where "there might be something more on the other side." Then they say there's more evidence for the latter, and interview various experts who believe so too. "Life does not end in the way that many of us have been conditioned to believe," they write, concluding that this perspective "hopefully eliminates some of the fear that the end can bring.”
I have worried before that the so-called “wellness movement” is veering off the path of evidence-based nutrition, exercise, and stress management, into a murky world of supplements, crystals, and jade eggs. But this death thing really got me wondering.
In an environment where we’re bombarded with "clean eating," non-GMO, powders and dusts, energies and auras, is the subtext something more sinister? Are all those bright-filtered white airy rooms on Instagram an attempt to ward off something darker? Is the whole wellness movement rooted, not in health, but in death?
I should say up front that I’m not completely against the wellness movement. Most people who know me would even consider me an active member. I’m vegan, belong to a gym and a yoga studio, and am usually down to try the latest green powder, or adaptogenic mushroom hot chocolate. I’m an advocate for eating non-processed foods (though I’m not always great at it) and while I know many natural supplements have not been validated by research, I also think modern medicine hasn’t given a lot of them proper pharmaceutical examination.
But hearing about the Goop lineup made me question what my own motivations are for wanting to “eat clean.” Do I have an unconscious death fear that I’m alleviating via an extreme diet and lifestyle? Do I think that because I’m vegan I’m going to live longer? Honestly, maybe. I’m hoping that my diet, which is lower in saturated fat and higher in fiber, will afford me better health than some of my peers. But is that why I eat and live the way I do? Why do I go to yoga? For life, or for death?
Instead of screaming these questions at the night sky, I sought out some people who have made careers of studying the effects of death awareness on our behaviors. Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski coined the Terror Management Theory in the 1980s, a theory that says that our subconscious and conscious death anxieties drive a lot of what we do. In other words, our actions exist to manage terror.
When I called up Solomon, he says he saw Gwenyth on Colbert recently, and—even before my email—he was struck by a lot of the same questions I was grappling with. Before talking about wellness, he gave me some background on what Terror Management Theory is all about.
In 1973 Ernest Becker wrote a book called The Denial of Death. He argued that humans, like animals, are biologically predisposed to want to stay alive. But unlike other animals, we have these pesky advanced cognitive abilities. They give us the capacity to think abstractly and symbolically, to reflect on the past and anticipate the future. They also make us explicitly aware of the fact that we exist—and that one day we won’t.
If you’re smart enough to know that you’re here, Becker wrote, you’re also smart enough to know that your life will someday end. It can be terrifying to realize that not only will you die some day, but that you can die at any time for reasons that you can’t anticipate or control.
“Like it or not,” Solomon says, “We’re living, breathing pieces of defecating meat that aren’t more significant or enduring than lizards or potatoes.”
If, at the end of the day, my life’s significance rivals that of a potato, how am I supposed to get up in the morning? Why aren’t we constantly paralyzed by existential terror? “What Becker proposed is that the way we human beings manage that existential terror is to embrace culturally constructed belief systems that we share with other people,” Solomon says.
These “belief systems” make up pretty much our whole society and culture, Solomon says. Any nation, group, or family you belong to allows you to think your life has meaning. It’s also why, according to Becker, most of us don’t constantly worry about death—we’re actively suppressing the awareness that we will someday die through these activities.
“That gives us a sense that life has meaning and that we have value," he says. "In turn, that not only makes us feel good about ourselves in the moment, but also conveys the hope of immortality.” This can be literal immortality, as is offered through many religious beliefs and communities, or a more symbolic immortality: If you devote your life to a creative career, your work or legacy could live on without you; if you are invested in a family, your genes will live on; if you succeed in business, your heaps of money will live on.
Solomon and his colleagues found Becker's ideas both extremely profound and extremely simple. Inspired, they brought people into the lab, reminded some of their mortality—but not others—and watched how it affected their choices, thoughts, and behaviors.
What they found is that almost everything—there have now been over 600 experiments done around Terror Management Theory—can be affected by subtle death reminders. Being reminded of death can both make people act more rationally, like putting on sunscreen, but it can also make you seek out immortality, or even turn you against people that are different than you.
In an experiment from 1987, they subtly reminded some municipal court judges in Tucson, Arizona of their death, and not others. They found that those who were thinking about their mortality gave more severe sentences to prostitutes. Death made people defend their core beliefs, the groups they belong to, and ideologies, and so the judges acted on their own moral values more severely.
In 2004, the researchers found that reminding people of their deaths, or of 9/11, was associated with more support for George W. Bush and counterterrorism programs. In another study, death reminders increased the amount of money people thought should be rewarded for reporting a criminal. “So after being reminded of death, we react generously to anyone or anything that reinforces our cherished beliefs, and reject anyone or anything that calls those beliefs into question,” the authors wrote.
Interestingly, only death reminders could produce effects in their experiments. Other ideas, like social rejection, failure, physical pain, even losing a limb didn’t lead to similar behavioral alterations.
Another effect they saw, according to Jeff Greenberg, one of the other social psychologists behind Terror Management Theory, is people seeking out what Goop calls "the other side." "Even if you subliminally prime the word death, you see people gravitating more toward belief systems that provide comfort of either an after-life or a sense that one has a symbolic immortality," he says.
That's why we want to protect our identities and group identities too, be it religion or otherwise–for that promise of immortality. If you belong to a religious group that says you will live on in heaven, being reminded of death will prompt you to defend that group, so your promise of heaven is maintained. If you find a more symbolic immortality through the Republican Party, modern art, or the judicial system, it still becomes important for you to stick up for that when you feel threatened, to protect your own unique way of managing the terror of death.
When we talk specifically about Goop and wellness, Solomon says that as a form of terror management, it’s not particularly unique. Of the two kinds of immortality, Goop promises the literal one.
Everyone from scholars, religions, and philosophers to kings and queens have been searching for and describing literal immortality for thousands of years. What’s considered the first-ever written story, based on an ancient Sumerian poem, was about Gilgamesh: a ruler trying to find something, anything, to stave off death.
Our superfoods now are kale, acai, and coconut oil. In the past, it was the fruit of the magic Jambu tree for the people of India, or for the Celts, eating enchanted foods or using a magic vessel. There are countless tales of magical water and fountains of youth that would protect you from the inevitable. The Taoists thought through strict diet and exercise, with an extra focus on the power of breathing, they could evade death. Renee Descartes ate a vegetarian diet and small, frequent low-calorie meals, thinking through this strategy he could greatly extend his life (he died at 54). Sound a little familiar?
“[Wellness] is a 21st-century secular belief system that, psychologically speaking, is fundamentally directed at avoiding death anxiety,” Solomon tells me. “Because, in part, it’s convincing oneself that the right regimen of diet and exercise will either keep you perpetually young, or at the very least, perpetually alive."
There's a lot of truth in the power of healthy eating and lifestyle. But many wellness trends often overstep those facts, by a lot. The anti-vax movement, the supplements, the false dichotomy of nature versus science–these things have more to do with enchanted waters of long ago than with western medicine.
And doesn't the rejection of western medicine, like claiming that love cures cancer, make you more eligible for an early death? Perhaps, Greenberg tells me. But there’s something oh so enticing in a magical solution. “When you rely on true science, and scientific evidence, you live with a lot of uncertainty,” Greenberg says. “A lot of things are not understood. When somebody sells something with certainty, there’s an appeal to that.”
If there’s one consistent thing I've noticed among many of the wellness products, it’s the element of certainty in their marketing and the way they're talked about in wellness circles. Taking collagen peptides every day will definitely give you luxurious hair and nails. Drinking kombucha will absolutely improve your microbiome. There’s no doubt that drinking apple cider vinegar in the morning will help digestion.
These are habits I often indulge in–I drop a good amount of change on Healthade each week–so I don’t mean to disparage them as occasional practices, nor do I claim to know their effects. But the point is that we don’t know for sure. And if you find yourself arguing that you do, it might mean you’re using them less for their health benefits or personal enjoyment, and more to assuage a darker fear.
Greenberg tells me that we should strive for lives that are enjoyable, and being "well" to avoid dying might lead to the opposite. As a thought experiment, he offers: If for every hour of exercise you extended your life by one hour, but you hate exercising, then you’re spending the extra hour you gained doing something you hate. What's the point? “Sometimes the things you enjoy might shorten your life a little bit,” he says. “But then you had an enjoyable life.”
But wouldn’t it be even more enjoyable to drink the moon juice and think that death doesn’t exist? If there’s no fighting death anyway, can’t I just take solace in the false but comforting belief that a mixture of green drinks and love will protect my body from all future ailments? Solomon bursts my bubble, saying that according to their work, this kind of thinking is problematic.
Greenberg and Solomon don’t think the goal of terror management is to rid us of a fear of death. First, they don’t think it’s possible. “Our view is that the fear of death is natural in an organism crafted by billions of years of evolution to avoid premature termination at all costs,” Solomon says. “So, death anxiety is not going to go away.”
He says they make a distinction between conscious and unconscious death thoughts. “Death anxiety is most problematic when we repress it,” Solomon says. “When we bury it under the psychological bushes, it doesn’t stay there. Our research has shown it manifests in a variety of unfortunate ways. Everything from hating people who are different to voting for people who say that they’re uniquely capable of ridding the world of evil, to pissing on the environment to wanting to buy more stupid stuff.” In many cases, acknowledging that we'll die is when our fears make us better people, or more grateful for our experiences.
What Solomon is lobbying for is what he calls "the psychological sweet spot." You don’t try to banish death anxiety, but you don’t become so consumed by it that you’re paralyzed by it, or that you feel the need to defend your group at all costs. How do you know if you've found this sweet spot? You should also be amenable to change, and not inflexible about your beliefs. “How do you get the death denial elements out of a commitment to wellness?” Solomon says. “One way would be to be aware of and willing to amend your opinion in light of the facts.”
At Goop, this might have looked like Moorjani saying that love didn’t completely cure her cancer, but discussing the importance of addressing mental health and support from others during a serious illness. Or Alexander admitting it’s possible he didn’t literally “go to heaven” but talking about the neuroscience of near-death experiences and theories of what they might mean. These are fascinating topics. But when they’re presented with only one explanation, it’s hard to see them beyond what they are: a death-denying fetish.
Same goes with healthy eating and my own wellness practice. I’m not going to start eating ice cream and bacon for every meal, start smoking, and never work out again just to prove I don’t have a death anxiety. After all, I want to feel good, have energy, and be able to move my body even as I get older. In those ways, I think my desire for wellness is rooted in a love for life, and not a fear of death. But when that extreme all-or-nothing voice pops up—as it does with so many of us—saying that something isn’t "clean" enough to put in my body, or imagining that if I just take this one supplement my health will be amazing, I'll try to remember what that whisper contains: my own little piece of the terror.
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