People doing yoga together outdoors in Richmond USA in 2015

A new cultural history of the 1970s wellness industry offers urgent lessons for today. It reveals that in the seventies, wellness was neither narcissistic nor self-indulgent, and nor did its practice involve buying expensive, on-trend luxury products. Instead, wellness emphasised social well-being just as much as it focused on the needs of the individual. Wellness practitioners thought of self-care as a way of empowering people to prioritise their health so that they could also enhance the well-being of those around them.

Wellness was much more practical, accessible and political

James Riley

Today’s wellness industry generates trillions of dollars in revenue, but in a new book, Dr James Riley (Faculty of English & Girton College), shows that 1970s wellness pioneers imagined something radically different to today’s culture of celebrity endorsements and exclusive health retreats. 

“Wellness was never about elite experiences and glossy, high-value products,” says Riley, noting that “When we think of wellness today, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and other lifestyle brands might come to mind, along with the oft-cited criticism that they only really offer quackery for the rich.” By contrast, in the 1970s, “wellness was much more practical, accessible and political.” 

The word, as it was first proposed in the late-1950s, described a holistic approach to well-being, one that attended equally to the mind (mental health), the body (physical health) and the spirit (one’s sense of purpose in life). The aim was to be more than merely ‘not ill’. Being well, according to the likes of Halbert Dunn and later in the 1970s, John Travis and Don Ardell, meant realising your potential, living with ‘energy to burn’ and putting that energy to work for the wider social good.

Riley’s Well Beings: How the Seventies Lost Its Mind and Taught Us to Find Ourselves, published by Icon Books on 28 March, is the first book to explore the background of the wellness concept in the wider political and cultural context of the 1970s. 

“Wellness in the 1970s grew out of changing attitudes to health in the post-war period – the same thinking that gave rise to the NHS,” Riley says. “When coupled with the political activism of the 1960s counterculture and the New Left, what emerged was a proactive, socially oriented approach to physical and mental well-being. This was not about buying a product off the shelf. 

“The pursuit of wellness was intended to take time, commitment and effort. It challenged you to think through every facet of your life: your diet, health, psychology, relationships, community engagement and aspirations. The aim was to change your behaviour – for the better – for the long term.”

Riley’s book also makes a case for what the 1970s wellness industry can do for us today.
“We’re often warned about an imminent return to ‘the seventies’, a threat that’s based on the stereotypical image of the decade as one of social decline, urban strife, and industrial discontent. It’s an over-worked comparison that tends to say more about our own social problems, our own contemporary culture of overlapping political, social and economic crises. Rather than fearing the seventies, there’s much we can learn to help us navigate current difficulties.”  

“It was in the 1970s that serious thought was given to stress and overwork to say nothing of such frequently derided ‘events’ as the mid-life crisis and the nervous breakdown. The manifold pressures of modern life - from loneliness to information overload - increasingly came under the microscope and wellness offered the tools to deal with them.” 

“Not only are these problems still with us, they’ve got much worse. To start remedying them, we need to remember what wellness used to mean. The pandemic, for all its horrors, reminded us of the importance of mutual self-care. To deal with the ongoing entanglement of physical and mental health requires more of that conviviality. Being well should be within everyone’s reach, it should not be a privilege afforded to those who have already done well.”

Mindfulness versus wellness

At the heart of Riley’s book is an analysis of the ongoing corporate and commercial tussle between ‘mindfulness’ and ‘wellness’. 

In 1979 Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where he taught ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’. For Kabat-Zinn mindfulness meant accepting the inevitable stress that comes with the ‘full catastrophe’ of life and adopting an attitude of serene resilience in the face of it. Stress could be alleviated thanks to a regular meditation routine and small changes made to the working day such as the decision to try a different, more pleasant commute. Little was said about altering the pace of the work causing the stress in the first place. 

By contrast, John Travis, a medical doctor who founded the Wellness Resource Center in California’s Marin County in 1975, talked about the health dangers of sedentary, office-based jobs while Don Ardell, author of High Level Wellness (1977), encouraged his readers to become agents of change in the workplace. Both saw work-fixated lifestyles as the problem. Work and work-related stress was thus something to fix, not to endure.     

Ardell argued that because burn-out was becoming increasingly common it was incumbent upon employers to offer paid time off to improve employee well-being. Better to be too well to come to work, reasoned Ardell, than too sick. “We tend to think that flexible hours and remote working are relatively new concepts, particularly in the digital and post-COVID eras,” adds Riley, “but Ardell was calling for this half a century ago.” 

Riley argues that the techniques of mindfulness, rather than those of wellness, have proved attractive to contemporary corporate culture because they ultimately help to maintain the status quo. Corporate mindfulness puts the onus on the employee to weather the storm of stress. It says, “there is nothing wrong with the firm, you are the problem, this is the pace, get with it or leave”.  

According to Riley this view is a far-cry from the thinking of seventies wellness advocates like Travis and Ardell who “imagined a health-oriented citizenship, a process of development in which social well-being follows on from the widespread optimistic and goal-oriented pursuit of personal health. It’s that sense of social mission that self-care has lost.”

Riley points out that this self-care mission had a very particular meaning in the 1970s among groups like The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which established clinics and ran an ambulance service for black communities in and around Oakland, California. “They were saying you’ve got to look after yourself so you can then look after your community. Such communal effort was vital because the system was seen to be so opposed to Oakland’s needs. One sees the deeply political potency of ‘self-care’ in this context. It meant radical, collective autonomy, not indulgent self-regard.”

The bad guru

As well as suggesting positive lessons from the past, Riley is also quick to call out the problems. “The emphasis on self-responsibility in wellness culture could easily turn into a form of patient-blame,” he argues, “the idea that if you’re ill, or rather if you fail to be well, it’s your fault, a view that neglects to consider all kinds of social and economic factors that contribute to ill-health.”

Elsewhere, Riley draws attention to the numerous claims of exploitation and abuse within the wider context of the alternative health systems, new religious movements and ‘therapy cults’ that proliferated in the 1970s. 

“It was not always a utopia of free thought. The complex and often unregulated world of New Age groups and alternative health systems could often be a minefield of toxic behaviour, aggressive salesmanship and manipulative mind games. Charismatic and very persuasive human engineers were a common presence in the scene, and one can easily see these anxieties reflected in the various ‘bad gurus’ of the period’s fiction and film. 

“There are plenty of voices who say they gained great insights as a result of being pushed to their limits in these situations,” says Riley, “but many others were deeply affected, if not traumatised, by the same experiences.”


In addition to exploring the literature of the period, Riley’s research for Well Beings found him trying out many of the therapeutic practices he describes. These included extended sessions in floatation tanks, guided meditation, mindfulness seminars, fire walking, primal screaming in the middle of the countryside, remote healing, yoga, meal replacement and food supplements.



J Riley, Well Beings: How the Seventies Lost Its Mind and Taught Us to Find Ourselves. Published by Icon Books on 28th March 2024. ISBN: 9781785787898.

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