Updated: May 20, 2021
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Chances are, when you think of the wellness world, you might think of the goop-y stuff first: the infamous $80 crystal-infused water bottle, or the $38 “brain dust” that promises to “nourish your consciousness from the inside out,” or the adaptogen-infused everythings. And why wouldn’t you? Wellness is a $4.5 trillion dollar industry, one that is partially built on the notion that both health and happiness are available for purchase.
I would know. Back in the Before Times, I worked as a magazine editor in that industry, and my desk was basically a mountain of lotions and potions. At first I was pumped to get all the free swag, but little by little, as investigating “high vibe” marinara sauces became my new normal, I began to feel disillusioned by the commercialism of it all. I loved the magazine itself, don’t get me wrong, but working there made me question the values of the entire industry at large. So I did what many curious journalists have done before me: I decided to write a book about it.
“True, authentic well-being is so much deeper than Lululemons and green juice when you look at it through a global lens. It’s about taking it back to the basics and nourishing your soul with the timeless cures that have always mattered most, like your community. And fresh air. And open skies. And a change in perspective
To write Destination Wellness, which is out today, I traveled to six different places around the world in pre-pandemic times: Jamaica, Norway, Hawai‘i, Japan, Brazil, and India. I interviewed locals and experts about their take on health and better living (especially how it differs from ours in the mainland U.S.). The gist? True, authentic well-being is so much deeper than Lululemons and green juice when you look at it through a global lens. It’s about taking it back to the basics and nourishing your soul with the timeless cures that have always mattered most, like your community. And fresh air. And open skies. And a change in perspective. Read on for some of the most genuine wellness philosophies and advice I unearthed on my travels, advice that helped me get through this incredibly dark year—and may even inspire you to book your first trip now that the world is opening back up once again.
1. Spend as much time outside as you possibly can—no fancy adventure gear required.
During my reporting trip to Norway, I learned that Norwegians are guided by a relaxed approach to the great outdoors known as friluftsliv. While Americans tend to associate “nature people” with adventure—those who sprint up mountains wearing heart rate trackers and neon gear—devotees of friluftsliv (which translates to “the free air life”) simply do everything they can to live as much of their lives outside as possible, no matter the weather. Walking to pick up fish from the fish market is friluftsliv. Picnicking in the park with your family is friluftsliv. Learning in outdoor kindergartens (yes, those are a thing in Norway) is friluftsliv. Even chilling in nature doing nothing but sprawling on the grass is friluftsliv. Ultimately, spending time outside comes down to not being inside; the people I spoke to are addicted to the mental clarity and reset only fresh air can provide. One local I interviewed in Bergen described this more pared-down spirit perfectly: “Friluftsliv is just this feeling that you get when you’re out in nature and you look around and you take a deep breath and it’s just...ahh. And you can finally relax.”
2. Reframe your friend dates as wellness dates.
I know, I know—throwing back multiple bottles of red wine with your girlfriends doesn’t exactly sound healthy, at least in comparison to a sweaty hot yoga class followed by an ashwagandha-infused green smoothie. But many Brazilians may beg to differ. “We think of well-being as a group thing—not an individual thing,” a Brazilian culture professor, Cláudio Torres, PhD, told me. “After living in the U.S. for five years, I found that wellness there is mostly about yourself. But the biggest factor of all in Brazil is your family—just being around everyone is the best way to feel well.” Brazilians value their loved ones so much, in fact, they even have a word for the deep emotional pain you feel when you miss them—saudade.
The moral? Next time you’re about to bail on your social commitments because you’re feeling too stressed or too lazy or too blah, remember that hanging out with people you love is actually a wellness practice—one that will likely make you feel much happier than you did when you were lying on your bed crafting your “I’m sorry / I can’t / Don’t hate me” text.
3. Honor the healing power of water.
A few years ago, scientists found that being near water is linked to increased well-being—a phenomenon now referred to as the “blue mind.” I love this emerging body of work, but many ancient cultures I focused on in the book have known that water soothes the soul all along. The Japanese, for example, have been bathing in the mineral-rich waters of onsens (natural hot springs) for thousands of years to heal their bodies, minds, and spirits. And over in Hawai‘i, locals have been performing various hi‘uwais—spiritual cleanses in the ocean that help release worry and stress—for just as long. The point is that lifting your spirits after a bad day may be as simple as heading out for a walk to the nearest body of water. And even if you don’t live near any yourself, you can still channel its healing powers at home: Recreate a Japanese onsen in your bathtub with super hot water and a sprinkle of Epsom salt (or fancier onsen salts if you’re so inclined), or simply put a pinch of salt under your tongue and let it dissolve. Sea salt is considered cleansing in many cultures, and one Hawaiian artist I interviewed told me that putting it under your tongue serves the same purifying purpose as an actual hi‘uwai ocean cleanse when done with the right intention.
4. Think of self-care as self-protection.
When I was back in Brooklyn after my travels, I interviewed a Rastafari chef, Michael Gordon, who explained that he creates a “bubble of vibes” in his apartment whenever he wants to remove himself from the pressures of urban living. “City life is hard, with everyone rushing around doing things, so you have to just build your own little world with your plants and your music and your cooking,” he told me.
I know that vibing out in your apartment is probably the last thing you want to do after this homebound year, but the overall sentiment still stands: Practicing wellness is about doing whatever you need to do to shelter yourself from modern life for a moment. Historically speaking, Rastafari were shunned and oppressed by colonialists in Jamaica, so they fled to the mountains to remove themselves from society and immerse themselves in nature. And in today’s world of longstanding systemic racism and xenophobia, many may also find themselves in need of similar spiritual protection. That protection may look a bit different for everyone—for some it may even mean speaking out rather than retreating—but the point is that it’s unfortunately become a vital part of our emotional well-being.
5. Simplify your approach to food.
Take one scroll through Food Instagram, and you’ll probably see all sorts of intricate culinary creations, like a rainbow smoothie bowl that is more like a work of art and a heaping pile of perfectly-twirled pasta with a strategically-placed cloth napkin peeking out from under the plate. No shade to the chefs, but why do our meals have to be so complicated? My inspiration for this question came during my reporting trip in Norway, when I went on a long hike with a group of friends who brought along a couple bars of chocolate, a lumpy loaf of bread, and a tube of jalapeno cheese—no made-for-Instagram hiking lunch in sight. To them, food was just sustenance, something that had to be eaten in order to stay outdoors for longer. Of course it’s a massive privilege to be able to think of feeding yourself as anything but sustenance, but for those who have this luxury: Maybe chill a bit on the food front? Not every meal has to be the best meal ever. Sometimes lunch can just be lunch, the simple thing that you must eat so you feel good and are not hungry until dinner.
6. Follow a routine to stay healthy (not to stay productive).
In India, I reported on wellness through the lens of Ayurveda, the ancient Hindu medical system and science of life. One of the most defining principles of Ayurveda is dinacharya, a daily routine that’s meant to help people maintain health and prevent disease. This routine is structured around the circadian rhythms of the Earth and generally involves waking up early, cleansing yourself first thing (scraping your tongue; washing your face, eyes, and ears; making time for your “toilets”), practicing yoga, and packing most of your eating into the earlier parts of your day (lunch should be your biggest meal so you have time to digest).
You know what it does not involve? Productivity. This is an especially important distinction for those who can’t stop reading the ever-popular “This Fortune 500 guy wakes up at 5 a.m. to exercise and eat a bowl of oatmeal” articles (hi, me). In capitalist cultures like the U.S., routines are often portrayed as a way to set yourself up for success—but Ayurveda taught me to think of them as a way to set myself up for overall well-being instead. Big difference!
7. ...but don’t forget to let life reveal itself to you, too. Like many people trying to figure it all out, I tend to get sucked into the “what is my life plan” tunnel fairly often: What’s my next career move? Where do I want to live in the future? When do I want to have kids? Now when I find myself spiraling down that rabbit hole of anxiety, I think of a conversation I had with a Hawaiian ocean navigator named Kala Baybayan Tanaka, who advised me to pay more attention to my instincts.
“We believe that you just have to listen and observe and feel the call of the mana (energy), and [the answer] will reveal itself to you,” she told me. “It’s a simple, very non-Western way of thinking, one that has helped me realize that things don’t have to be so complicated.” In other words, instead of trying to map out my life and hustle my way to my dreams, I should quiet the noise and let my instincts lead the way—they may even take me someplace more magical than I could have imagined. “More will come to you when you are calm and clear headed,” Kala continued. “And that applies in and out of the water.”
8. Honor every human interaction you can.
Of course it can be annoying when your neighbor stops to chat and you’re in a rush to get to a meeting, but cherishing those encounters is actually one of the ways many Japanese people stay well. This idea is rooted in the Zen Buddhist concept ichigo ichie, which translates to “one time, one meeting” or “once in a lifetime.”
Ichigo ichie originally described the idea that both the host and guest of a Japanese tea ceremony should recognize that this was a one-time, one-meeting moment, never to be replicated again. Today, it’s come to be used as shorthand for staying in the here and now. Buddhists believe that everything is impermanent, which inspires them to take their interactions very seriously—because every conversation could be their last. “Living this way helps me stay present in the moment, and appreciate each new day,” my hiking guide Keigo Ninomiya told me. “And to me, that’s wellness.”
9. Remember that we are all connected.
The Hawaiians I interviewed about wellness often seemed to tie everything back to aloha, which means far more than just hello and goodbye. On a deeper level, aloha is about love and empathy—two emotions that have become even more necessary for well-being throughout this trauma-filled year. “Saying aloha means you understand that there’s a connection between everything,” a Hawaiian language professor, Uilani Bobbit, explained to me over coffee. “I am not any more important than the tree because I am the tree. I am this dirt, I am this butterfly, I am this plant. Problems happen when we don’t recognize that we are all the same thing in different forms—so can we just work on recognizing that we’re all connected? That’s what the world needs.”
Reproduced courtesy Annie Daley, Vogue