why are we so unhappy? a brief history of wellness in america


Wellness didn’t exist until about 1970.

Surprised? Or at least, not as the modern concept as most of us understand it to be. Halbert L. Dunn, M.D. first began using the term “high level wellness” as recently as the 1950s. Dunn argued that wellness was more than simply the opposite of illness. He saw wellness as a pursuit toward self-actualization, in which the individual strives to move from lower levels of wellness to progressively higher ones.

Wellness is a luxury pursuit.

Wellness is a luxury pursuit. In the context of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, wellness sits at the very top in the realm of self-actualization. Maslow’s theory proposes that motivation is driven by different factors depending on the level of the hierarchy. Basic needs, such as food and shelter, must be met before an individual can progress to higher-level needs.


With the rise of technology and labor-saving devices after the 1950s, Americans were able to spend less time providing for basic needs. The end of World War II saw an increase in the country’s economic growth and rise of the middle class. Greater affluence meant that individuals became more focused on developing interpersonal relationships, self-esteem, achievement, and finding a higher purpose in life. Americans began searching for happiness.

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

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At the same time as they began seeking it, Americans found themselves becoming increasingly un-happy. There arose an actual need for wellness, in addition to a desire for it.

One major factor at work in creating this need included an increasing number of women joining the work force and a corresponding shift in traditional gender roles and responsibilities. Women now had expectations related to their career development as well as their ability to raise children and run a household. However, at the same time, the pressures of parenting in general were increasing, not decreasing. Baby boomers, born in the post World War II economic boom, wanted to provide their children with as many opportunities as possible — and thus, the helicopter parents were born. Parents in this generation actually spent substantially more time with their children than in previous generations and this trend continues today. Now, both men and women are expected to be simultaneously career-driven and family-oriented — which can result in a lot of unhappiness for everyone when these high expectations inevitably crash against the realities of life.

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In addition to the greater pressures related to work and family life emerging in the 1980s and 90s, a new movement was about to take place that would create additional expectations and higher standards for Americans related to physical health. Prior to this time, there was little focus on exercise as a lifestyle activity and most people were still eating microwavable TV dinners. But the culture was changing. In 1982, Jane Fonda released her first set of revolutionary exercise videos. Within two years, 24-Hour Fitness and LA Fitness both opened their doors to the public. The original Whole Foods market opened in 1980 in Austin, Texas.  In 2009, Michael Pollan wrote, In Defense of Food and Dr. Oz launched his infamous daytime television program. The result of all this is that it has now become socially unacceptable to be a couch potato eating Stouffers mac ‘n cheese while watching re-runs of I Love Lucy. Instead, we’re expected to be hanging out at the gym drinking cold-pressed green juice.

In sum, finding happiness

Today, as a result of all the cultural shifts since the 1950s,  Americans are expected to have a fulfilling career, loving relationships, successful children, a couple marathons tucked under the belt, and consume a primarily plant-based, organic, gluten-free diet.

If happiness = reality – expectations, then it’s no wonder the Self-Help section at Barnes and Noble is alive and well.

Wellness exists because we both want it and need it. Many Americans are motivated by the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy — to forge stronger social bonds, to gain the respect and admiration of others, to find meaning and purpose in life. We can seek high-level wellness because, for most of us, societal and economic changes of the past century have met our basic needs. However, these same changes have also created unrealistic expectations of what it means to live a fulfilled life. Wellness also helps us to close the gap. Mindfulness and meditation in particular are remarkably useful methods to help us focus on the good parts of reality, rather than spending time brooding about unmet expectations. As Abraham Maslow himself once said, “The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”

Wellness is a noble and worthy pursuit. It is not the creation of hippies and proponents of alternative medicine, but a natural consequence of larger historical forces at work in shaping American culture. In order to find happiness, we need to constantly seek out ways to be well and practice wellness — in whatever form — as often as possible. And if we strive to change our lives in this way, every day, then who knows what the next chapter of history will bring.

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