Where did wellness come from? And where will it go? A short history of wellness

November 27, 2019

Thomas Nagel, famous for his philosophy of mind, once said that,

"There are elements which, if added to one's experience, make life better; there are other elements which, if added to one's experience, make life worse. But what remains when these are set aside is not merely neutral: it is emphatically positive."

That's how we like to think about life. Intrinsically good, but with certain additions, can be made even better. These additions, we believe, revolve around individual and collective practices to promote healthy lifestyles and behaviours. Wellness is the pursuit of this lifestyle.

Nagel's quote stems from his 1979 work. The work aligns with the initial boom of the wellness sector, which took off in the 1980s. Wellness now penetrates all aspects of our daily lives. To quote Harry Nilsson, “everybody’s talking about it”. But where did wellness come from? Have we always had the innate desire to eat nutritionally dense foods, journey to our yoga classes, and protect our mental health with trips to the seaside? 

Obviously, our earliest ancestors didn’t sip on kombucha to promote gut health. But what did they do?   


3000-1500 BC: Detailed in Vedas (a large body of religious texts originating in ancient India) was a tradition called Ayurveda. This practice was aimed to promote unity between the body, mind, and spirit. The balance found through practice was to prevent illness.   

3000-2000 BC: Easily recognisable due to its recent revival, Traditional Chinese Medicine stems far back in history, as one of the world’s oldest forms of medicine. Originally, traditional Chinese medicine was utilised to cultivate harmony in life through a holistic approach. Nowadays, there are several practices that directly stem from this ancient method – acupuncture, qi gong, and tai chi.  

The term ‘wellness’ stems from the 1650s and means the opposite of illness!

New intellectual movements in the West began spreading from the 1600s on. Now, a lot of these ideas have been discredited since and may seem particularly strange to us. But show someone from 2100 the isolation tanks we’re relaxing in, and they might think the same... 

Anyway! Though many of these movements no longer hold any grounding or proof, they have helped pave the way for the methods of wellness we pursue today.  

1781: Jeremy Bentham outlined his idea of the philosophy of utility which assessed the merit of an action according to how much happiness it produced. He suggested creating a sort of 'happiness calculator' for any given action, by balancing 12 pains and 14 pleasures.

1796: Samuel Hahneman, a German physician, develops homoeopathy – a system based on the belief that the body can cure itself. The practise involves using small amounts of particular natural substances (like minerals or plants) diluted in a solution of water.  

1810: Welsh social reformist Robert Marcus Owen proposes the 10-hour workday (and look at us, aiming for the four-day week!). By 1817, he’d refined his proposal to an 8-hour day, supported by the phrase “eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, and eight hours rest”.  

The first company to employ Owen’s idea was the Ford Motor Company in 1914!

1870s: Andrew Taylor Still creates osteopathic medicine. This practice involves the movement and manipulation of muscles and joints to treat back pain, musculoskeletal issues, and more.  

1880s: The study of nutrition gained a lot of traction in this century. By the end of the 19th century, many notable nutritionists began to explore dietary health. Maximilian Bircher-Benner, a Swiss physician, advocated a balanced diet of raw fruit and veg – as well as creating Muesli (what a guy). 

1950s: Halbert L. Dunn, an American physician, writes a book called “High-Level Wellness”. At the time, his work received very little attention. But by the 1970s, a large group of doctors and nutritionists picked up on Dunn’s ideas. From here, wellness kicks into high gear. 

1970sDr John Travis opens the first wellness centre in California. (Not like John Harvey Kellogg’s weird sanitorium, which you can read about here.)

1980s: Workplace wellness programmes, spas, and celebrity self-help experts bring wellness to the mainstream. 


In our age of consumerism and excess, obesity and chronic illnesses have become more prevalent than ever before. The need for wellness is greater than, potentially, ever. Luckily, the wellness movement seems to be keeping up with demand. The concept of wellness is now transforming every industry from finance to travel.  

Recent milestones: 

2010: The UK prime minister launched the National Wellbeing Programme to "start measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life."

2011-2018: Governments finally start taxing sugar (mostly in the form of sodas and soft drinks). Finland and Hungary paved the way in 2011, with countries such as France, Mexico, Chile, the UK, and Ireland in hot pursuit.  

2012: The first World Happiness Report is released by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. The report details the happiness of 155 nation-states – including the causation of their happiness/unhappiness - and the policy implications this has globally. 

2014: More than half of global employers using health promotion strategies. A third of these have full corporate wellness programmes. Healthy Nibbles is founded by CEO Sara Roberts.  

2017: The Wellness economy grows from a $3.7 trillion market in 2015 to $4.2 trillion in 2017—growing nearly twice the rate of the global economy (3.6 per cent annually). 


We have our fingers crossed that soon everyone will factor in the importance of workplace and homelife wellbeing. With 2 billion overweight globally, over 60% at risk of heart attacks due to overwork, and 1/3 sleep-deprived, wellness programmes are increasingly necessary. 

We also have a duty to the climate. Our health is irrevocably linked to sustainability. 9 out of 10 people now breathe polluted air worldwide. Our workplace wellbeing programmes must target sustainability.

What do you think is next for wellness?

Thanks to our friends at the WELL Institute for help with this article!  

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