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Lost in translation
Lost in Translation (2003)

When did isolating ourselves become the height of wellness culture?

Rooted in rising individualism, cutting everyone off might not be ‘protecting our peace’ in the way we think it is

Take the internet at its word and every month is “cutting off season,” a time to actively remove the people in your life who “drain your energy.” People go viral on TikTok for openly and proudly cutting off all their friends to “focus on themself”, a dialogue the wellness and fitness spaces routinely use to describe someone who avoids socialising in order to sleep early, work out, and prepare “healthy” meals at home. What might seem like promoting a healthy lifestyle, however, can often leave out arguably the most important element: connection. In our hyper-individualistic society, is cutting people off really the flex it’s made out to be?

In 2020 a controversial New York Times article “How to Rearrange Your Post-Pandemic ‘Friendscape’” went viral. In it, the author encouraged people to cut ties with depressed or fat friends and suggested that in order to stay “healthy,” you need to surround yourself with “healthy” people. The article has since been updated, but this rhetoric is indicative of how toxic wellness culture is today. Obsessed with productivity for productivity’s sake, the popular quote and book Your Network is Your Net Worth captures today’s approach to building friendships — commodified and transactional. Under this lens, a friend experiencing depression is a threat to our highly curated routines rather than someone in need of support.

Carl Cederström, associate professor at Stockholm University and co-author of The Wellness Syndrome, says the idea of some people being “toxic” was born from a combination of self-help culture and the clean living movement. “The idea that other humans can drag you down is a central motif in self-help culture,” he says. “Then clean living told us to get rid of everything, from ‘toxic’ things in your own body and your apartment, to ‘toxic’ people.” But what makes someone ‘toxic’? What rationale are we using to dispose of certain people?

Cederström says that we currently approach the concept of “health” as a moral issue. Fatphobia posits the idea that if you exist in a large body, you are somehow morally bad or lazy, something that gets reinforced through discrimination in medicine. However, according to a 2015 study, fat people who feel discriminated against have shorter life expectancies than fat people who don’t, proving that it’s often the social ostracization itself that causes the same health issues the wellness industry supposedly cares about. 

“The way that we take care of our bodies has become so much of a moral category that people feel entitled to weed out people who are bad,” Cederström says. “I think we could all accept that cutting off a friend that killed someone is a fair judgement but we’ve also labeled ‘unhealthy’ people as bad and therefore it’s become more socially acceptable to turn their back on anyone who doesn’t fit your category of health.” 

While physical health is often a factor in “cutting off season,” mental health is also often listed as a primary factor. This, says Dr Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University, cognitive scientist and creator of the popular Science of Well-Being course, is an important and valid step for many people experiencing emotional abuse or finding their mental health impacted by a loved one. “There’s lots of empirical evidence for emotional contagion; that we can literally catch other people’s emotions. So there is something to be said for regulating your access to people who are downers,” she tells Dazed. “That said, there’s also lots of evidence that we get a huge well-being boost from social connection. So we need to be careful with shutting ourselves off from others.”

Advocating for boundaries from a friend or family member can be an important step but toxic wellness culture has watered down the idea of “cutting people off” and stripped it of all nuance. Instead of encouraging a balance between prioritising self-growth alongside social connection, social isolation has become the glamorised height of productivity (the girl boss mentality lives on). 

“The key is to remember the importance of being around other people— even connecting with a stranger boosts our well-being” – Dr Laurie Santos

Our rising individualistic mindset has normalised our culture of self-obsession, where everyone is the “main character.” This has snowballed across social platforms in the past few years, with “main character” trends taking off on TikTok. While much of the discourse is self-aware and humorous, the consequences of a hyper-individualist society are often dire. In fact, the very things encouraged as a way to improve our mental health can actually make it worse. According to one study, for both societies and individuals, having individualistic values is associated with increased rates of completed suicide and suicidal behaviour.

Despite constant online connection, Gen Z and Millennials are far lonelier than the generations before them, with one in two young people reporting that they regularly feel lonely in a recent report. This can also lead to health issues, with social isolation significantly increasing a person’s risk of premature death from all causes (rivalling the risks of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity). 

While “focusing on ourselves” can be an important part of life, we all suffer when we aim for curation at the expense of our community. After all, if the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that we don’t exist in a vacuum. Instead of individual wellness being seen as the height of success, we should aspire to a more holistic view of community wellness, keeping in mind that community building and connection feed into our core needs as much as our neighbours. “I think the key is to remember the importance of being around other people; even connecting with a stranger boosts our well-being,” says Santos. It’s a mental health win-win.

We also need to reevaluate what it means to be at “full capacity” for human connection. The only people that benefit from us emotionally isolating ourselves are the billionaires whose pockets are lined by our insatiable desire for productivity, whether it’s through overworking or buying new products to help us “live better lives.” Perhaps those people, not depressed friends, are the ones who are truly “draining our energy” after all?