Positive Health (but Where is the Voice of Spa?)

Recently a group of MAPP alumni gathered at University of Pennsylvania, to hear the latest and greatest updates on Positive Psychology from Martin Seligman, the Director of the University’s Positive Psychology Center.  I was particularly excited to hear him talk about the progress in discussions on “Positive Health” being funded by a $2.8 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Seligman has pulled together a team of health experts to figure out how they can bring a positive view of health and healthcare to the forefront.  Some of the initiatives they are working on include evaluating existing longitudinal research for pieces of data that might show a link between positive elements (hope, happiness, optimism, etc.) and illness (imagine the opposite of a “risk factor.”)  They are also discussing how to measure wellbeing in a way that doesn’t merely calculate the amount of illness and disease in the world, but also the amount of health and flourishing.

The spa industry (where I work,) has been talking about positive health for decades (if not centuries,) so it is exciting to see the medical establishment finally embracing some of these ideas.  Chris Peterson wrote about this new initiative on his Psychology Today blog yesterday:

This initiative has gathered together an interdisciplinary team from cardiology, psychiatry, psychology, epidemiology, exercise science, and public health to examine what it means to be healthy above-and-beyond the absence of symptoms and diseases. I am a member of this team, and part of our work has been to undertake research showing that attention to the positive matters for physical well-being, just as it does for psychological well-being, even when risk factors for morbidity and mortality are taken into account.

We have defined positive health as the scientific study of health assets: factors that produce longer life, lower morbidity, lower health care expenditure, better prognosis when illness does strike, and/or higher quality of physical health … over and above the usual suspect risk factors like hypertension, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle. The field of positive health overlaps with other fields like disease prevention, health promotion, and wellness but has its own signature provided by its explicit focus on health assets.

Peterson goes on to explain two proposals that the field of positive health generates:  First, (what he describes as a “modest proposal,”) that “’positive factors’ indeed predict good health.”  And second, (a “bold proposal,”) that there is such a thing as “super health,” and we’ve been too busy paying attention to the sick to ask any questions about why some people are healthier than others.

It is great to see a room full of some of the smartest minds in health sciences getting together and asking the right questions to increase the amount of human flourishing in the world.  My only criticism is that, like in most healthcare discussions in this country, the voice of spa is nowhere to be found.  Since I had a nagging doubt about that, I posted this question to Chris Peterson’s blog.  Read it and then let me know what you think:

Hi Chris,

I can’t help but wonder if there is room for a voice from the spa industry (full disclosure: my industry) in these discussions.  The spa industry often does not get considered in these kinds of conversations, and in some ways we are our own worst enemies.  We have a bad reputation for being unscientific, focusing on the superficial in beauty and medical spas, and being elitist in our pricing and marketing.  But the core and roots of the spa world is about positive and holistic wellness.  The spa might be the only healing institution in today’s society that people actually look forward to going to.  The spa industry has experience in a way that healthcare does not in treating healthy populations, focusing on prevention over treatment, and making people feel good while making them feel well.

By the way, as much as I would like to be that voice in the room and help to bring the contribution that I think my industry could have, I realize there are others who may be even more qualified.  For example, Richard Carmona, former Surgeon General and Vice Chairman of Canyon Ranch Resorts and Spas, or Dr. Mark Liponis, who is the medical director for Canyon Ranch.  Dr. Brent Bauer is the Director of Complementary and Integrative Medicine for the Mayo Clinic and serves as medical advisor to the International Spa Association.  Or maybe some of the founders of the modern spa industry, such as Deborah Szekely of Golden Door and Rancho La Puerta who has been talking about positive health for over 50 years, or Sheila Cluff of the Oaks at Ojai who has been living and teaching the benefits of a spa lifestyle for her entire life, and is still figure skating at almost 75 years old!  Or there is psychologist Nina Smiley PhD, who founded Mohonk Mountain House and teaches meditation techniques to her guests for stress relief, weight loss and general health.  Or Dr. Jen Seda, spa and medical consultant and co-author of “Happiness & Health”, who has begun doing research on the health benefits of spa experiences.  Honestly, the list could go on and on.

I realize only a small group can be selected to work on this particular project around positive health, and from what I have heard, the talents and experience around the table are already extremely impressive.  I only ask the question to plant a seed of recognition that we are experiencing a “spa-ification” of health care, even if we don’t see it as such.  Hospitals, clinics, and doctors offices are beginning to look more like spas, in large part because doctors are realizing that how an intervention is delivered has an impact on its effectiveness.  How the patient feels (emotionally) has an impact.  The setting has an impact.  The demeanor of the provider has an impact.

It is easy to dismiss (or even criticize) the spa industry for being less than scientific.  But I find it interesting that the science seems to be catching up with the spa industry, and not the other way around.

I would love to hear your comments on this one!

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15 Responses to Positive Health (but Where is the Voice of Spa?)

  1. Lisa Sansom November 2, 2010 at 9:22 am #

    Fantastic – I’m with you – and I’m not in the spa industry! And, slight tangent, I still have to wonder why positive health / physical well-being isn’t a pillar of flourishing in Marty’s theories… or else perhaps I missed it somewhere?? I didn’t see it listed in PERMA…

    And another aside, I can’t see the words “modest proposal” without thinking of Johnathan Swift… 😉

  2. Radha November 2, 2010 at 10:53 am #

    The spa industry is blessed to have you Jeremy!

  3. Dr Penny Marsden-Booth The Body Language Expert November 2, 2010 at 11:11 am #

    Great comments Jeremy. I hope they take you up on your offer. Imagine a prescription given by your G.P. for a week in a happiness/well-being clinic or a course of treatment involving lots of laughter. Positive psychology – increasing self-esteem is most definitely the way forward.

  4. Marie-Josee Shaar November 2, 2010 at 9:01 pm #

    The US definitely has some catching up to do here! If the positive health movement was headed in Europe, more certainly the spa industry would have a seat at the table.

    BTW, the word spa is used so liberally here that it may be the reason why it’s not taken seriously. I might have already pointed out on this forum that I am both amused and ticked when I see a beauty salon call themselves “SoandSo’s Hairsalon and Spa”. That’s a misleading overstatement that shouldn’t be tolerated. Spas and beauty salons are as different as nurses and surgeons. Both are quite useful, but for different purposes.

    And let’s consider “real” spas for a minute. There’s quite a bit of science involved here. From understanding muscles and how to treat them, recommending breathing and detox techniques, providing stress relief so one can think more clearly – all of these topics are at least as serious as positive emotions and engagement, in my view! Brand new research shows that the hippocampus of someone who is under severe stress is smaller than that of someone who is more relaxed – if that isn’t part of a full positive health profile, then I am with you in questioning why spas haven’t been considered – or why they have been rejected.

    Now of course there are other methods to relieve stress. Proper sleep, food, mood and exercise habits are certainly big components. But in today’s world where burnouts have been deemed the #1 cause of disability worldwide by the WHO, we need all the help we can get!

    Please post any response you get! I’m sure lots of us are eager to see if you made any progress!

    And Lisa, great question too! Why isn’t health in PERMA? I contributed to convincing Marty to include the A in PERMA – I’ll start working on adding an H in there! Anyone else on board? 😉



  5. Jeremy McCarthy November 2, 2010 at 9:25 pm #

    Thanks for comments everyone. MarieJ you are right about the use of the word “spa.” As I mentioned in my comment above, we are our own worst enemy because the word spa is used in many frivolous ways and I’m sure that has a lot to do with why we are not generally taken seriously in medical circles.

    I’m with you guys on adding something about physical health or fitness to PERMA but you better make it spell something cool if you want Marty to bite . . .

    HAREMP? HERMAP? How about if you use a W for “wellness” it could be WARPME.


  6. Marie-Josee Shaar November 2, 2010 at 10:21 pm #

    Marty likes the Army project very much, but I doubt he’d go for anything spelling WAR as part of his model! Maybe PERMAH? HAMPER? PAWERM? The more letters, the less he’ll like it, but leaving the acronym aside, health is undeniably part of the flourishing equation.

  7. shari mycek November 5, 2010 at 9:05 am #

    I have been literally been using spa and the wellness lifestyle as my ‘health insurance’ for 20 years – since launching out of corporate america as a freelance health/medical reporter. For years, I turned out now-unheard-of 3000-word+ feature articles on topics like HIV/AIDS, cancer, gang and domestic violence. In time, I burned out from writing about illnesses and diseases and moved toward the concept of preventing illness, taking care of body, mind, and soul. This was the early 1990s, and in my discovery of `spa’ and proven ‘complementary/alternative’ therapies (massage, acupuncture) as they were then known, I felt I’d found the fountain of health and happiness… I began writing on nutrition and the benefits of massage to a different (and like-minded) audience, who ate my words. But a piece me felt I was preachinig to the choir. For a stint, I turned attention back to my more medical pubs and tried to entertain my editors to merge their pages – they laughed at me and said I’d gone ‘woo-woo.”
    It has always baffled me that spa and the medical community were so at odds – competitive siblings both working toward the same end. And I’m with you Jeremy on asking for the spa voice to be heard at the positive health table! The time has come. It came ages ago. What shall we do now????

  8. Jeremy McCarthy November 5, 2010 at 10:09 pm #


    Thanks for sharing your story which comes from years of experience in and around the spa world. It reverberates with me and echoes the sentiment of my note above about the voice of spa. It would be great to simply gather all of the voices that have been speaking of positive health for several decades and compile them together as a testament to the spa industry’s dedication to healing and wellness.

    Thanks for reading and sharing your comments!

  9. trainer March 16, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

    It’s very exiting to find your psychologyofwellbeing.com site. What a neat blog! I love how appointed each of the entries are. They are well balanced, both informative and funny, and the pictures are nice too.

  10. AM Heidi C November 29, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    About me before I comment. I am 36 and have ten years experience as a Spa and Massage Therapist with Resort, Destination and Convention Hotel Spas. I am currently working on an undergraduate degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in Health and Mangement with a minor in History.

    The author states in the query to Chris I only ask the question to plant a seed of recognition that we are experiencing a “spa-ification” of health care, even if we don’t see it as such.

    It could also be called Balkanization and I think some Spa detractors within mainstream Health Care view it in this light. This fans the flames of a kind of secularized Eugenics because of the corporate nature of most Spas, in turn fueling the reactionary politics of groups like the FSMTB. The massage community HAD an undeclared war on it’s hands with the advent of the FSMTB and claimed that there was a moral collapse of the NCBTMB. The NCBTMB indeed has it’s share of organizational and leadership problems but I for one think there were partisan political issues being played out under the cover of these so called professional organizations. I am disgusted with both groups for doing so actually. Also, I am currenlty not practicing, so I don’t know how the history of the victor is being written right now. These organizations pipe a number of Spa Therapists into the Resort Spa Industry and some make the cut and some don’t for a variety of reasons. And they BRING THEIR POLITICIZED BAGGAGE WITH THEM.

    I don’t know that I agree with the idea of calling this roundtable a new or fresh start for inter Health dialogue. It’s a marketing ploy to me plain and simple.

  11. kathy@stolle.com February 22, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

    As usual, Jeremy, you nailed it! Your list of potential experts is spot-on and I’d only add http://www.spaevidence.com as an excellent tool and resource for anyone looking for evidence-based research to support their spa’s modalities. Spas will be taken more seriously as they shift to more wellness-focused messaging and as they make a conscious effort to bridge the gap between perceived fluff and the medical community.

    It’s doable and I agree that we need to find a platform for spas/positive health/wellness that has the potential and clout to be heard and taken seriously. Various associations are doing it in part, but spas and wellbeing is not the main focus. Ideas?

  12. Jeremy McCarthy February 23, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    Good point Kathy! This article was written before spaevidence.com was in existence but I’m glad you’ve added the comment on it. I think there is a growing movement towards bringing more science into the spa world but I would argue that the scientific/medical establishment has more to learn from the world of spa than the other way around! 🙂


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