The Promise of Spa

Wisdom - Seeds of Light by h.koppdelaney.

Wisdom – Seeds of Light by h.koppdelaney

This week, Intelligent Life magazine posted an article on their blog refuting the benefits of spas.  Spas often take a bad rap as being a superficial luxury indulgence (“dedicated to narcissism” the Intelligent Life article says.)

The article describes spas as “a mish-mash of promises” using a hodge-podge of modern technologies alongside ancient healing remedies to promise everything from better health and beauty to psychological wellbeing.

On one level, spas deserve some of this criticism.  Many spas do overpromise in their marketing materials, promising unproven or untested benefits.  “Anti-aging” for example, which is much easier said than done, is a common theme in the industry.

The spa industry also suffers from the problem that the word “spa” has been used ubiquitously and imprecisely, and often describes facilities that are not really offering wellness, but focus more on superficial beauty treatments.

Many people, for example, are not aware of the truly healing and life enriching experiences that are available at destination spas.  And people do not realize that the name “medical spa”, which is now more commonly used to label beauty spas where botox injections and laser hair removal services are performed, was once used to describe wellness spas, where a physician supervised true medicinal treatments and healing programs.

spa bento
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Sakurako Kitsa via Compfight

The good news is, these healing spas do still exist, and the spa industry is filled with passionate individuals who are committed to improving their clients’ well-being across mind, body and spirit.  So the question is . . . how do we go from the common perceptions of spa (sometimes accurate and sometimes not) to the promise of what a spa experience can really be?  How can spas change the way we think about modern healing?

I look to spas with an incredible sense of reverence.  Spas are different from other healing institutions in our society, and fill in some important gaps in the way we look at human wellness.  I think the following principles describe a promise of spa that could change the way we look at healing in our society:

Rama Day Spa
Photo Credit: Thomas Wanhoff via Compfight

1.  Healing is holistic.  Unlike modern physical medicine which seems to view the body as a machine, spas understand that true wellness is achieved by treating people holistically across mind, body and spirit.

2.  Prevention is the cure.  While modern medical systems seem to be content to wait for people to become ill and then figure out what drug, surgery or procedure can be used to fix them, spas promote a healthy lifestyle encouraging healthy eating, exercise and mind-body practices that prevent illness in the first place.

3.  We can heal ourselves.  Most of medicine for most of human history could be boiled down to the placebo effect, a.k.a. self-healing.  Indigenous or shamanic rituals were used (effectively in many cases) to aid people in healing themselves without the aid of scientifically proven, technologically advanced or pharmaceutically induced interventions.  Spas still pay homage to the importance of ritual, alternative healing methods, and encouraging self-healing.

4.  Healing should feel good.  I find it interesting that we dread going to most of the healing institutions in our society.  Doctors, hospitals and clinics are all designed to make us feel better and yet we detest going to them.  The spa may be the only healing institution in modern society that we actually look forward to visiting.  I believe the way a healing intervention is delivered has an effect on the outcome, and spas have figured out how to deliver their treatments in an enjoyable way.

5.  Healing is not only high tech, it’s high touch.  It’s not only about the next piece of new technology or pharmaceutical innovation.  Sometimes people just need to be heard and sometimes people just need to be touched.

Given the diversity and fragmentation of the spa industry, it is natural for consumers to be somewhat confused.  Do spas today offer healing and transformation or pampering and beauty?  They offer both.  But the promise of spa is a new way of looking at healing that considers the whole person, focuses on prevention and taps into our own abilities to heal ourselves.

References and recommended reading:

Browse research on the science behind spa offerings at

The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing


by Jeremy McCarthy

I will be donating 100% of the revenues from pdf e-book purchases this month to recovery efforts for victims of Hurricane Sandy.  See The Psychology of Spas and Wellbeing.


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27 Responses to The Promise of Spa

  1. Sara November 20, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    Reading all your good principles for healing, I’m still left with the sense that ‘spa’ has become yet another lost word in its current usage. Something seems awry when we have to explain to people or engage in any kind of persuasion regarding what’s good about something. All the criticisms tell me is that some are questioning industry motives and methods. What caring individuals, and the healing venues they create, do might be different – yet no longer usefully classified as spa.

    When I recall the delightful photos of other mammals enjoying wild hot springs, I’m reminded that what (to me at least) might have been the quintessential spa experience can be quite simple, natural, communal, local. In our increasingly overpopulated, overused world, could we bring such humble healing benefits back to people and places in a mutually sustaining way? Is the globalizing, complex, market-based remit of spa-as-industry actually what the world needs for wellness?

    Maybe we need to let go of our definitions and regulations, our progress and plans, to look more carefully and honestly at what is being offered and who it is benefiting. This is not to say that those principles are not good ones (spa didn’t invent them) but rather that so far we as a species have not had a very good track record either in healing ourselves or caring for the people and planet around us. Spa doesn’t have the last word on this. It might take a shift in our entire cultural and economic perspective.

    Not to say that this would be easy!

  2. Kathy Stolle November 20, 2012 at 11:59 pm #

    I saw the article from Intelligent Life and questioned it as well. All “coulds,” “shoulds,” and “what ifs” aside, (see above) let’s look at the Now and try to figure out why the spa industry has been able to not only survive the downturn, but continue to grow. What continues to draw men and women to spas, rather than spending their hard-earned time and money elsewhere? It makes them feel good – bottom line! There aren’t many places we can get away from it all – even if only for an hour – anymore. Being touched in a gentle, healing way is the icing on the cake.

    And, just like the concept/word “restaurant,” where you have everything from McDonalds to five star dining, spa is beginning to differentiate into 1 – 5 star products and experiences as well. It demonstrates that people at every level and from every demographic are availing themselves of the variety of services, treatments and physical environments that make our “industry” so desirable. Sure there are “spas” out there that probably don’t deserve to use the word “spa” in their name, but I have confidence in the consumer’s ability to make informed choices and weed them out.

    What bothered me the most about the Intelligent Life article was that the author seemed to throw all spas into one big pot, stir vigorously and then look at the resulting mishmash with a jaundiced and less than objective eye. My sense is that this is true of many other individuals who haven’t taken the time to learn more about spa and dismiss all that you’ve described above with something close to derision. It’s too bad, really….

  3. Jeremy McCarthy November 21, 2012 at 10:04 am #

    Sara and Kathryn, thank you both for your comments which both eloquently express different perspectives on spa. Sara, you said, “Something seems awry when we have to explain to people or engage in any kind of persuasion regarding what’s good about something.” But I tend to agree with Kathryn that not only do spas continue to draw people to them, but they have always done so. Almost every culture in every geography in every time period since the dawn of man has had some kind of center for communal healing. The ubiquitousness and popularity of spa points to its strength. There are always naysayers for anything, so I wouldn’t define our industry by them.

    That being said, spa is still an activity that only touches a minority of the population. In the U.S. estimates are between 25% and 30% of consumers that have been to a spa. This leaves an overwhelming majority out of the equation and we have to ask ourselves why. Certainly, a part of the answer in our culture is the luxury stigma and pricing of spa that excludes certain market segments (new models such as Massage Envy are changing this.)

    I called this article “The Promise of Spa” because I see so much potential here that is yet to be untapped (so I can’t help but wonder about the “shoulds” and “what ifs”.) But I agree with Kathryn that the word spa has evolved and is a broad classification. Rather than eliminate the word or redefine it, it will be a matter of those within the broad spa segment defining themselves and distinguishing themselves from the masses. The restaurant analogy is a good one.

    Just a few hours after I published this article a new study came across my desk on the benefits of a spa visit:

    It’s a small sample size so doesn’t carry too much weight scientifically but it only confirms what those who work in this industry see every day with their clients. The main problem I see with it is only about 2% of spas in the U.S. offer these kinds of “week at a health spa” experiences. Most of the spa industry is offering brief interludes of silence and touch.

    It is much harder to measure the impact of an hour at a spa than it is to measure the impact of a week. But I believe the impact is there. In this article:

    I covered a research study that found a physiological effect from a single Swedish massage–a rare study that was done on a healthy population.

  4. Kathy Stolle November 21, 2012 at 12:03 pm #

    Thanks for the UPi article, Jeremy…I had completely forgotten to congratulate you on winding up – deservedly so – on the Top 20 Positive Psychology blogs of the year!

  5. Sara November 21, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

    Hi Jeremy – In my dream for the future every place would have its ‘center of communal healing’ , owned and operated by the people who used it rather than corporations. If the industry that has grown up around practices that support fundamental human needs for wellbeing succeeds in keeping that possibility alive and then giving it back to the people, it will have served us all well.

    I’m still wondering if we really need to focus on trying to prove that some of these simple caring practices are beneficial. All we seem to end up with is strangely conflicted reports like the UPI article which draws us in with a positive title and ends with a dire warning. No wonder some people become cynical about it all. And perhaps even more so when they know they are seen as consumers and market sectors.

  6. Jeremy McCarthy November 21, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    HI Sara, I agree with you. I also think businesses like spa that are offering wellbeing get held to a double standard. Nobody questions corporations that sell cars and computers but we don’t think businesses should make money off of wellbeing. This differential to me indicates a flaw in how market economies work.

    I have read two interesting books about this subject recently. The first is “What Money Can’t Buy” by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel. I wrote about it here: It’s a look at how a “free market” or market thinking can suppress morality. Health care is an obvious example of this.

    And then I just read (and loved) “Practical Wisdom” by Barry Schwartz. Barry was one of my professors in positive psychology and also wrote “The Paradox of Choice.” His new book is about how systems intended to incentivize and streamline efficiencies have a tendency to kill practical wisdom.

    Both books are great reads and highlight flaws in our current economy. In both books, health and education are prime areas where we see how market thinking can work against us rather than for us.

  7. Sara November 21, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    Many thanks Jeremy – those books sound wonderful resources for grappling with these contradictions. Thank you for sticking with me as I continue to try to reach across the gulf of what I feel in my heart and what I see happening to our world.

    Talking of books, I’m reading ‘Circular Therapeutics: Giving Therapy a Healing Heart’ by Hillary Keeney with Bradford Keeney. A call to surrender preconceptions about therapy, and ‘…inviting us into a dance of helping, healing, learning and knowing’.

    Wishing you a very happy thanksgiving and enjoyable upcoming travels.

  8. Lisa Sansom November 22, 2012 at 10:27 pm #

    I know very little about the spa world,and though I dream of going to a spa myself, the honest truth is that when I get there, I’m often bored. When I read your article above, one thing that is missing (that I think would be very healing) is community. When people to the spa, are they alone or with friends? Does the spa help to create and foster community? Do people feel a sense of belongingness at a spa?

    As I understand, in the long history and tradition of spas, community and gathering was part of the ritual (way back when, when people did more of those things). Now, it seems like spas are less of a communal healing place, and more of a solitary quiet place.

    Again, I’m basing this on extremely limited date (my few trips to a spa location) and I’m interested – what do you think the impact / influence on healing might be?

    Cheers & all the best for your upcoming travels!

  9. Jeremy McCarthy November 23, 2012 at 10:14 am #

    Hi Lisa, I think you bring up a very good point and the answer is: it really depends on the spa (goes back to comments above about the diversity of what is a spa.) Here in New York I see a hotbed of social spa activity: there is the massive korean mega-spa, Spa Castle, with extensive facilities and spaces for socializing. It is packed with groups, birthday parties, bachelorette parties, wedding parties, girlfriends getaways, FAMILIES (it is kid friendly!) Then there are the Russian Baths in Manhattan where some of my friends go after work in lieu of happy hour and have a steam bath together. And I haven’t been there yet, but a new spa called Aire just opened in Tribeca modeled after the communal Roman baths.

    Sometimes a spa is a great place to go with friends, and sometimes it’s a great place to be alone and have some space and silence so it really depends on a lot of factors. In our “Heavenly Spa” concept we offer hooded robes so it gives guests the option to socialize (hood down) or internalize (hood up.)

    Another aspect of this are couples’ treatments which used to be a rare signature experience at certain premium spas and have now become the norm. Almost every high-end spa now has a couples’ suite where two people can come and share a spa experience together. Thanks for highlighting this important aspect!

  10. Oz November 23, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    Pp and spa fit perfectly – lots of hype but minimal evidence of long term efficacy

    I think I have sad this in the past – exercise, nutrition, sleep, meditation, enough money to get by and a good partner are all you need in life

  11. Jeremy McCarthy November 23, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    Oz, I know you think you have all the answers but some people are not so lucky. Think of spa as a gateway drug to most of the things on your list.

  12. Oz November 24, 2012 at 2:46 am #

    Jeremy – sounds like you have the evidence

    Spa as a gateway to all the things I mention.

    I think you have just become intelligent life’s golden boy

    Let me throw this challenge up to you

    Provide me evidence of long term efficacy of any pp/ spa intervention with a control in place and I’ll donate 100 to the charity of your choice.

    Also as to have a decent effect size

  13. Oz November 24, 2012 at 2:54 am #

    Jeremy – by e wy by control I mean placebo control

    By way of a heads up I have been having a conversation with a meaning guru who acknowledged up front there are no proven meaning interventions

    I don get why you insist on making spa out to be something it isn’t

    Why not jut accept I makes people feel good or a short period of time?

  14. Jeremy McCarthy November 24, 2012 at 7:47 am #

    Oz, Why not just accept that there is more than one pathway to wellbeing? You can look at evidence in my book or on But you and I do not look at science the same way. You like to shoot down every study you see because it doesn’t “prove” anything. I don’t think spa or PP are “proven” interventions but I don’t think many things are. Science, even placebo control RCTs, don’t prove anything. There is no such thing as a perfect study, but there is evidence and there is experience. I have seen enough of both to form my opinions about spa and PP, but I am not claiming proof, only my opinion.

    BTW, I don’t disagree with your last sentence. Most spas do primarily three things: 1. they make people feel good (“relieve stress” is the #1 reason people say they go to spas) 2. they provide a time and space for silence, separation from technology and mindfulness, and 3. they (sometimes) nudge people towards a healthier lifestyle. This might not be a panacea, but it is a good thing and many people benefit from it.

  15. greg payne November 24, 2012 at 8:10 am #

    great article, and to reply somewhat to Oz who feels that spas can only be a short term feel good factor. Spas provide an opportunity, rather than a promise of well being, for some that may well be a one hour well deserved pampering break from the pressures from the world, for others, the changes in consciousness that can be affected during the treatment can lead to life changing events.

  16. Sara November 24, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    There are so many layers to the topics being considered here.

    One of the things that interests me, is that there is still such a gaping hole between ‘evidence’ and its ‘application’. This recent article on the problems with science journalism, which also includes some valuable commentary at the end, is relevent:

    I would also suggest that many of the healing practices adopted and adapted by spas just do not fit current conventional scientific research models. This is because they are based in subjective experiences such as those Jeremy has referenced in his article.

    It’s possible that we will develop more suitable research models and more honest reporting. Meanwhile, I would like to see some acknowledgment of the problems, or less denial of them, in industries tempted to create and sell fantasy.

    One way for ‘spa’ to prove itself might in the end be the simplest of all. If what is on offer is truly effective, enjoyable, accessible, and worth every dollar spent to the spa visitor, people will just keep coming back for more when they need it.

    I appreciate you Jeremy for keeping conversations like this going, for trying to connect all the parts, and for believing with a passion in what you love while still opening yourself to greater understanding. We can all try to do this, all the time.

  17. Kathy Stolle November 25, 2012 at 9:26 am #

    Sara and Oz – I agree that there are any layers to this discussion. My question to you: have you actually looked at It is an aggregation of four major medical data bases, including PubMed and Cochrane, and offers evidence based research on a variety of many of the modalities used in spas, or simply log on the Mayo Clinic site to see some of the research this venerable institution has published in the area of Complementary and Alternative medicine – particularly massage (the #1 seller in most spas for stress reduction and relaxation). I’m not sure what “suitable research models” you refer to and this isn’t about science journalism – it’s about the science itself.

    But let’s take it a step further and forget the darned science. If, as you say, spa can prove itself through client retention and growth, then we are there! Even during the downturn, spas were able to hold their own and help their clients find ways to continue to avail themselves of their treatments and services. And clients keep coming back. Accept that the “proven” benefit of spa is that most of these people walking out our doors with smiles on their faces feel better for the experience they’ve just had.

    As far as I’m concerned, if hundreds and hundreds of individuals tell me that they feel better at the end of their treatment and book the next one, who am I to question the scientific validity of their observations? The fact that these observations ARE being clinically researched is almost beside the point for me.

    If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck…..

  18. Sara November 25, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    Hi Kathy – I am familiar with the spa evidence portal. Interpreting scientific studies and then applying them appropriately is not straightforward and that is why I mentioned the article on science journalism because it’s likely that most spas will be using research results that have been interpreted for them, perhaps by someone who has a vested interest or bias.

    Scientific studies set out to be objective – they try to eliminate from the study things like the skills of a particular practitioner, the response of an individual client, the ambiance, etc. These subjective aspects however do contribute to the beneficial outcomes you see at the best of spas. When you say ‘who am I to question the scientific validity of their {spa goers} observations’ you are affirming this – its not scientifically validated but it happens.

    So, we need to understand that both are important and seek a reasonable balance between them when seeking to promote the value of spa. If spa wants to use science to gain credibility, then there must be far more awareness of what that means and how to do it in an honest way. If the rest of the world is not using science honestly then I think we must accept that spa is also at risk of the same.

  19. Jeremy McCarthy November 25, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

    Greg, thanks for your comment. You said, “Spas provide an opportunity, rather than a promise of well being.” Your word “opportunity” is a good one and is more along the lines of what I mean by “promise”. As in spas show promise . . . there is untapped potential here.

  20. Jeremy McCarthy November 25, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    Sara, I think you and I share a similar perspective on science. We recognize the importance of scientific inquiry and testing hypotheses, but we also take the research with a grain of salt. Even though research studies, as you said, “set out to be objective – they try to eliminate from the study things like the skills of a particular practitioner, the response of an individual client, the ambiance, etc.,” the reality is those biases are there, even in objective research.

    You also said, “I would like to see some acknowledgment of the problems, or less denial of them, in industries tempted to create and sell fantasy.” I agree with you here. I think most of the spa industry reacts with shock and indignation to the Intelligent Spas article. I think we need to recognize that the article reflects a common perception of spas and that is a perception that has been created by our own industry. We need to own it before we can change it.

  21. Jeremy McCarthy November 25, 2012 at 8:16 pm #

    I also agree with Kathy’s comments about the popularity of spas. In my book, I talk about the ubiquitousness and popularity of spas across time and space as one of its biggest endorsements. That being said, there are a bazillion supplements on the market that are incredibly popular although they have scant science to support them and do little more than color your urine. We do need the research to really argue our case effectively.

  22. Oz November 27, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    So where would I spend $200 and get the bet return on my health investment?

    A gym membership for 2 months, 4 30 min personal training exercises, 10 yoga classes, 20 meditation classes

    Or perhaps i could pay a baby sitter or cleaner to get time to do the above

    The problem is the roi on spa is really really really low

  23. Jeremy McCarthy November 27, 2012 at 10:41 pm #

    Any one of those (including spa) could be completely meaningless to one person and completely transformative to another. The answer depends on the individual and which one is going to entice that particular person to change their lifestyle in some meaningful way.

  24. Jay Williams, PhD November 28, 2012 at 12:19 am #

    Thank you for this insightful article Jeremy. Clearly people in the industry have lost sight of the amazing healing qualities a spa can offer beyond pampering.. — I agree that all of the following are available in the spa experience – healing, prevention, high touch and self healing (which in my opinion is about educating our clients)..

    As a former spa director – and now a consultant to spas, I would suggest there are two additional solutions that we should all look at..
    1. Get the employees healthy and passionate so they can inspire the client
    2. Find ways to stay connected with our clients – even though most may be a one time visit – this is where the new health technology platforms could be perfect.

    I think if we are looking for scientific proof of the effects of the stress reducing qualities of spa – it may be right around the corner. As science is now measuring our cellular reaction to stress – and stress reducing techniques – we now know that techniques that reduce stress and tension can positively impact the length of our telomeres – a measure of how we are aging.

    That being said – what’s wrong with just “feeling better” – and feeling better about ourselves – for any amount of time?

  25. Oz November 28, 2012 at 2:41 am #

    Jeremy – I assume you are joking

    Spa is better than exercise????

  26. Jeremy McCarthy November 28, 2012 at 2:56 am #

    Oz, that is not what I said. I think exercise is one of the most important things that anyone can do. My point is it doesn’t make sense to try and isolate these activities as if one is better than another. Exercise is important. Recovery from exercise is important. You cannot say one is absolutely more important than another without looking at the context of what an individual needs at that particular moment.

  27. Oz November 28, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

    Jeremy – please give me a break. I can’t be bothered exercising but going to a spa wll compensate for that

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