Why is the Science of Psychology Important for Spas?

Alchemist Killing Hamlet by h.koppdelaney.

Alchemist Killing Hamlet by h.koppdelaney

My colleagues in the spa industry sometimes ask me why I focus so much on the science of psychology.  In fact, people often assume that if I am studying psychology I must be preparing myself to leave the world of spas.  The connection between spas and psychology does not seem to be clear at first glance.

My research on spas and well-being is not limited to psychology, but revolves around ideas of holistic well-being, i.e. considering the whole person. This means not simply focusing on the physical aspects nor the psychological aspects but looking at both (as well as the interactions between the two.)

But  it is the psychological aspects of well-being that do not seem to get their fair share of attention.  The physical aspects of health and wellness are simply more obvious to a greater number of people.  Most of modern medicine seems to be based on the idea that the body is a complex machine and that by understanding all of the components we can better learn how to repair and replace the parts that get broken.

Even in the spa world, which promotes a more holistic understanding of health and well-being, the physical side still seems to get preferential treatment.  Research on massage, for example, has been based primarily on therapeutic interventions done to clinical or diseased populations.  The effectiveness of massage is usually based on measurements of physical health measurements such as heart rate, blood pressure, hormonal releases in the blood stream, or subjective reports of physical pain.

While the spa industry promotes and works in the psychological and spiritual realms as well, it seems to do so less scientifically.  On these aspects of their services, spas are more likely to cite “The Secret” or the latest Wayne Dyer book, rather than research from scientific journals of psychology and spirituality.  If the spa industry does not begin to take the psychological aspects of their experience more seriously, how can we expect our customers to?

Spas offer the promise of healing across “body, mind, and spirit”.  My intent is not to elevate the importance of the psychological domain, but I don’t think that all three are on equal footing.  As we move from body to mind to spirit, we are moving from our exterior, more superficial appearances towards the core of who we really are.  Many people see the spa as a place to treat the body:  work out the kinks, smooth out the lines, enhance the beauty.  And spas do help with this.  But many spa experiences go deeper, creating a shift in the way a client, thinks, feels, acts, and interacts.

For me, this is where the spa experience gets interesting.  How do we create spa experiences that are engaging and meaningful?  How do we create healing experiences that help people not only enhance their physical well-being, but their mental well-being, their emotional well-being and perhaps even their sense of purpose and meaning.  Lofty goals, perhaps, but worth exploring . . .

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12 Responses to Why is the Science of Psychology Important for Spas?

  1. Mark A McKenney September 28, 2010 at 12:50 pm #

    Awesome and great question: How do we create spa experiences that are engaging and meaningful?
    I keep commenting to people that spa is more than just a manicure, pedicure and the like; it’s part of every aspect of healthy living. “Spa” has been around for centuries in the human experience and deserves a more prominent role in spas around the world!

    Dallas, Texas

  2. Mark A McKenney September 28, 2010 at 12:54 pm #

    “Spa” has been around for centuries in the human experience and deserves a more prominent role in health, fitness clubs and clinics and centers around the world.

  3. Marie-Josee Shaar September 28, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

    I agree with you. Spas are about creating a shift. Otherwise, it’s a beauty salon – at least to me. And I find it misleading when beauty salons call themselves spas. (Just like I find the expression junk food very misleading too! If it’s junk, it’s not food! But I digress…)

    In response to your question, I’d like to offer this: I usually find my best healing experiences out in nature. Nature brings about a sense of grandeur and connectedness that helps me see new meaning in old challenges. And I think that the best spas around are very inspired by nature: massages with hot stones or under the rain, nice views, large plants, soothing music featuring sounds of nature, etc. Maybe that’s an avenue to explore further. How can we bring more of the outside indoors for greater inspiration and healing?



  4. Jessica Durivage September 28, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    Jeremy –
    Would you post a “Recommended Reading List” or “Break Room Books” for Spa Directors and Therapists?

    Educate them and they will come! I am behind you 110%!

    When I was a spa director for the Marriott, I had countless conversations with my therapists where we would discuss the amazing sense of responsibility they had with their clients on the treatment tables. While manis and pedis may not be considered “psychology” , our nail tech, Rachida had more repeat clients than anyone else because she “listened” to her guests – and they felt lifted up (along with having great toes!) when they left her room. Our guests in the spa are quite possibly getting more one on one time with their therapists than most of the people in their lives!

    Maybe implementing communication training for therapists would be a first step? Who knows!

    Thanks for another great post Jeremy!

  5. Jeremy McCarthy September 28, 2010 at 9:39 pm #

    Hi MarieJ,

    You are so right about nature and it’s impact on wellbeing. Many spas do try to incorporate this into their offerings and I have to admit some of the spas that do the best job of really transporting and transforming their clients owe a lot to their spectacular settings in nature. The challenge then (as you suggest) is how do we bring that element into an urban setting where those kinds of escapes are hard to come by? To get to the root of that we have to think about what it is about nature that has such a positive impact. Some of those things: feeling a connection to something greater, inspiration to be active, a sense of stillness and peace, absence from technology, a return to a simpler more natural way of life, etc. might still be encouraged and inspired in a spa even when they don’t have access to natural settings. I would love to hear some ideas from others in the spa industry about how we could do this. Thanks for your comment!

  6. Jeremy McCarthy September 28, 2010 at 9:44 pm #

    Thanks Jessica,

    One book I would recommend is “My Life as a Daymaker” by David Wagner. He is a hairstylist who realizes that his job is not just to cut and style people’s hair but to make them feel better about themselves. His story is inspirational and a good example of what the spa (and even the beauty salon) industry is all about.

    There was some vocational research done on hair stylists and beauty technicians that showed that they take their role as “therapist” very seriously and see the communication with their clients in a way that helps them share their problems and get a better outlook on life as an important part of their job. I think some of it comes from training. And some of it comes from stepping out of the way and allowing our employees to do what they do best.

  7. Dan Bowling September 30, 2010 at 8:49 am #

    Well done Jeremy

    Your work will broaden the appeal of spas. There are many of us who are spooked out a bit by the new-agey mindset, ambience, and dialogue in some spas, and to introduce and encourage at least a little science to the experience will be helpful.

  8. Jeremy McCarthy September 30, 2010 at 9:09 pm #

    Dan, you are right to be spooked! The spa industry can sometimes be its own worst enemy. I went to a spa conference last week that reminded me of the witch’s market in La Paz, Bolivia. All kinds of bogus treatments and charlatanerie (if that’s a word.) But there is a strong segment of spas that are really about providing authentic healing experiences. The challenge is how do we educate consumers on what is what?

    As a lawyer I’m wondering if your skepticism of the spa industry is representative of others in your profession. What do you think would shift their (your) mindset?

    Thanks for your comments!

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