Innovation through the Science of Wellbeing (with Video)

The Chemist by Martin

In a previous article (see “Innovation Lessons from the Idea Factory,”) I wrote about Jon Gertner’s book about the quest for innovation by Bell Labs.  Up until the 1980s, Bell Labs was the research and development wing of AT&T and was a huge driver of modern innovation including the transistor, the laser, digital communications and the technology behind cellular telephones.  They did this by gathering together the greatest scientific minds of their times to collaborate on applying the latest science.

In the 1980s, another of the most innovative companies in the world was Procter and Gamble, who rolled out an incredible number of new, successful products including pull-up diapers, anti-dandruff shampoo, color-safe detergent, and quilted paper towels.  Jonah Leher, in his new book on creativity, “Imagine,” explains that they did this by having “more scientists on staff than any other company in the world, more PhDs than the faculties of MIT, UC Berkeley, and Harvard combined.”

Richard Scheller, the Executive Vice President of Genentech, a biotech firm, spent most of his career as a biology researcher and academic at Stanford University.  When he first joined Genentech in 2001, he knew nothing about being a leader of a large corporation (in fact, he didn’t even know what “H.R.” stood for where he spent much of his first year as he learned to navigate the challenges of corporate management.)   But when asked if he wished he had developed more business leadership skills, he said no, because he would have had to sacrifice learning the science.  Ultimately, he said, it is getting the science right that will allow them to do better than their competition.

The reason I bring these examples up is because if you look outside of the spa world (my industry), it’s pretty clear that the pathway to innovation (and success) is by hiring talented people who are trained in the latest science of their industry, and applying that science in the best possible way.

But spas are not creating technology, products or pharmaceuticals, they are creating wellbeing.  And since the spa industry is about making people feel good, we should be applying psychology to our innovation, and understanding the science of how we make people feel.

This was the basic premise of the talk I gave last month at the Global Spa and Wellness Summit at the Aspen Institute (see video below).   The theme of the conference was “Innovation through Imagination” so I argued that the “science of happiness” is critical for innovation in the world of spas.

The International Spa Association defines spas as places that enhance wellbeing across body, mind and spirit.  But if you look at the way most spas market themselves, it is about the scope of their facilities, the quality of their products and the techniques of their therapists—all physical aspects of the experience.  If the spa industry is going to live up to its own definition, it needs to do a better job in the mental and spiritual domains, and it can do better by applying the science of psychology to what we do.

But many people have an adverse reaction to the idea of selling “happiness.”  It seems shallow, superficial, and not as compelling in a tough economic environment.  In this way, the spa industry struggles with its own pampering identity, preferring “wellness” as a promise that may give them more credibility to their customers.

The ironic thing about this is that research shows that happiness and wellness go hand in hand.   In fact, happiness is correlated with a variety of important life outcomes including better relationships, success at work, salaries, creativity, kindness and better physical and mental health.  Perhaps we should start taking happiness more seriously.

My studies in positive psychology suggest two important takeaways for the spa industry (or any other business trying to create holistic wellbeing):

Got Brain? by Aigarius

1.  We need to get inside our customers heads.  The best spa experience is not made or broken by the facilities, treatments and products.  It is literally based on how we make our customers feel.  The only way we will live up to our promise of body/mind/spirit wellbeing is to understand the psychology of mental and spiritual wellbeing.

2.  Spas do make people feel good.  So while there are many healing institutions in our society that promise evidence-based health and wellness, spas are the only ones that people look forward to going to, enjoy while they are there, and remember fondly afterward.

I’m not suggesting that spas should not focus on wellness or not be evidence-based in their approach.  But we should stay true to our unique strength: healing that feels good.  This has always been the mission of spas, and studying the psychology of wellbeing gives us an opportunity to innovate and imagine what the spa of the future might become.

The video features a panel discussion moderated by Professor Mary H. Tabacci of Cornell University with introductory remarks by Andrew Weil and then the panel, consisting of Jessica Alquist, a researcher who discussed her work on Willpower and Self-Control (she’s a student of Roy Baumeister who was one of my MAPP professors,) and my talk on Spas and The Science of Happiness.  Enjoy!



by Jeremy McCarthy

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Now available:  New e-book on The Psychology of Spas and Wellbeing.

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4 Responses to Innovation through the Science of Wellbeing (with Video)

  1. Charlie Wills August 5, 2012 at 12:47 pm #

    Andrew says “It will not change till it PAYS”!

    The Spa model is based on Profit and Greed, not Health and Wellness

    Spa’s can not attract the Right people until it PAYS!

    WILLPOWER? is Self Control? It’s your Nervous System Dummies!!! Just more folks supporting the false to keep a Job…by Complicating the simple truth..

    Everyone has Hundreds of Self Help Books, what has that done for them? not much…

    Happiness is Dopamine,,,a Great Serotonin balance….why confuse the Sheep?

    You can ONLY Open through Your Breath that Vibrates through Your Heart,,,PERIOD!!!

    Get inside your Customers Heads? with Minimum Wage Worker Pay????? LOL

    What a spa does Really Good? Rub, Rub, Rub,,,,,

    I love there studies…Mindfullness? Understanding your Emotions? It’s Your Enviorment Dumies!!!1

    Now You want to Confuse the Sheep on Happiness? shallow happiness? willpower only fits into the long range with Happiness?

    No Wonder most are so Confused,,,,

    Based on the Lack of comments I think many are confused,,,

    Why do most people I see in these photo’s from the Event look so unhealthy?

    The Most important thing You can do for your customers in that 6o minute window and You Jeremy said “while their on that massage table”?
    That’s the best you can do? Proves my point about Corporate greed and slave wages to support that failed Health Model but great business model…

    Ritual board, gratitude board? again cheap tricks to look like something but ZERO $$$ investment….corporate greed…


  2. Jeremy McCarthy August 5, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

    Charlie, your comments on the blog are becoming increasingly rude and insulting. I would like to request that you be more respectful, especially to my other readers. I don’t mind if you disagree with what I have to say–I don’t think I have all the answers and this blog is intended to be a forum for an open exchange (as in two-way) of ideas about these issues. If you would like to have a thoughtful, intellectual discussion about issues of wellbeing, then I welcome your perspective. If you would like somewhere to brag about how you’ve found the simple answer to all of life’s problems and to insult anyone who disagrees with you, please go somewhere else.

    You’ve already made it clear that you think I don’t get it and that there is only one pathway to wellbeing which is very simple (and yet, you haven’t really explained it yet.) Without knowing what your method is, I can’t really speak to that, but I can tell you that I am of the belief that wellbeing is complex and there are many different pathways that people take to get there. Can you live with that disagreement and have a courteous discussion? If you only think I am a “dummy” then please do yourself (and me) a favor and stop reading my blog.

    I get your points about corporate greed, but I don’t understand the vitriol towards the spa industry. I agree with the problems of corporate greed, but I see them as societal, economic and governmental problems that are pervasive, by no means unique to the spa industry. Do you have examples of other health industries that are not based on profit? Is it OK for some reason for other businesses to make a profit but not spas? Why are spas such a subject of venom for you?

    You regularly cast insults aimed at corporate spa directors, which you describe as unhealthy, overmedicated, unethical and greedy. And yet I know many corporate spa directors who are nothing like the mold you have cast for them. The people that I know in the spa industry are true believers in what spas have to offer and are interested in providing services of value that will have a positive and meaningful impact on people. And yes, they are also business people, reporting to owners and CEOs and responsible for a profit and loss statement.

    But if you have another model that we should be considering, than please share it. What are your solutions or suggestions? How should spas operate without worrying about making a profit? They should be nonprofit? Hire volunteers? Give services away for free? Be funded by wealthy donors? Covered by insurance? Provided as a government social program? Or shut down altogether? I would be much more interested in hearing lucid ideas and having an intelligent discussion rather than seeing my fellow readers bullied which will only stifle discussion rather than foster it.

    You claim to know all the answers so how about sharing ideas rather than insults?

  3. Charlie Wills August 9, 2012 at 4:15 pm #

    Everyones perception is different, but I did not see any rude or insulting comments, and if that is your perception I do apologize to whoever felt that way.

    Bragging about things with no proof you say because I found the answers? Really ? Two of our own employees had severe health issues with Sleep, Stress, Pain and Fibromyalgia.
    One was drinking 5-6 cups of coffee for months and not sleeping, no energy and life was not fun….In less then 2 weeks that Director was no longer drinking coffee or anything besides water and sleeping Great again,,,without medications!

    Your other employee was told by 4 diferent Doctors her pain would last forever her good sleep would not return without medications and she would never be fixed so get used to it…again, within 14 days she was brand new again…Is this the proof you ask for or bragging?
    ( Happy to supply contact info)

    We have lots of Spa Directors as good friends all over th world,,,but many are a JOKE..

    Everybody needs to live and profits are part of that,,,but Exploitation is NOT..and you know you Exploite many around the world…Example Mexico….paying $19 to a massage therapist who charges $125 for the service is fair? to who?

    Who wrote this last paragraph you wrote about profits,,,sounds guilt ridden.

    I know folks with spa’s that make great money while actually providing much more then a quick fix rub. which after you leave and the crack berry rings you just blew all the effects of that buck and quarter rub….

    I am Happy I hit your Nerve so you responded so wildly….
    We need to Create weapons of Mass Healings

    We MUST be Open to New Information at all Times, even if it Threatens are Own Belief System and Identities, Sadly society today has failed to recognized this and it has Paralyzed Growth by preserving out-dated solutons especially in the Spa World, so the population suffers from a FEAR of Change.


    In Challenging your Belief system, it usually results unfairly in Insult and aprehension, for being Wrong is Erroneously associated with Failure which is 100% Wrong as it should be
    Celebrated for it is Elevating Someone to a New Level of Understanding and Awareness.


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