When it comes to wellness trends, there isn’t much I won’t try. I’ve floated in a sensory deprivation tank to relax, performed a 12-hour “dopamine fast” to try to temper impulsive behaviors, and had the blood plasma drawn from my arm and micro-needled into my face in an attempt to shrink my pores. When I heard Gwyneth Paltrow was an advocate of bee-sting therapy, I hunted for someone to sting me just to see what would happen. (The short story: no one would do it.) But one portal I’ve never attempted to find enlightenment through? Netflix.
Like most streaming services, Netflix is saturated with documentaries, including an overflowing pool of films dedicated to wellness; a simple search for “health” and “wellness” brings up more than a hundred results. I started to wonder: Could watching wellness documentaries be the new version of reading self-help books, a method to absorb advice that would lead to self-improvement? To find out, I resolved to watch at least two documentaries a night for three days. Here’s how it went.
I started with (Un)Well, a series that takes a critical eye to questionable health and wellness trends, such as adults drinking breast milk to grow muscle or undergoing weeks-long, water-only fasts to stave off disease and increase mental agility. Thirty minutes into the water-fast episode, I was visualizing myself galloping through oceanside hills, feeling powerful and in tune with my surroundings, surviving on nothing but H2O. But five minutes after it ended, I made myself some eggs.
The Goop Lab with Gwyneth Paltrow was next on my list and was similarly entertaining—but not motivating enough to trigger change. The six-episode series follows the Oscar-winning actor and her colleagues as they delve into practices that claim to be life-improving. After watching the episode on the Wim Hof Method, a mind-over-body mastery that involves breathing exercises and jumping into freezing-cold water, I resolved to exercise outside the next day. When I woke, it was 40 degrees outside. I made it 50 feet out my door before returning to the warm comfort of my treadmill.
My second stint parked on the sofa included Brené Brown: The Call to Courage. While I’m not very familiar with the renowned shame and vulnerability researcher’s work, I’m skeptical of anything that resembles traditional self-help. But as Brown closed her lecture with an anecdote about her teen daughter competing in a swim meet she knew she’d lose, I was on the verge of tears, remembering my own experience as a fifth grader pitching an inning during a softball game to get out of my comfort zone as a catcher. That was “the arena,” I found myself thinking, using Brown’s term for the psychological place where folks who embrace vulnerability face their fears. Am I still in it? Did I ever leave? Her words made me resolve to move toward my goals of living without the fear of failure sitting on my shoulders.
I followed up Brown with Heal, in which director Kelly Noonan Gores examines the connection between thoughts, emotions, and physical well-being by following the lives of doctors, spiritual leaders, and people suffering from chronic illnesses. Visibly skeptical of Western medicine as a be-all, end-all means of healing, Gores interviews experts such as a self-proclaimed “neuroacoustic wizard” who explores the effects of sound on the brain, and Anthony William (better known as the Medical Medium), a proponent of healing who claims a spirit provides him with health information. I spaced out, unsure whether my brain was rotting from the screen time or the skepticism.
I capped off my Netflix binge with the holy grail of self-improvement, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. Over the course of the nearly two-hour documentary, I came to understand what’s so enthralling about the motivational speaker: He delivers a radical honesty, sans sugar coating, that offers people no choice but to try to tackle the fears they wouldn’t otherwise confront. My heart swelled when a guest admitted he was deeply depressed—and was swooped up into the air and carried around the room by others in the room like a crowd surfer, joy replacing the pain on his face. When Robbins told the crowd to “make your life a masterpiece,” I envisioned myself walking across a sea of hot coals, achieving my dreams of writing a book, with Robbins cheering me on.
What I learned
After clocking nearly 10 hours of wellness documentaries, it wasn’t the excessive blue-light exposure that kept me up, but a thought about thoughts: the wishful thinking that drives us to seek outside help for the all-consuming issues that control us from within when no road map is provided. It’s really not so strange that in times of struggle, fear, or uncertainty—be it the pandemic, an unexpected diagnosis, some sort of loss, or any other countless curveballs life throws—we put hope and faith into the unknown and untried. It’s why Google auto-populates the search bar with seemingly odd questions when you start typing: In some way, we’re all just looking for answers.
But many of these programs demonstrated the dark side of wellness, such as the man in (Un)Well who died after an extended water fast, and the people in Heal who (unsurprisingly) couldn’t use positive thinking to solve chronic diseases. It is important to remember that on the wellness spectrum, there’s a place where a person’s despair can push what they’re willing to try over a razor-sharp edge. Those feeling too close to that point may find shows like these triggering.
Fortunately, I’m not in that place. After my long weekend of watching, my sense of motivation increased as I was reminded that my own happiness is determined not by what happens around me, but by the work I’m committed to doing myself. As long as you have reasonable expectations and use common sense when you put the practices from these shows into action, they might bring you a step closer to accomplishing your goals.