Trend: The Wellness World Begins to Teach “Relational Fitness”  

With our social skills atrophied, the wellness world is doing something new: teaching people to communicate, connect and empathize more deeply–from the new Peoplehood, a group conversation model built upon “active listening” to compassion-building techniques, whether loving-kindness meditation or freudenfreude training 

Our 2023 trend, “Wellness Comes for the Loneliness Epidemic,” is about how the most powerful new direction in wellness is new spaces and experiences that intentionally, creatively bring people together in real life–where social connection is at the very center of the concept. One sub-trend: a strikingly new–if still early–focus (in the wellness space and beyond) on techniques and therapies that specifically help people to connect more meaningfully and empathize more deeply.

Oh, how the world needs it: Never have our communication and compassion muscles been so weak. In the last century-plus, we’ve moved from faces, to phones, to email, to texting–and now we’re reduced to leaving a pathetic “sad” emoji when a friend suffers something terrible. We talk to and see people less, and with “social” media our “conversations” have become radically less sincere. We live in a world of outrageously divisive media and politics, where people scream over each other.

While there aren’t enough global studies on the state of empathy (the ability to understand the feelings of another), one key study showed that it’s been in serious decline: dropping 48% from 1979-2009. (One can only imagine where it’s at now.) Surveys show that the pandemic further “broke our social”: One 2022 poll revealed that 25% of people now feel anxious about socializing, with the biggest issue (for 29%) being “not knowing what to say or how to interact.” We’ve forgotten how to talk and be friends.

While the world–and the wellness world–have paid precious little attention to helping people build their communication and empathy skills, change is now percolating. You see a new interest in the “science of connection” all over–whether evidence-backed ways to make friends to more interest in attachment theory and styles (the psychological framework for how we relate to others), such as the new bestseller, Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make–and Keep–Friends. The New York Times even did a piece on how to cultivate “freudenfreude” (schadenfreude’s antithesis, finding joy in another’s good fortune), explaining how the practice positively impacts mental health and how academic psychologists have even created a program, Freudenfreude Enhancement Training (FET).

In the wellness space, the clearest, boldest example of the new focus on teaching connection and empathy skills is Peoplehood, which just launched at a NYC space and online. This new concept from SoulCycle’s founders nixes the bikes in favor of “relational fitness”: 60-minute, guided (by a “natural empath”) group conversations that revolve around the science-backed, relationship-building practice of “active listening.” Everyone “gets a chance to talk freely and listen deeply,” nobody is allowed to interrupt, and to express support you make certain silent gestures. In general, you could say the “circle” will be the wellness shape of 2023, as the intimate group conversation (sharing and listening) models are taking off. Spoke Circles in Brooklyn offers supportive “circle gatherings” led by psychologists and social workers; “women’s circles” are a fast-growing model of honest sharing and connection.

If we’ve had self-focused mindfulness meditation and (selfish) manifesting, we see rising interest in its empathy-building “opposite,” loving-kindness (or metta) meditation–a Buddhist practice where you focus your compassion on others. Studies show it packs a punch when it comes to health and happiness and it’s notable that it will be a key offering at the forthcoming global social wellness clubs, Six Senses Place.

As the co-founders of SoulCycle and Peoplehood, Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, told us: “We spend upwards of 16 years in school ostensibly learning everything we need to know to be successful humans, yet we are never taught the skills we need to communicate, connect and build meaningful relationships…In the broader view of wellness, it doesn’t make sense to leave out such an important pillar of a person’s health and happiness.”

The wellness world will increasingly address that missing pillar. Training and experiences that help people communicate better, open up emotionally, and empathize more profoundly will rise in wellness. It’s a natural fit and with major studies revealing that our relationships are the biggest predictor of our health and happiness, it’s a desperately needed new focus in wellness and beyond. We’ve had lots of bikes; the time is now for more “social fitness.”

This article is an excerpt from the 2023 trend, “Wellness Comes for the Loneliness Epidemic” focused on this sub-trend of the wellness world teaching “relational fitness.”

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