Worldwide Wellbeing

When you think of a typical wellbeing pioneer, do you picture a middle-class Westerner? Think again.

Soulful singer songwriter YUNA, from the Malaysian Hijabista community, and now recording with Pharrell Williams.

There is a myth that this wellbeing trend we are all caught up in is about a bunch of white middle-aged middle-class Westerners discovering kale and kindness. But research shows it is millennials from the developing world who lead on every trend from natural, healthy alternatives, to choosing sustainable brands. And they have progressive social attitudes to match. Just as well really; since 90% of all under-30s live in the emerging markets. So whatever they choose today is going to be the future of humanity.

Let’s start with the people and their lifestyles. From Deloitte’s latest global mobile report, we know that the average person in an emerging market is even more likely to have a smartphone (81% vs 76%) than those in the West and is much more likely to look at it in the first hour after waking up (93% vs 78%). I’ve worked on projects in markets like Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Brazil, China and Turkey and I think this is probably the biggest single factor in their huge cultural shifts. This is a generation who leapfrogged TV, PCs, emails… and went straight to mobile Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and similar; with unprecedented information and conversation. In cultures where young people previously had little voice. As one said to me in Turkey; “it’s not just the government, your father wouldn’t let you speak at the table!” If you think about the way movements grow now — from Arab Spring to Clean Eating — it’s clear that social media, content, smart phones are pivotal. Technology doesn’t just enable change. It gives them hope. According to the Financial Times (8/2/17) “In China, India and Indonesia more than 90 per cent of young people named technology as the factor that made them most hopeful for the future — more than in any western country.”

There is a global trend to reject processed foods and towards natural foods, organic, plant based ingredients. Towards healthy fats. Gluten free. There is endless hype in the American media. But did you know — according to a global study by Nielsen — that these trends are more advanced in every region outside the US? Choosing all-natural foods is ranked in the US as important by 29% of consumers; the figures are higher in Europe (42%), Asia (43%), the Middle East and Africa (53%) and Latin America (64%). Gluten Free (with Paleo, dairy free, clean foods…) the quintessential choice of today’s New York hipster is ranked important by 15% of Americans. But again the figures are higher — up to 32% — in every other part of the world. The only measure where the US outscores other countries is ‘’avoiding high fructose corn syrup”. Then again this is so prevalent in the US diet that food writer Michael Pollan once quipped: “That’s us; processed corn walking.”

Ishi Khosla India’s celebrity nutritionist has been recommending people go back to butter since the 70s.

The same trend towards natural and organic and away from chemicals is seen in beauty products. The ‘no poo’ (no shampoo) movement is just as likely to be a hot discussion point in a Hijabista (fashionable Asian hijab wearer) forum as a US college dorm. More than a third of consumers in a global survey across 16 markets by Euromonitor said that natural and organic were a key factor in chosing skin care products. And guess what? The three highest ranking countries were China, India and Indonesia. As the researchers noted “With China and India having a history of skin care remedies including medicinal and natural plant extracts or herbal ingredients, this is not surprising.” In the East people grew up putting natural oils in their baths, their hair, to detox through their skin. Just as many grew up with the kinds of traditions that mindfulness was based upon. Where previously the ideas were appropriated and Westernised (Ayurveda becoming Aveda) in today’s globalised world natural healthy beauty brands like Natura (Brazil) and Herborist (China) are now starting to export themselves the West.

Chinese natural skincare leader, Herbolist, now available in the UK, France and other countries.

What about sustainability? Surely that is a Western liberal movement at least? Apparently not. Interest in issues like climate change, the refugee crisis and diversity has shot up among millennials across the world. Nielsen found that 73% of millennials globally were willing to pay more for products and companies making a positive social or environmental impact. (Up from only 50% in 2014). And guess what? Yet again the rates were lower in Europe and North America and higher in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia. Sustainability is something the new generation has taken to heart, almost as ‘native’ arguably as digital lifestyles and the mobile phone. Rates among global Millennials were 3x higher than among Gen X (35–49 year olds) and 12x higher than Boomers (50–64).

Saudi comedian Alaa Wardi’s satirical (pro feminist) film “No Woman No Drive” attracted 7m views in its first week

What about liberal social values? Surely these at least are exemplified by the (once revolutionary) democracies of Western countries like France and America? As we’ve seen though in the media many Western countries have been swinging hard to the ‘post truth’ right. And meanwhile the new generation in emerging markets are super liberal. Reporting on a recent report about young people’s values, the Financial Times commented “we can no longer generalize about conservative developing countries and more liberal developed countries.” The research (by the Varkey Foundation) found that young people across the world universally agreed with principles like ‘men and women should be treated equally’. But the highest scoring countries included China (94%) and India (92%), both higher than either the UK or US. Scores were lower in many emerging markets admittedly on same sex marriage; but more than 50% of young people still supported it. And 75% of young people in India, Brazil and China supported equal rights for transgender people — higher than France or Japan.

Think about how much of our Western Wellbeing movement comes from imported traditions like yoga, as well as our own local traditions like slow food. Where do all those avocados, healthy oils, natural treatments come from after all? And that’s a vital underlying principle of wellbeing trends everywhere; the rediscovery of formats, flavours and formulations from a few generations ago, before our parents’ processed, sugar, fat, additive and salt laden TV dinners. There is a sense of avoiding the mistakes of the West and a joy of local rediscovery. Long before Kim Kardashian, Kuwaitis were rediscovering camel milk, and Asians were enjoying fermented foods like kimchi and kombucha, or superfoods like seaweed.

Low fat vitamin rich Camel milk was booming in the Middle East, long before Kim Kardashian ‘discovered’ it.

If you read economic reports you will know that emerging markets face a tough time in coming years, with high oil prices and lower global trade curbing their former healthy growth. But people there have the mindset to take it on. When I worked in Brazil and we talked about climate change, my colleagues would tease me that I was just being ‘so European’ about it; we’d all been miserable and facing the end of the world “since the black death and Vlad the Impaler” they said! Brazil has many problems but it has a spring in its step, the Amazon on its back porch, a whole century ahead of it to tackle these problems. Their energy and optimism is cause for hope when 90% of all under thirties alive today live in emerging markets. The happiest young people (in the Varkey survey) were in Nigeria and Indonesia. The most optimistic were in China, India and Nigeria. And of the ten countries worldwide with the best overall wellbeing (according to Gallup/Healthways) seven are emerging markets. USA didnt even make the top 20.

Yes these are averages. And for every liberal Trump protesting yoga mat carrying progressive - there are (to judge by the voting) more pick-up truck driving ‘guns for jesus’ conservatives to cancel them out. But that would be true anywhere. In Delhi. Or Lagos. So the averages do whisper something too, surely? None of this is to belittle lovely, spirited pioneers of well-being in every age group and cultures. But just to say — if there is an average ‘type’ of wellbeing pioneer… she is Indian, or Costa Rican, rather than Californian.

For more on this and many other modern wellbeing trends check out my new book https://unbound.com/books/better