Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, MAPP '07, is the founder of Flourish, an organization dedicated to using research based tools to enable individuals and organizations to flourish. Emiliya fuses the best of Eastern philosophy with Western science to provide people with holistic tools to increase their happiness, well-being, and sense of flourishing. Full bio.
Emiliya's articles are here.
Rotorua, New Zealand, is one of the top places to experience natural wonders in the world. Its geysers, hot springs, and other geothermal activity make it a popular tourist destination, well-known for its spas. When I visited in 2007, I was looking forward to a relaxing getaway; I was even considering get a massage or a mud bath.
Prior to my visit, I filed spa treatments in my brain under luxurious indulgences. Rotorua transformed that belief because, for the native Maori, spa is essential for well-being. The Maori way of life focuses on massage, relaxation, cleansing, exercise, healthy natural foods, and water treatments. The broad availability of inexpensive services blew me away—-a one-hour massage was a fraction of the typical cost in the United States! Price reduction unimaginable elsewhere is possible because so many people frequent the establishments.
My beliefs about the relationship between spa and wellness have expanded once more this month with my reading of Jeremy McCarthy’s new book, The Psychology of Spas and Wellbeing. McCarthy explores the history of spas dating back to Ancient Rome, and argues that the reason many spa and healing practices have not changed in 2,500 years is because they promote increased well-being in those who use them.
McCarthy has compiled compelling research on the many components of the spa industry, explaining the physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits of those practices. This book is an essential read for anyone working solidly or marginally in the wellness industry including spa owners, massage therapists, healers, body workers, estheticians, personal trainers, and yoga teachers. That said, even for those who are not professionally involved in the wellness industry, this book has much to teach on what our bodies need by way of food, exercise, touch, relaxation, and senses of renewal and rejuvenation.
Lessons for Spas
McCarthy weaves the tapestry of positive psychology theories together to understand the interplay between spa services, stress reduction, and well-being. By providing simple, research-based suggestions for the spa industry, McCarthy illustrates how spas can improve their services without needing to change much of what they already do. Two wonderful examples are his application of peak-end theory and paradox of choice theory to spa facilities:
- The peak-end theory states that client’s judgment of their overall experience will be greatly influenced by the peak of their experience and how it ends. Therefore, if the best, most beneficial and enjoyable portion of treatment comes at the end, the customer is more likely to remember their experience favorable.
- The paradox of choice theory states that when people get too many options, they are likely to not make any decision at all due to feeling overwhelmed and fear of the opportunity cost of making the wrong choice. If spas limit the number of choices they offer, customers are more likely to feel confident that they have made the right choice.
McCarthy’s book also provides existing spas with the opportunity to enhance their work by emphasizing positive interventions, using exercises already known to increase well-being. A great example of this sort of intervention comes in McCarthy’s discussion of how many spas currently offer “anti-aging” services to reverse the aging process. He suggests that instead of denying the inevitability of aging, spas can adopt a positive health model that concentrates on helping clients continue to flourish at all ages by expressing wisdom, experiencing positive emotions like joy, and having meaningful, positive relationships with others. All of these are powerful research-based interventions to cultivate well-being at any age.
Individuals and wellness practitioners will benefit from the abundant research that McCarthy has collected and synthesized. He summarizes the physiological, emotional, and cognitive benefits of many spa treatments including massage, healing touch, water treatments, and aesthetically pleasing surroundings. He connects these benefits to scientific theories on the placebo effect, stress, and the ability of the simple expectation of doing something positive for one’s health to facilitate healing. Readers will be inspired to revisit their exercise regime and to prioritize time for deep relaxation.
Lessons for Places of Healing
For me, the message of greatest impact that McCarthy delivers is that there is a great need and opportunity for all places of healing, including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and doctor’s offices, to learn from the spa industry. Spas treat and prevent illness using a holistic model. Why don’t our doctors’ offices and hospitals make us feel safe, nurtured, and welcome? Why are our rehabilitation centers and other places of healing designed to make us want to leave as soon as we walk in the door, rather than designed to be calming and aesthetically pleasing? Similarly, we know from research how important touch is to healing. Why aren’t nurses encouraged to hug patients or pat them on the back when appropriate?My mother fought ovarian cancer for 10 years. Because of her illness, my family and I spent a lot of time in hospitals, clinics, treatment centers, rehab centers, pharmacies, and other places that are supposed to function as places of healing. When I visit a spa or holistic practitioner whose emphasis is on healing, relationships, and nurturing the whole being, I feel supported and cared for in a way that was totally absent from my experience of “places of healing” during my mother’s illness. Medical institution directors, educators, architects, and interior designers ought to read McCarthy’s book to gain greater awareness of ways they could improve their customer experiences and understand how these enhancements would escalate client healing.
Lessons for Individuals
If you are a spa lover like me, read this book so that you do not feel guilty or self-indulgent when you take the day off to go to the spa.
If you tend to shy away from all of these stress reduction modalities, read this book to understand the fundamental needs of your mind, body, and spirit, for touch, healing, relaxation, engagement, and pleasure.If you are a practitioner in the wellness industry, read this book to better market your services and empower your clientele by teaching them what is happening within their bodies when they are experiencing spa services.
In summary, The Psychology of Spas and Wellbeing offers a clearly stated, scientific investigation of the mind-body connection and the psychology of relaxation, beauty, touch, and holistic wellness.
Rotorua-North Island-New Zealand courtesy of Tyler Ingram
Roman Baths in Bath courtesy of Kevin Botto
Beau Monde Spa in Victor in the Finger Lakes courtesy of Valerie Knoblauch
Thai Massage at Rama Day Spa Frankfurt courtesy of Thomas Wanhoff
Edited by Natasha Utevsky