By Diane Medved
Sometimes it feels like the world is falling apart, with mass shootings, a pandemic that has mowed down more than three million people, unsteady relations between the most dangerous world powers, work lives turned upside down by months of closures and restrictions. Thousands of immigrants flee poverty and oppression, seeking hope at a crowded border.
While I’m still counting my bountiful blessings, I’ve been musing about what is missing: a world that just feels wholesome.
What do I mean by “wholesome?” Just what the Oxford dictionary suggests: An environment conducive to mental, spiritual, moral and physical health and well-being.
I became fascinated with the idea, and started making lists. Whenever I’d encounter something that interfered with or promoted the wholesome state I craved, I’d jot it down.
Here’s what I’ve come up with so far, with negative influences first. Perhaps you have some thoughts to add.
Observations: When I’d drive into Seattle, I noticed increasingly troubling sights. Tents lined along the freeway, surrounded by garbage scattered on embankments. Enormous new graffiti “tags” in multiple bright colors on concrete freeway walls. Storefronts empty; some boarded.
Reading the newspaper—and we get three major papers daily—put disheartening headlines before my eyes. Shootings seem to be escalating, with guns in the hands of clearly deranged people. Racial tensions are high. Stories about immigrants trekking to our borders to find disorder and too often, maltreatment, are heartbreaking. Political chasms are deep, with some Americans latching onto extremist groups with nonsensical beliefs.
The internet is rife with disconcerting content. The prevalence and acceptance of pornography. The ability to insult and debase others. Even outlets as seemingly harmless as Facebook host friendship-splitting disagreements. All these factors infiltrate our lives daily, contributing to our mental and moral pollution.
On the other side of the ledger are the characteristics that represent wholesomeness. If we’re conscious of them, then maybe we can work to promote and practice them, to benefit our children and ourselves.
The same internet that brings nefarious influences also brought me to an article by Vox, “The past 20 years of culture wars, explained by the word ‘wholesome.’” The accompanying collage contained lots of puppies, as well as the “happy little tree” artist Bob Ross holding a baby raccoon. The article interestingly suggests that the public’s desire for all things wholesome increases as a reaction to negative events or cultural phenomena. Writer Constance Grady makes a Google Trends chart tracing the rise of two alt-right terms and their correlations with searches for the word “wholesome,” and concludes that when alt-right internet trolling “is ascendant, the internet landscape around it starts to feel more than a little toxic. And wholesomeness becomes an appealing escape.”
So it was no surprise to learn from “Marketing Dive” that the holiday ads at the conclusion of our traumatic Coronavirus year were “soothing,” noting “While ad campaigns are typically heartfelt, wholesome and soothing during every holiday season, those tones are markedly higher” in 2020 than the year before.
Perhaps the most-watched holiday ad this last year unleashed torrents of sentimental tears over the message of good health and family. Viewed 15 million times, the ad, for German health plan DocMorris, contains only one word. It shows an elderly man who lives alone practicing to lift high a kettlebell, diligently for months, a photo as his motivator. The hanky-prone payoff comes on Christmas day, when he lovingly presents a gift to his little grand-daughter—a star to top the family tree. He had worked so hard to be able to lift her up to place the ornament atop the tree herself.
What makes such an ad wholesome? What are the characteristics that we crave and admire that combine in that word?
Searching “wholesome memes” suggests the online consensus. YouTube, for example, offers dozens of compilations of TicToc and other short videos, and I watched them so you don’t have to.
Many show people doing something kind. Others center around expressing caring or love. A guy draws a portrait of a couple at a bar, and gives it to them. A stray cat is quickly adopted by the other cat in the home. A baby lays his head sweetly on a nurse’s hand. A dad is ecstatic to find his son got his dream job. People returning things; baby sloths. Lots of grandmas and grandpas being valued. Cats and dogs lying together with paws around each other. Big tip for the pizza guy on Christmas Eve.
So why do these get millions of views? Sincerity—no deception, sarcasm or teasing. A wholesome person is respectful of others, which includes willing deference to authority, age, wisdom, or higher position.
To live wholesomely means to choose healthy habits, like nourishing food, and energizing exercise. This usually requires self-discipline. People who are wholesome don’t swear (much). They tend to be modest and sweet, with a sense of innocence and wonder about the world.
Wholesome means family. As a 2014 Honey Maid graham cracker ad titled “wholesome” portrays, wholesome is family members showing affection and sharing good times in harmony. Even though the Honey Maid ad stretches and updates the meaning of “family,” the essence is caring for others, no matter their relationship. Key is willingness to give of oneself.
Jewish tradition holds there are two characteristics to be completely avoided, arrogance and anger, and they’re nowhere in the wholesome-ness memes and videos online. Instead, vignettes portray gratitude, tenderness and generosity.
So what can we do to foster a wholesome personality? First, improve your attitude by realizing that often reality is not as bad as media depict. As my husband wrote in his best-seller Hollywood Vs. America, media don’t run a “news business;” instead, they operate a “bad news business,” given its slogan “if it bleeds, it leads.” Sensational, shocking headlines grab viewers and readers. All the millions of families going about their daily activities reliably and honestly earn no headlines.
As an example, the rash of shootings covered this year leave the impression Pres. Biden echoes of an “epidemic” of gun violence. But checking the actual statistics reveals that the rate of shootings has significantly declined; the rate of incidents in the first fourteen weeks of 2021 was actually lower than the rate that prevailed through all of 2020.
In order to minimize such misleading and depressing news, limit your media intake to sources that you know will contribute to your well-being. Though my husband is a film critic and has to watch five new movies weekly, I very seldom join him viewing them. I eschew any film with suspense, violence or slapstick, knowing they’ll frustrate or horrify me. I get teased a lot for it, but I reply, “I just don’t want those kinds of images forever in my brain.” I’d rather miss all the “thrilling” Oscar-contenders and use that time for something more uplifting.
As a parent, you inherently realize that much film and internet content is inappropriate for your children. It’s tough, but caring parents limit their kids’ screen time, and monitor closely the sites youngsters peruse. Crucial in the effort is parents’ role-modeling the kind of discrimination they want to foster in their children. Children learn what they see. At the same time, messages become even more ingrained if parents consistently talk about making worthwhile choices as they demonstrate it.
If you want your children (or yourself) to become more wholesome, surround yourself with wholesome people, and make a list of activities and behaviors you want to encourage. Think of the people you know who exemplify traits you admire, and spend more of your time with them than the ones who don’t.
Most importantly, we should recognize that it’s likely better for our bodies, souls and peace of mind to strive toward wholesomeness than drift in the media quagmire of binge-watching and channel-surfing. One antidote is to go outdoors and in all weather appreciate the beauty in our Northwest home. Pioneer Park offers ravines, trails, brooks, nurse-logs and soaring firs and cedars. If we spend just fifteen minutes walking and listening to the birds and our own footsteps crunching on fallen needles and cones, we can regain the equilibrium of our place between earth and sky. There’s not much more wholesome than that.
Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist, speaker and author of six books, most recently Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage. Her new project is Wholesome: Raising Kids and Your Consciousness for the Better. She’s married to author and radio talk host Michael Medved (770 AM, noon-3 pm weekdays) with whom she can be seen walking (while collecting litter) in their Seattle suburb, likely with their children or at least some of their four toddler grandkids. Reach Diane at DianeMedved.com.