Virgin starts new religion



People quite often say that exercise is the new religion. They usually just mean that it is something people feel they should do, and do regularly. Instead of the routine of going to church, there’s the routine of going to the gym.

Richard Branson, however, takes the idea very seriously. He’s built a swimming pool in a chapel at Repton Park in Essex. It’s an unusually attractive place, with soaring vaulted ceilings and patterned brickwork. He’s taking on board one of the big insights of Christianity. If you want to change people’s behaviour, make sure you use beautiful architecture.

Physical fitness is obviously important. And making it attractive and charming is great. But it’s a subset of a much bigger and more interesting project: having a good life. We want to be healthy and active but really what we want is to be happy and good as well.

Virgin likes to claim that it’s big aim is to help us live better lives. But despite the glossy presentation, so far it has been nibbling, very profitably, only at the very edges: helping us have a slightly better time on trains and planes, offering help with credit card and mobile phone needs, offering assistance if we wish to do some space travel and providing nicer opportunities to work out. This is nothing.

For all its many merits, the brand does not yet live up to its promises. It doesn’t truly help us live better lives – it just helps with one or two details. It’s very early days for Virgin; the company has done almost nothing to change the world for the better.

So let’s imagine what would happen if Virgin fully got behind the big project of making us content and wise rather than merely healthy. Getting fit used to be quite a strange concern. It was well off the radar of an office worker in 1971. Gradually it’s been normalised. We’re proud of ourselves if we spend a lunch break on the bench press. Virgin’s played an important role in this evolution.

The same could happen in the even more important area of care of the psyche or soul. If Repton Park were devoted to the care of the soul what would it be doing? What would it be like to walk inside?

The first thing we do in a gym is make diagnoses: we go to a different area to work on a different part of ourselves. This would be similar to the new Repton Park, but instead of thinking that we need to work on our biceps we might decide we need to work on our envy – or on our confidence, or frustration, or anxiety.

Around the gym we understand routine: we need to do the same thing many times to get results. We have developed some rather odd-looking but specially evolved exercises: movements with various barbells, a contraption so you can flex your lower back muscles, routines with the exercise ball. In the realm of the psyche there may be a similar set of odd-looking exercises, which we haven’t yet invented. There may be works of art you have to look at in certain ways, questions you have to ask yourself, texts to memorise, or situations to rehearse (being patient at the moments when you are irked; noting when you get defensive).

We might walk into a room of people being tested in mock frustrating conversations, or rehearsing moments to step down during domestic rows. Another area might invite us to work with a trainer to rehearse different types and ranges of speaking based on some scripts from recent films.

In a large climbing hall we might find people working in pairs on an obstacle course, practising giving urgent, complicated directions to one another in a kind way. And in another side room we might find people analysing recent instances of particularly stubborn anxieties which they have become aware of.

The early stages of such a development would of course rely on people who were adventurous and who could pay. We might estimate about 100 million people out there could be reached by such a service and who have enough disposable income. Over time, as the practices developed and became more normal, they would become more widely available, and seen as more essential.

Richard Branson’s company has focused on our need for bodily health and has met it in creative ways – now at 269 locations around the globe. But we are just at the dawn of these kind of businesses. There are many more deeply felt and widely spread needs waiting to be met. Capitalism is only just getting started.