When Celeste Scott sees “things that are unscathed by the bad things in the world,” she says she can’t help but blurt out: “That’s so wholesome.”
Examples: Two people on opposite sides of a foggy window playing tic-tac-toe with their fingers. A monkey riding on a piglet’s back. And Pedro Pascal.
It’s a Gen Z compliment, used to describe anything that is sincere, nice or cute, and, according to Ms. Scott, 26, it evokes a specific reaction. “People are like, ‘Aww,’” she said.
What’s not wholesome? “Love is Blind.” “When I watch that, my heart rate is up. I’m annoyed at the contestants because they’re being dumb,” Ms. Scott said.
Wholesome Memes has three million followers on Twitter. Wholesome Games has 328,000 followers on TikTok. Data from Google Trends shows that “wholesome” started getting popular in 2018 and peaked in September 2020.
Enzo Luna, a 22-year-old communications consultant, recalls first using “wholesome” in everyday language around 2019. “I think it caught on a lot because it’s just a word that sounds cool,” he said. “It’s such a strong and simple word.”
Ms. Scott was working for a lifestyle blog called The Good Trade in 2019 when she called their content “wholesome” during a meeting. But her co-workers thought she meant it in a negative way — that their work was lame or uncool. Once they learned that it was a compliment, they started using the word themselves. One co-worker even wrote a think piece about the word.
“Maybe before, ‘wholesome’ was used to describe something a little more conservative,” theorized Ms. Scott, who was the blog’s youngest employee.
The Gen Z compliment is free of connotations of traditional family values and virtues, according to Michèle Lamont, a sociology professor at Harvard and the author of a forthcoming book titled “Seeing Others: How Recognition Works and How It Can Heal a Divided World.”
“They’re not necessarily defining ‘wholesome’ the way the Midwesterners traditionally do, but more in the sense of having a positive outlook on life,” Ms. Lamont said.
Mr. Luna thinks of wholesomeness as kindness, like giving up a seat for an elder or complimenting a stranger.
So does Sufian Miah, 16. “I saw a video of a person talking to a homeless man, and they became good friends after a while. It was wholesome,” he said. “It means a good feeling in the heart for everyone who witnessed it and was a part of it.”
Wholesome Games, a TikTok and Twitter account that posts video snippets of cozy games, has a mostly Gen Z audience: 67 percent of its audience on TikTok is between 18 and 24. (TikTok does not show the founder of the page, Matthew Taylor, data for users younger than 18.)
There are also oodles of wholesome meme accounts, which Gen Z prefers over the satirical millennial memes of the early 2010s that were coated with dark humor and doused in irony.
“Sometimes those ironic and satirical memes are too heavy-handed, and they go into things that, at a certain point, it’s not really a joke anymore,” Mr. Luna said. He said he appreciated wholesome content instead. Watching cat videos is one of his favorite pastimes. “I really enjoy seeing that type of content as opposed to people making fun of others,” he said.
And it’s not just wholesome content that Gen Z-ers prefer. Many of them prefer wholesome people, like Harry Styles; wholesome pastimes, like playing board games; and a wholesome lifestyle consisting of “healing eras” and “protecting your peace.” Wholesomeness is not just a compliment, then. It’s a generational value.
In a 2022 study, Ms. Lamont interviewed 80 college students and found that there was an overall sentiment among Gen Z of valuing optimism and contributing to social change.
“This is the cohort that came of age under Covid, the first people born with a phone in their hands,” Ms. Lamont said. She said the focus on positivity was a way to move forward from the hardships.
Mr. Luna recently entered the work force and started his role at Harbor Freight Tools for Schools in June 2022. He said he had noticed that his co-workers “expect the world to be hard on them.” But he preferred to be “the person who tries to be a place of comfort for everybody, regardless of all the other difficulties that the world presses on you.”
Emily Torres, 33, has noticed that her Gen Z co-workers tend to bring a positive attitude into meetings. She is an editorial director at The Good Trade, and Ms. Scott was once her co-worker.
“I’m having some fun memories of my colleague,” she said of Ms. Scott. “Because she was wholesome.”