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Wellness: Basic definitions of wellness

by Donald B. Ardell, Ph. D.

Wellness is first and foremost a choice to assume responsibility for the quality of your life. It begins with a conscious decision to shape a healthy lifestyle. Wellness is a mindset, a predisposition to adopt a series of key principles in varied life areas that lead to high levels of well-being and life satisfaction.

A consequence of this focus is that a wellness mindset will protect you against temptations to blame someone else, make excuses, shirk accountability, whine or wet your pants in the face of adversity. (I threw that in to help you remember this explanation.)

Wellness is an alternative to dependency on doctors and drugs, to complacency, to mediocrity and to self-pity, boredom and slothfulness.

Many wellness promoters, myself included, see wellness as a philosophy that embraces many principles for good health. The areas most closely affected by your wellness commitments include self-responsibility, exercise and fitness, nutrition, stress management, critical thinking, meaning and purpose or spirituality, emotional intelligence, humor and play and effective relationships. At SeekWellness, all these and related areas are covered in much detail in varied ways.

Wellness entails a conscious commitment to positive initiatives and principles for optimal functioning in all these areas.

The term wellness was first used by a physician named Halbert L. Dunn, who published a small booklet entitled High Level Wellness in 1961. Dr. Dunn saw wellness as a lifestyle approach for pursuing elevated states of physical and psychological well-being. He described it as a disciplined commitment to personal mastery. He elaborated on a philosophy that was, from the start, multidimensional, centered on personal responsibility and environmental awareness. His approach to health was quite different from the tack taken a half century earlier by physical cultists like Dr. Kellogg of Battle Creek, MI and a motley assortment of nuts and berry types who flourished at that time. Dr. Dunn's wellness crusade was carried on largely on his own time, as a personal passion separate from his work as a public health official, during the many years he served as a distinguished physician in the 50's and 60's.

Many of us who have promoted wellness since Dr. Dunn have gone to some lengths to distinguish the term from related concepts with which it is sometimes confused, such as holistic health, prevention, health education and health promotion. I certainly do not think it is the same as these related concepts and programs. Holistic health, for example, is treatment oriented and practiced by healer-types. Prevention is oriented to not having something unpleasant happen -- the avoidance of disease, as opposed to the pursuit of physical and psychological excellence. Health education is oriented to compliance with a doctor's "orders" or other forms of sound health/medical matters; health promotion is a broad tent kind of word, an umbrella term under which anything from risk reduction to employee assistance activities can be promoted in institutional settings.

One of the early distinctions of the wellness movement was to present health issues as an alternative to doctors, drugs and disease. I did that back in 1977 with my first book, High Level Wellness: An Alternative to Doctors, Drugs and Disease. Of course, the "alternative" was and remains to live in such a way that you don't get sick in first place or, at the least, in such a way as to strengthen your immunity so that illness does not last as long as it might otherwise.

A related idea is to be wary of terms in common use that do not really mean what general usage of the words might imply. Take, for example, the illusion of "health" insurance.” Money payments to doctors and insurance companies can not insure health -- only a steady effort to live healthfully can do that. Health insurance is actually a system for arranging payments for medical services. The latter can not make you well, only help you deal with illness.

The paradox of health is that while we are living longer, we are not living in a manner consistent with the highest possible quality of life. And a lot of people, it seems, would sooner worry about this situation than act so as to be healthier. In some way, we are "doing better and feeling worse," as suggested by Aaron Wildavsky. One of the areas of wellness that I have emphasized is helping people better appreciate what it means to be a healthy person, as opposed to just not being sick. Having clear pictures of health at the heights of well-being make it more likely that mediocrity will not be found acceptable. Recent studies in Australia and classic research done earlier in this country by Maslow, Otto, and others add weight to this claim. They looked primarily at those who rarely got sick and/or those most often judged by peers as the "healthiest people."

The research suggests that the "wellest of the well" possessed the following qualities, to an uncommon degree:

  • high self-esteem and a positive outlook
  • a foundation philosophy and a sense of purpose
  • a strong sense of personal responsibility
  • a good sense of humor and plenty of fun in life
  • a concern for others and a respect for the environment
  • a conscious commitment to personal excellence
  • a sense of balance and an integrated lifestyle
  • freedom from addictive behaviors of a negative or health-inhibiting nature
  • a capacity to cope with whatever life presents and to continue to learn
  • grounded in reality
  • highly conditioned and physically fit
  • a capacity to love and an ability to nurture
  • a capacity to manage life demands and communicate effectively.

How are you doing in these areas, and what will it take to do more in some of them that might invite further attention?

To conclude this introduction to wellness, consider these ten suggestions. I wrote them to summarize the nature of wellness and increase the chances that you will embrace it. Good wishes.

  1. Advice can come from many sources but ultimately you must make the unique decisions for designing and maintaining quality for your health, leisure and wellness choices.
  2. It is very difficult to be well and focused on excellence in lifestyle if you can't express your talents and passions in some manner.
  3. Coming to terms with the fact that change is inevitable and happening at a faster pace than ever before will enable you to deal more effectively with its manifestations.
  4. Your lifestyle choices, including your attitudes/beliefs/emotional responses and actions, will have a far greater impact on your health, work and wellness performance than any and all doctors who do or could serve you, the economy, the environment, your income level, your age, your retirement plan or your luck.
  5. Wellness is too important to be pursued grimly. Whatever your choices, make sure you're having fun.
  6. Modern medicine's a wonderful thing but there are two problems: people expect too much of it and too little of themselves.
  7. Balance is a good thing and a worthy goal but there are times when you have to put it aside to pursue a passion over time, a heroic quest or other short-term goal that takes too much time and energy to permit the maintenance of balance. Be flexible.
  8. It's better to take up healthy practices than to give upunhealthy habits, at least initially when trying to enhance the quality of your lifestyle. For example, you are better advised to take up a satisfying activity like vigorous walking before you attempt to quit smoking.
  9. Lifestyle quality is seldom achieved by accident--you have to make a choice to live and work this way.
  10. It's never too late to start a wellness lifestyle. Even if you are 100. Or older.

October 2000

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