The Meaning of Wellness
Updated: Nov 18, 2021
In 1947, the World Health Organization defined the meaning of health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
Today, we add to this definition to describe wellness as:
Being free from illness and disease;
Having no physiological measures that indicate risk to health, such as high blood pressure;
Having a healthy lifestyle that allows one to be active;
Being in good spirits with a zest for life.
These characteristics indicate that wellness is not something that is suddenly achieved at a specific time. Rather, it is an ongoing process and commitment—indeed, a way of life.
The Wellness-Illness Continuum
Health and Wellness Variables
The word health comes from an old German word that is represented in English by hale and whole, both of which refer to a state of “soundness of body.” Health and wellness result from a complex interaction of biological, psychological, and social variables.
Biological factors include: inherited traits; environmental factors that affect physiological functioning, such as pesticides in the food chain that may cause birth defects and cancer; and personal behaviors that affect biological functions, such as smoking, diet, sleep, and exercise. Psychological factors include: personality characteristics; stress management skills; and health and sickness behaviors. Social factors include: social systems, such as family, work, school, church, and community; social values and customs; and social support.
Consider a person who has a long and healthy life. Biological factors might include good genes, a wholesome diet, and an unpolluted environment. Social factors might include a supportive family, a fulfilling job, and satisfactory social status. Psychological factors might include an easygoing personality and high self-esteem. Individually, these variables promote health to some degree, but in combination they produce a stronger effect. They interact—the easygoing personality encourages family support and love, which in turn enhances self-esteem, which encourages risk-taking at work, which leads to advancement and social status; financial security reduces stress, which promotes health, and so on.
Biological, psychological, and social factors can combine to result in health problems. Consider alcohol abuse that can be traced to a toxic interaction of inherited biological predisposition, psychological lack of ability to self-regulate behavior, and social history of drinking with like-minded peers. If biological, psychological, and social variables were studied independently, essential interactions would be over looked.
Just over 30 years ago, health and psychology were totally separate disciplines, each aware of the other but not connected in a meaningful way. In 1978, the field of health psychology was born, and it has grown substantially since then. Increasingly, researchers are able to identify the psychological mechanisms by which anger, loneliness, and other psychosocial factors adversely affect health and by which a sense of purpose, optimism, sense of control, perspective, and social connectedness exert their positive effects. A major interest in health psychology is the subject of wellness.
Bryan Dyson, former CEO of Coca-Cola, describes life as a game of juggling four wellness balls: family, health, spirit, and work. Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other balls—family, health, and spirit—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. You must understand this and strive to work productively and successfully, but expend the time and effort required to have a healthy family, satisfying spiritual life, and good physical health.
Life Is a Marathon
Like a marathon, there is a beginning, middle, and end to every life. The secret is to take “pause points” and think about where you have been, where you are now, and where you want to go.
In the beginning, pause to focus and plan your future. Some people don’t, and consequently they languish and drift, or they waste time and energy on false starts during young adulthood. The result of focus and planning is knowing what is important to you, setting goals, and taking action to achieve your dreams.
In the middle years, pause occasionally to rest and regroup. This involves reviewing past accomplishments and planning future challenges. Some people don’t, so they become fatigued and burned-out. The wise midlife traveler is guided by George Santayana’s reminder, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat its mistakes.” The result of pausing to review one’s life and plan for the future is renewed energy and a sense of purpose in life.
Toward the end of the race, pause to celebrate victories, learn from past mistakes, and pass lessons on to future generations. Some people don’t and as a result, they fail to experience the satisfaction of a fulfilled life.
The Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” At any point in time, we have to take action. The wise person does so after reviewing past events, gathering present facts, and then weighing and deciding on a future course of action.
The following exercise is particularly useful at pause points in life. It helps people clarify what is important by incorporating the reality of death into understanding and living one’s life. It can help in the process of managing stress in your own changing world.
Life in Perspective
On a blank sheet of paper, write your life expectancy age (see US Life Expectancy at www.cdc.gov). Then draw a line and a circle as shown.
Example: Life Expectancy of 79
Now indicate your current age on an appropriate point on the circumference of the circle. Draw a line to it and shade in the percentage of the circle that represents the time that you have already lived. The unshaded area represents the time you have remaining.
Example: 55 Year Old With a Life Expectancy of 79
(based on the average life expectancy in the United States for all races and sexes combined rounded to the nearest full year).
Who and what are important to you in the days ahead?
Based on this, what are your goals in life? What do you want to accomplish? What, for you, would be a life well lived?
If you are currently in your later years, what have you learned that can help your children and future generations? What can you do to make your next years your best years?
For many years, I have used Benjamin Franklin’s New Year’s resolution: Make war on my vices, keep peace in the family, and do good works with dear friends. These three goals have guided me, focused my efforts, and brought peace of mind.
Personal Thoughts on Wellness
Answer the following questions to personalize the subject of wellness.
1. On a continuum of wellness from illness to zest for life, where are you now (1 is low and 10 is high)? What actions should you take?
2. If you were beginning a self-improvement effort at this point in time, where should you start—physical health and fitness, social love and support, personal beliefs and values, occupational satisfaction and success? What actions should you take?
Eleanor Roosevelt said: I don’t want to live just the length of my life, I want to live the width of it too. Stay fresh. Do something new every day, every week, every month, every year. What new adventure or experiences lie ahead for you?
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch: Lessons from a life too soon gone.
Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx: Turning boys into men
The Defining Decade by Meg Jay: Unsugarcoated reality lesson
The Traveler’s Gift, by Andy Andrews: 7 decisions that determine personal success
The Uniqueness of Humans by Robert Sapolsky
Ted Talk: The Secret to Living Longer May be Your Social Life by Susan Pinker
Everybody thinks about changing humanity, but nobody thinks about changing himself.—Leo Tolstoy
Source: Manning, G., et al. (2016). Stress: Living and Working in a Changing World. Martin, TN: Savant Learning Systems.
George Manning, Author Professor of Psychology and Business at Northern Kentucky University LinkedIn
Jennifer Zimmerman, Editor
Freelance editor, writer, and consultant