So, what in the heck is this nebulous term, wellness?
For five years, I have worked for organizations that have had the term “Wellness” in their name. You might think that would qualify me to offer a definition for the term, or at least be able to point in the right direction. It turns out, however, that wellness is a fairly tricky term to define.
One way to think of being well is simply to define it as the absence of disease. This would mean that one does not meet diagnostic criteria for any medical conditions. In this case, if you are well, you do nothing, and if you suddenly have a disease, you react by taking action to cure the disease.
This is a definition of wellness, that, while clearly defined, is a bit passive for my taste. It implies that wellness is a default setting, and that, to use a common phrase; “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. And, even if it is clearly defined, disease is often muddled. At what point does one cross the threshold from ”well” to not-well? In the case of a virus or an injury, this may be clear cut. But in a syndrome such as diabetes, obesity, or depression, there is not really a clear line between sick and well. It is often sort of slide, rather than a clear drop.
I prefer to think of wellness as a proactive state, in which one is engaged in constantly adapting to the various aspects of life. Change is constant, and our bodies and minds must adapt. It is not possible to stop adapting and continue to enjoy good health and a sense of well-being. There is a reason when someone is struggling in their life they are often referred to as being “in a rut”, “stuck” or “stagnant”. These metaphors capture something essential about the human experience.
Our minds can often be a major culprit in this process. We may find something that brings us happiness or joy. Our minds often tend to hold on to this tightly and inflexibly, even if it has outlived its usefulness. Conversely, we may try one thing one time, have a poor experience, and refuse to try again, even if it may be beneficial.
This isn’t to say we should blow with the wind at all times. Certain commitments may be foundational, such as family, career, or faith. But our understanding and experience of these things change over time as well, and if we want to maintain fidelity to the things we care most about, we’ve still got to adapt.
So I think that is how I would define wellness. Rather than a state of body or mind, I’d define it as a stance towards life in which one is engaged with his or her highest priorities in a process of constant adaptation to changing circumstances. If this is the case, the rest will take care of itself.
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