Although we hear the greeting/blessing/advice "Be well" tossed around with tremendous frequency as of late (including many print and video advertisements for everything from food products to active wear), wellness is not an easy concept to define. The term has been around since World War II, and certainly it is used in everyday language and conversations with an assumption that we are all operating from a similar definition.
The Merriam-Webster definition of wellness: " the quality or state of being healthy; the quality or state of being in good health especially as an actively sought goal ".
The World Health Organization defines wellness as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity".
The National Wellness Institute defines wellness as "a conscious, self-directed and evolving process of achieving full potential".
Dr. Steven Jonas defines wellness as " a way of life and living in which one is always exploring, searching, finding new questions and discovering new answers, along the three primary dimensions of living: the physical, the mental, and the social; a way of life designed to enable each of us to achieve, in each of the dimensions, our maximum potential that is realistically and rationally feasible for us at any given time in our lives."
Personally, the final two definitions blended together would most resemble my own thoughts on the definition of wellness. Why do these definitions resonate so strongly with me? First and foremost because they do not rely on the absence of disease or infirmity (chance) and secondly, they recognize the conscious, evolutionary, fluid and unique nature of wellness. Both definitions essentially recognize that we all possess a unique understanding of what wellness means for us at any given time under the particular circumstances of that time.
I believe most of us have an internalized complex concept of wellness that we may not even be consciously aware of until our "wellness" is challenged. Perhaps we believe wellness is a fine balance of physical health, emotional/mental health, social health and spiritual well-being. Perhaps we believe, as the National Wellness Institute outlines, that there are six dimensions of wellness....occupational, physical, social, intellectual, spiritual and emotional. My question to you is, can YOU be "well" when one or more of these areas is dramatically imposed upon and not functioning optimally? Is the term "wellness" simply a sum of these parts, measured of equal value, or is it an individual and perpetually morphing concept for each of us, reflecting our deepest values and priorities? Is it a fluid definition, with a certain degree of relativity automatically attached to it, responding to subtle and transformational changes, to time, to place and to environment?
I first came to appreciate the complexity of defining wellness when I was in my early 30's dealing with a diagnosis of Hodgkin's Lymphoma (Primary Cancer of the Lymph System). I was a physically fit working Mom with two busy kids and a marriage that was not meeting my emotional needs. I considered myself "well" prior to my diagnosis. The night sweats and increased difficulty completing my work-outs did not alter my perception of my own wellness. My less-than-ideally-functioning marriage did not alter my perception of my own wellness. And certainly, even the diagnosis of Hodgkin's and the nausea-inducing, fatigue-promoting chemotherapy and radiation treatments did not interfere with my self-assessment of being "well". Was I in denial? Did I have a warped sense of what being well entailed? Or was I, as the National Wellness Institute suggests, engaged in an "active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence" and as Jonas asserts, was I "exploring, searching, finding new questions and discovering new answers....”?
Resilience and its Relationship to Wellness
Much like the seedling that manages to sprout through a crack in the sidewalk, there may be periods of time in our lives when we may be living in a situation or with a condition that is not ideal for us, not one we desire, but we can consciously choose to persevere and thrive nonetheless. Is our wellness therefore really linked to our resilience and our attitude? I define resilience as our ability to accept our individual situations and work WITH versus AGAINST the less-than-ideal circumstances we find ourselves in. A positive, optimistic attitude has long been recognized as playing a major role in how we respond to matters of health and wellness. Several studies have made this connection...a 2003 study revealed that positive thinkers responded better to a flu vaccine; a long-term study initiated in 1975 revealed that participants who had a positive view on ageing lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those who had negative views on growing old.
I have had much opportunity to revisit my thoughts on wellness this past year as I bear witness to many examples of resilient, healthy living through patients with chronic pain, friends with "incurable cancers", friends with progressive neuromuscular disease, aging parents and aging patients. All of these individuals are "well" in my mind and in their own minds, yet they may not be in a "state of complete physical, social and mental well-being". They are however, functioning optimally, exploring, and finding great pleasure within their lives, despite the lack of physical health or ease, and despite the emotionally challenging circumstances of their daily lives. What is consistent among them is their attitude of acceptance, their tendency for gratitude, their ability to be in the present moment, and their ongoing commitment to nurturing a healthy way of living. They continue to engage in life fully, they create and maintain social networks and they take on new challenges and immerse themselves in some form of purpose. I find it humbling and encouraging witnessing each of these individuals not just surviving the situations they are in, but THRIVING within them.
Building Resilience to Improve Your Wellness
Psychologists agree that some people are born with more resilience than others, but they also assert that it is absolutely possible for all of us to cultivate more of it.
There are many strategies we can utilize to build our resilience so that when undesirable situations arise, we are more capable of meeting these "hiccups" without losing ourselves to them. We can hold on to our "wellness" by seeking wellness every day in the simple moments of life.
1) Live with present moment awareness. Learn to take yourself away from creating "stories" around events (future thinking) or rehashing the past, and practice living in the moment you find yourself in. So when your husband forgets that it's your birthday, for example, rather than deciding he doesn't love you anymore (story telling) or remembering that last year he forgot Valentine's Day too, simply accept how you are feeling in the moment (hurt ? frustrated ?), share that with him, and carry on. Researchers have discovered that "mind wanderers" are less happy than those who stay in the moment. A recent study using IPHONE tracking technology revealed that even neutral thoughts (i.e. with no emotional connection) lead to greater levels of unhappiness. Sadly, they also discovered that 47% of the time people were mind wandering while performing tasks. It is difficult to be resilient if you are less happy, and especially if you are prone to creating stories around simple events.
2) Take good care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you find relaxing and enjoyable. Get exercise daily and prepare healthy meals for yourself. Ensure you are getting enough good quality sleep. When you have a routine of good healthy habits, you have contributed to a solid foundation from which mental and emotional resilience can arise.
3) Be grateful for everything good in your life, including simple little pleasures (like a great cup of coffee, clean white socks, etc.) Paying more attention to the good things refocuses us towards a positive state of mind, thus enabling us to better respond to difficult scenarios.
4) Develop and maintain healthy, revitalizing relationships. Accepting help and support from those who care about you and will listen to you strengthens your resilience.
5) Find a way to creatively express yourself regularly. Draw, doodle, write, sing, dance, play a musical instrument, put on a play, or make a creative meal. Getting in touch with your creative abilities allows you to draw more readily on creative problem solving strategies.
6) Accept that change is a natural part of life. Flexibility is an essential part of resilience. Create opportunities for change so that you can become more comfortable adapting to change when it occurs without your approval. Certainly there are many invitations towards greater flexibility presented to us on a daily basis (So your son asked for the car and you were planning to go to the gym? Walk there instead, without any resentment). Embracing these minor interruptions as they occur daily allows us to build a greater capacity for more readily embracing the more significant disruptions that may occur.
7) Look for opportunities for self-discovery and self-understanding in simple, daily occurrences. Trying to understand your impulsive impatience today at the grocery store line-up may help you to better understand your impatience when significant hardship arises. Once you understand yourself well, you have gained access to your own operating manual. Having the operating instructions is always an advantage!
8) Take a positive approach to life in general. Researchers refer to a positivity ratio...that ratio is a product of how you characterize the balance of positive and negative experiences in everyday life. Research suggests that we need a minimum of a 3-to-1 ratio of positive to negative experiences to build resilience and to thrive. This means that for every negative emotional experience you endure, you have to experience at least 3 to uplift you. Essentially, we need to really focus on our self-talk and on our reflexive thought patterns. This does not mean that we enter denial or a Pollyanna effect, but rather that we allow ourselves to find something good in every situation.
9) Get outdoors regularly. Research suggests that spending just 20 minutes outside leads to more expansive thinking and helps combat anxiety and depression.
Again, resilience loves expansive thinking and a positive mental state.
10) Create and nurture a positive view of yourself and your abilities. Remind yourself of your strengths and accomplishments regularly, and challenge yourself on a regular basis to solve minor problems so that you can develop increased self-confidence in your problem-solving abilities.
11) Meditate, pray, journal, go to church/synagogue/mosque.....Develop some kind of personally relevant spiritual practice. Not a believer? No problem. Spirituality is not equivalent to religion. Spirituality is about your inner life, how you make internal meaning of the world around you. Simply getting to know your deepest values and beliefs is a spiritual endeavour as these can be guiding principles that can help ground your decisions and actions and guide you towards improved balance and ease within your life.
May you find your way towards a more successful existence, always possessing the energy to explore, to seek and to achieve your fullest potential regardless of the circumstances you may find yourself in.
Be well !