As we get into the thick of January and the shine of your New Year's Resolutions begin to maybe tarnish a bit, maybe it is time to think about what you are really seeking with these resolutions. Is it a life-style change? Is it a healthier outlook on life? What about (fill in the blank) would we like to change? Are these resolutions even necessary? Maybe now is a good time to think about what, exactly, is wellness? How can it be defined? What does it look like? And what does wellness look like to you? And really, what's the big deal with these resolutions, anyway?
Having studied this, and attempted to embrace living it for a better part of three decades, I still feel as though my understanding of -- and application -- of this concept -- wellness -- is ever-morphing. Not because the idea of wellness changes (although, I guess it does, as, depending on your source, it includes somewhere between 4 to 9 components), but more precisely, what is changing is it means to me. And, honestly, that is the way it is supposed to be, because my ideals, my goals, and my actions change throughout each phase of my life. By definition, the basic concept of wellness embraces more than the absence of illness. Rather, it is a dynamic process of change and growth that encompasses social, mental and emotional, spiritual, and physical components - when all of these components are in harmony, THAT is what wellness looks like. All components are essential; one relies on the next to flourish.
Here's what I am going to gift to you: we're going to take a deep dive here, and look at the different parts of wellness (as I define it), and for the rest of January, we'll look at change, and why it is (or is not) important. In the subsequent months, we'll focus on a component and related topics: February, we'll focus on Physical well-being; March we'll focus on Social well-being; April will be Mental and Emotional well-being; and May will be Spiritual well-being.
So. Let's start by looking at each component. Within each component, I have included a few questions for you to ask yourself, to honestly reflect upon, and come up with your answer to what your wellness looks like as of now. Remember, these are not stagnant, set answers. Things change as you age, change family phases, go through different experiences, etc. Answering these questions honestly and reflectively will help you determine if perhaps you need to take steps towards finding a more healthful direction or pattern. Or you may determine you are just fine, thank you very much, and we can move on. The key for these questions is to be honest with yourself with the answers, and reflect on what truly is at the core of your wellness.
Social well-being. Human beings are social animals. However, there is no one definitive cookie-cutter answer to what this should look like for every individual. Each person has their own degree of need for socialness, for interaction with others, for connections, as well as for their preferred mode of communications. For some, it may look like 5,277 Facebook contacts and juggling 4 different events each night. For others, it might be a monthly book club meeting with their four favorite friends. And for another it might mean chat room involvement. Social well-being includes one’s ability to make friends as well their sense of belonging. For me, part of my social well-being is feeling to be a part of a community. It gives me peace of mind to know that I am surrounded by like-minded and supportive friends, and that I have key friends I can rely on for things like kid-schlepping or ear-bending. These are people I respect and admire, they feel the same about me, and they often count on me too. Having (for me, multiple) friends I share these friendships with brings me happiness and joy; that feeling of connectedness is important for me, and part of my balance. What does ‘social wellness’ look like to you? Do you like to be busy and surrounded by friends? Do you prefer one or two close confidants? You know you best; you know what you need best. Balance what you need with what you HAVE to do; work- or family-related social obligations are also something to consider when you look at what you are putting on your social calendar. Social connection plays a role in a number of successes in our parts of our wellness. You may feel the influence of positive peer pressure to do things that are 'good' for you, but perhaps you may not be interested in doing on your own. You may also feel negative pressure to do things that you would not otherwise. The stronger your sense of self, the more connected you are to your understanding of who you are, the better you will be able to withstand these negative pressures. Part of your social successfulness lies in your ability to be true to your real self - or who you believe yourself to be - when you are amongst your friends and also when you are not. Questions to ask yourself: Do I like who I am with my friends? Am I proud of the person I am when I am with my friends? Am I my honest best self when I am with my friends? Do I feel energized after spending time with the people I spend the most time with? Do I have meaningful relationships? Have I been spending as much time with friends and family as I would like? Is my social influence pushing me towards decisions I am not 100% happy with?
Physical well-being. Physical well-being is so much more than great muscle tone; having a healthy quality of life embraces one’s level of physical aptitude, sure, and also the ability to recognize the impact of one’s own behaviors and focusing on adopting healthful routines. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, staying well-hydrated, staying active – all part of the physical well-being piece of your wellness pie. Physical well-being is not just looking good, but also feeling confident in how you move, what you do, and having a sense of ownership over your physical accomplishments. Know this: I am not going to preach at you about any particular regimen that you must subscribe to in order to be physically well. I can only tell you that each person has to find this balance for themselves. What I know for sure, though, is often the most reliable physical wellness successes can be achieved when one is part of a social group. Why is that? Because including the social component enables us to have the support and encouragement we so often crave when doing something challenging. And, honestly, when you are held responsible for your commitment by someone else, it rings more true. It's a lot easier to avoid that snooze button if you know you have friends waiting for you to show up for your morning run, am I right? Questions to ask yourself: Am I happy with my level of physical activity? Is there an activity I would rather be doing/trying? Am I happy with my level of fitness? Am I getting enough rest? Do I have energy to get through my day? Am I satisfied with my general diet? Would I change anything?
Mental and emotional well-being. Answer me this: how do you feel? How do you handle day-to-day life? The answer is likely to change from day to day, month to month … maybe even minute to minute (perhaps especially for parents, when dealing with preschoolers or teenagers who are also on a mental and emotional rollercoaster... and maybe especially so as we all spend significant amounts of time together with this schooling- and working-from-home business for the last 10+ months). When I refer to mental and emotional health, a ‘good’ rating would indicate an individual who has positive self-esteem, and can healthfully feel and express a wide range of emotions. This person can build and maintain relationships with others and engage in the world. Very importantly, this part of wellness also includes coping and dealing with stresses of daily life, being productive, and having the ability to adapt and change. Life is full of a lot of emotions, so one can also understand that it will change. For someone who is well-balanced in this component of wellness, they will be able to see that things may look down RIGHT NOW and they feel the sadness, but understand that things will change, and they will be able to move past that sadness at some point; sadness is not enduring, nor defining. For one who is not as well in this component, they will struggle to find their proverbial silver lining; the sadness will endure and cause despair. They might feel as though there are no means they can access in order to gain more control in their lives.
Life is full of stressors. Small but significant things that may have a negative impact on this realm of health can include loneliness or dealing with a family member who is ailing, or an impending relocation (often the case for us Foreign Service folks); larger stressors might be lack of sleep, debt or worry about money, unemployment, abuse or even trauma. In this past year, we've all had a constant stressor: this pandemic has been overarching, causing worry and fear, wreaking havoc on livelihoods, and changing our normal daily patterns beyond what we ever imagined. Have you ever heard about a Stress scale? This is a tool that determines your stress load. Different life events carry a different stress load; your ability to deal with these stressors is greatly determined by your level of mental and emotional well-being. This can be defined as your resiliency, which is your ability to bounce back after a slap in the face (both proverbial and physical). You can't go through life without being knocked back or even down a few times; how you get back up is telling of your coping abilities. As the saying goes, you can't fully understand hope without understanding hopelessness. It is the ability to move through the stages - towards hope - that defines wellness. Resilience is not just trying hard; but rather trying hard, sure, and also being willing to try differently, developing a strong set of problem-solving skills.
Another key part of this component is your ability to decompress and relax; do you have a way to return to your calm? Do you have your way to get back to 'normal' that you can easily and regularly access? Your mental and emotional wellness is like a bank you draw from; you have to ensure you make deposits as well, otherwise you end up with a negative balance. Questions to ask yourself:
What do I need to recharge?
What does my Me time look like?
How much of myself do I give to myself? To others? And am I happy with that balance?
Do I have a sense of contentment?
Am I able to show gratitude and appreciation?
In what ways do I feel loved?
Spiritual well-being. Please don’t think I’m going to tell you that you have to go to church or have a particular faith in order to be spiritually well. On the contrary, one can be very spiritual AND not have a defined religion. Spiritual well-being can be described as a sense of inner peace, as well as the journey to finding one’s purpose and meaning in life, as well as the discovery of what is important in life and one’s place among these important things. Spiritual well-being plays a role in one’s coping mechanism, and also includes personal values. Sure sure, religion may play a role in one’s spiritual well-being, but it is not necessarily a component; spiritual practices may include other activities beyond religion. It is important to understand what you need to feel spiritually fulfilled, and to fully embrace your own personal values. With a healthy level of spiritual wellness, one can accept and grow from the challenges in life, and benefit from a strong sense of self-efficacy which in turn feeds into a strong sense of self and a purpose in life.
Have you heard of mindfulness? Mindfulness can play a key role in focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, to being aware and placing value on what is occurring rather than just letting life pass by. Focusing on emotions that result, or interactions with self and with others can help one gain insight into their own needs and responses as well as those of others, increasing awareness, sense of self, empathy, and acceptance. Having a healthy level of spiritual well-being plays a key role in self-control, too, helping to curb unhealthy or unwise decisions or behaviors.
Questions you might ask yourself about your own spiritual well-being include:
Do my values guide my decisions and action?
Am I accepting of the views of others?
Do I connect with what is important in my life?
How do I portray my values to others?
Do I know and embrace my purpose?
Am I able to be positive?
How do I connect with things beyond my tangible life?
Where does my happiness come from?
What is my inspiration?
In what ways do I hope to make my life more meaningful, more fulfilled, more full?
How can I be more kind to others? To myself?
What are my sources of courage?
Some of these questions are a lot harder than others; all will take time to reflect upon and to answer honestly.
Other models of wellness also include occupational, intellectual, financial and environmental health components, as well. None of these models are wrong; wellness is looking at the whole picture, the whole YOU, and looking at what you can do to be the best you. Best means happy, healthy, flourishing, and well. What do you do – what CAN you do – to achieve that? Each piece of the wellness pie - no matter what components you include - are essential and important. Focusing on just one means ignoring the others. There is an interdependency from each spoke; when all are functioning at peak, your wheel is smooth and rolls well. Identifying what YOU need to keep your wheel rolling smoothly is your task in life. How can you do that? Besides looking at some of the specific descriptions I included above, and corresponding questions, some other over-arching questions to ask yourself include:
What do I do to support my quality of life?
What do I do that I love best, and how can I do more of it?
What do I need that ‘feeds’ me (i.e. gives me energy and peace of mind)?
What feeds my determination and sense of direction?
The questions I have included here are difficult, and will take some time to reflect upon, if you really want to have a quality answer. Don’t just slop them together; you won’t be doing yourself any favors. Take the time and be honest. Your answers may surprise you. May you have great success in keeping your wheel in balance, and keeping things rolling smoothly.