What, exactly, is wellness? How can it be defined? What does it look like? Having studied this, and attempted to embrace living it' it for a better part of three decades, I still feel as though my understanding of -- and application -- of this concept is ever-morphing. Not because the idea of wellness changes (although, I guess it does, as, depending on your source, it includes 4 to 9 components), but rather what it means to me keeps changing. 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 are in harmony, THAT is what wellness looks like. All components are essential; one relies on the next to flourish.
Let’s look at each component.
Social well-being. There is no one definitive answer to what this should look like that works for every individual. Each person has their own degree of need of socialness, for interaction with others, for connections, and 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 and 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. This is all important, 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.
Mental and emotional well-being. Answer me this: how do you feel? How do you handle day-to-day life? The answer is likely 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). When I refer to mental and emotional health, a ‘good’ rating would be for 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. so with feeling all of these emotions, one can also understand that it will change. For example, if someone is experiencing a period of great sadness, 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.
Life is full of stressors. Small but significant things that can 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. Did you ever hear 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 if your coping abilities. As the saying goes, you can't fully understand hope without understanding hopelessness. It's 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 component is your ability to decompress and relax: what do you need to recharge? What does your Me time look like? Ask yourself this: how much of yourself do you give to yourself? To others? And are you happy with that balance?
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, and 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.
Physical well-being. Again, not going to preach to 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 success can be achieved in physical wellness when one is part of a group. Why? Because including the social component enables us to have the support and encouragement we so often crave when doing something challenging. 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.
Other models of wellness 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 wellness, 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 you do to support your quality of life?
What do you do that you love best, and how can you do more of it?
What do you need that ‘feeds’ you (i.e. gives you energy and peace of mind)?
What feeds your determination and sense of direction?
May you have great success in keeping your wheel in balance, and keeping things rolling smoothly.