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In today’s day and age, “health” and “wellness” are buzz words that are used so often, their definitions/meanings are unclear, maybe fuzzy at best. While good intentions are (usually) present, marketers often latch onto these kinds of ideas and start to twist the narrative to a point where we think we’re not healthy or well if we don’t do yoga, drink smoothies, or wear a size 0. So, with all of the noise out there surrounding the topic, how do we define health and wellness?
Right up front I’ll tell you that I don’t think there is any one concrete definition to health or wellness. Both concepts are fluid, interpretive, and often personal.
But before we get into that, let’s start with the basics.
Dictionary Definitions of Health, Healthy, and Wellness
Dictionaries define health as:
- the state of being free from illness or injury
- a person’s mental or physical condition
- the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit
- the general condition of the body
- a condition in which someone or something is thriving or doing well (well-being)
- general condition or state
- vigor; vitality
Dictionaries define healthy as:
- in a good physical or mental condition
- indicating or promoting good health
- normal, natural, and desirable
- possessing or enjoying a sound and vigorous mentality
- prosperous or sound
Dictionaries define wellness as:
- the quality or state of being healthy in body and mind, especially as the result of deliberate effort or as an actively sought goal
- an approach to healthcare that emphasizes preventing illness and prolonging life, as opposed to emphasizing treating diseases
- an active process of becoming aware of and making choices toward a healthy and fulfilling life
- a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity (from The World Health Organization)
- a conscious, self-directed and evolving process of achieving full potential (from The National Wellness Institute)
While these all sound pretty good (at least to me), the problem is they are still quite vague. We don’t really know what the parameters are for what make something “good” or “desirable” or “normal” or “prosperous” for our health, or how we can consciously and actively pursue it.
This is where I believe it gets subjective.
How To Determine Your Personal Definition of Health
Rather than decide there is one all-encompassing definition of what is “healthy” for you, it’s probably more productive to consider each food/person/product/situation on an individual level.
Just like Marie Kondo wants us to take inventory of what sparks joy, we should also notice whether or not each person/place/thing in our lives benefits our health.
Whenever evaluating your health in any area of life, ask yourself these four questions:
- Have I considered the what and the why?
- Does this align with my greater life goals?
- Does this make me feel good (both physically and emotionally)?
- Does this nourish me (in mind, body, and/or soul)?
Learn To Make Healthy Choices
Download a free printable version of these questions here.
1. Have I Considered The What And The Why?
This is to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. (Well, at least as much as possible.) The idea is not to anticipate every single outcome or understand every single aspect, but rather just to make sure you’re not going in completely blind.
Knowledge is power, so the more you learn about an object, person, or situation, the better informed you’ll be to know whether it’s a good choice for you.
When it comes to food: Read labels. Make sure you can pronounce the ingredients. Understand (to the best of your ability) what the ingredients are and why they were chosen.
When it comes to people: Know your role in the relationship. Be aware of what this person means to you, and what you might mean to them. What do you each have to gain/lose? Why are you drawn to each other?
When it comes to products: Similar to food, know what goes into the items you choose to put on and around yourself. What is the purpose and why do you use it?
When it comes to situations: Acknowledge what a particular situation is, and why you should / need to be involved.
2. Does This Align With My Greater Life Goals?
Before you can answer this question, you have to know what, in fact, your life goals are. (If you’ve gone through the Designing Happiness Workbook, hopefully you have a pretty good idea!)
Maybe you want to run a marathon. Maybe you want to lose 50 lbs. Maybe you want to start a family. Maybe you want to move to a big city. Maybe you want to write a book. Maybe you want to work for yourself.
Maybe it’s a combination of all of these things.
Once you determine what your goals in life are, all the choices you make should serve this greater purpose in some way. If you choose to engage with something that takes you further from your goals, then maybe it’s not the healthiest fit.
(I will warn you, though, that deciding what your goals are is often the hardest part that needs the most conscious work, not whether or not something aligns with these goals.)
When it comes to food: Are you trying to gain muscle, therefore should increase your protein? Or maybe you want to cut out sugar? Avoid dairy to reduce inflammation? Eat more fruits and increase fiber intake? What foods does your body in particular react negatively to? Once you know the end goal (as well as causes/effects), knowing what you should/shouldn’t eat can become a clearer choice.
When it comes to people: Do the people you surround yourself with support you and your dreams and your goals? Do they make you want to be better? Or do they shut you down and dismiss your greater goals? The more you can surround yourself with people that support and respect you, the healthier you’ll be.
When it comes to products: If it’s your goal to go minimalist, maybe buying a bunch of new stuff isn’t the best idea. If it’s your goal to be an artist, maybe investing in some paints/brushes is a step in the right direction. This one isn’t exactly rocket science, but understanding each choice — no matter how small — ultimately impacts our overall wellbeing is the first step toward making more conscious decisions.
When it comes to situations: If you want to move to the city, but take a job in the country, are you aligned? If you know city smog affects your asthma yet you want to be free of your inhaler, consider changing your surroundings to better fit your needs.
3. Does This Make Me Feel Good (Both Physically And Emotionally)?
How you feel is one of the most important indicators as to whether or not something is right for you. The trick is learning how to read and understand the signals of both our bodies and minds to know what “good” is.
On a physical level, feeling good generally means having a clear head, no aches/pains/inflammation, and the stamina/energy to get through the day. On an emotional level, feeling good generally means feeling happy, inspired, grateful, and encouraged.
When it comes to food: Learn what your body reacts well to, in addition to what it doesn’t like. Inflammation, allergies, stomach upset, skin conditions, mood changes, anxiety, energy, etc. all stem from what we feed our bodies. (For me, personally, a food sensitivity test and working with a naturopath helped me learn what my system reacts to.)
When it comes to people: Do your relationships make you feel happy? Do they leave you feeling satisfied, inspired, and respected?
When it comes to products: Do the things you surround yourself with make you happy? Do they enhance your day to day life?
When it comes to situations: Do you look forward to certain situations/places, or do you dread going there? Do you feel safe?
4. Does This Nourish Me (In Mind, Body, And/Or Soul)?
Even if something makes you feel good, if it doesn’t also nourish you in some way, it might not be the healthiest choice. We not only want to surround ourselves with the things that make us happy, we want to surround ourselves with the things that make us better.
In most cases, hopefully these are one and the same, though!
When it comes to food: What physical nutrients does it have and how do they affect your body? Even if you enjoy the taste of something, if it doesn’t have the proper nourishment for your physical body, it doesn’t necessarily serve you well.
When it comes to people: Are the people close to you those that encourage and support you, making you feel like your best self? Do they teach you new things? Do they make you see things in a new light? Do they offer a fresh perspective?
When it comes to products: Does the media you consume (books, tv, social, etc.) energize you, or does it make you feel worse? Do you learn and grow, or feel isolated and burnt out? Do the things you buy help foster your personal growth?
When it comes to situations: Does a particular event or ritual give you peace? Sanctuary? Does the situation recharge you, or deplete all your energy?
A Note About “Good/Healthy” Foods vs. “Bad/Unhealthy” Foods
When people hear about my own personal health & wellness journey and decide to give their own a go, the most common set of questions I get relate to specific foods.
“Are beans good?” “Can I eat fruit?” “What about brown rice?”
While I could answer these in relation to my own diet, body, and goals, it doesn’t really do much for someone who is most likely different.
I think there are some certain “universal food truths” that apply to just about everyone — i.e. too much sugar is bad, drinking water is good, whole foods are better than processed foods — but there is still a huge grey area in between.
Rather than look at any food as “good” or “bad,” instead use the four questions above to determine what food is right for you and your body.
(And yes, just like figuring our goals can be tricky, learning about your body and what it needs/doesn’t like can be a journey in and of itself.)
Wellness vs. Health
Being healthy — when right for your body and in line with your greater goals — is obviously important, but it’s really only one piece of the puzzle.
Even if your physical body is “healthy” (read: free from illness or injury), if your mind isn’t on the same page, are you actually in good health?
If we start to look to the concept of wellness as being our barometer for health and happiness, we’ll have a much more wholesome approach.
This means, rather than just look at the foods we eat and the products we use, we must also look inward to the thoughts we think and the feelings we feel — as well as the journey overall. We must consciously and actively pursue wellness in all forms —health, mindfulness, food, fitness, happiness, purpose, jobs, relationships and all the rest.
It’s not just about the health of our physical bodies, but our emotional and situational heath, too. The pursuit of wellness goes beyond the physical aspects of our lives, and is therefore much more holistic and long-lasting.
Persistence Over Perfection. Awareness Over Apathy.
The biggest takeaway here is to 1) be aware that you want to pursue your own wellness journey and 2) never give up on that journey.
Admitting is the first step, so by simply being aware you want to better yourself and your life is a step in the right direction. Then, you want to be persistent in your pursuit.
If you want something (be it health or happiness or wellness or any of the things that tie into this), you have to put a bit of work in, but the things you learn about yourself are quite literally life-changing.
As long as you make the effort to stay informed and constantly grow, and you’re persistent in your conscious efforts (even if you slip up or aren’t perfect), know that, in the end, everything will be okay.
As Atticus puts it in one of my favorite poetry books,
You think you are alone
but you’re not
we are here
and a million others too
all worried it might never change
but here is the big secret
the one they don’t tell you
you’re doing it right
just by living,
will be okay.