Is There a Difference Between Health and Wellness?
rē-conciling the gap between health and wellness.
The terms “health” and “wellness” have become intertwined, used together colloquially as if they are synonymous… But in reality, they possess two distinct definitions, and the demands of modern life can feel like it puts the two at odds. But we find that a more integrative approach to medicine — one that blends Eastern with Western, traditional with modern, and pays heed to mind, body, and spirit — can help to rē-concile the divergent experiences of health and wellness in the modern-day value system.
What is health?
In the 1940s, the World Health Organization established that the definition of health is a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Achieving health often starts with focusing on the different areas of the body that are calling for extra attention — say, a diagnosis of disease that leads you to closely examine the functioning of the gut or heart health. But from there, it takes additional steps to address the areas of “bio-psycho-social” concern, each of which contributes to overall health.
The WHO identifies primary determinants of individual health as our social, physical, and economic environments, in addition to our individual behaviors, traits, and genetic histories. When looking to improve upon health-promoting behaviors, it is a combination of external, environmental factors, as well as individual efforts and lifestyle choices, that create the entire picture. This requires broadening the definition of health to reflect a more holistic view, one that includes multiple domains of existence — encompassing environmental, inter-relational, mental, emotional, and physical factors.
Well then, what is wellness?
To put it simply, wellness is the ongoing series of choices that directly influence overall health. At the end of the day, their interplay is what creates the bigger picture of vitality, fulfillment, and alignment.
The National Wellness Institute defines wellness as “an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.” We can achieve wellness by seeking balance in our lives, by consciously making choices that promote health, and being conscious of overall fulfillment in life. It’s a lifestyle that can be actively sought, evolving continuously across the life course as situations and circumstances change.
Over the years, the term “wellness” has been applied every which way, and there are differing views on what the life experience of wellness actually encompasses. The NWI, along with leaders in health and wellness, was able to agree that wellness is a self-directed, conscious, and evolving process through which individuals seek their full potential in a positive, affirming manner; a multi-dimensional, holistic lifestyle that accounts for environment, mental, and physical health.
Dr. Bill Hettler, the co-founder of the NWI, developed an interdependent model called the Six Dimensions of Wellness, which includes: emotional, occupational, physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual. If we wish to build a holistic sense of fulfillment, and thus wellness, we need to address all six of these dimensions. The goal is to demonstrate how each dimension connects with one another and, ultimately, how their combined pursuit is what yields healthy living.
How to recognize the difference.
Recognizing the difference between health and wellness seems simple: health is a state of being, whereas wellness is the process of pro-health living. Health works specifically with physical, mental, and social well-being, whereas the goal of wellness is to enhance overall well-being. Experientially, this means that while health concerns relate to a specific disease, diagnosis, or illness, wellness refers to the conscious choices made to advance your health within your circumstances — like adjusting your diet to incorporate (or eliminate) certain foods, or making time for workouts, stress-reduction practices, etc.
Even without control over some of the factors that determine health, especially when it comes to illnesses beyond your control, there is empowerment in the choice to embrace wellness. At the end of the day, health can be looked at as a goal and wellness help us achieve it through the process of us living a healthy, fulfilling life by embracing the parts of our day-day-day lives that make an impact on our well-being and health.
How to start making pro-health choices for greater wellness.
It’s easy to look at health as black and white — either you have an illness, or you don’t. But health falls along a spectrum, and the choice to prioritize wellness is an everyday journey. Modern medicine emphasizes the treatment of specific symptoms, but historically, many Eastern cultures addressed ailments holistically. Dis-ease was treated from a mind, body, and spirit perspective to regain balance within the Self.
By rē-connecting with this traditional way of thinking, our health and wellness both stand to benefit. In fact, the integrative approach to medicine bridges the gap between the two by allowing you to rē-orient your life around what affects you physically and mentally. They depend on what your body is telling you that you need, or what you feel would be most beneficial, letting you be the guide to your optimal balance. There are so many components to tend to physical health — like diet and exercise — but mental health matters, too. Tending to your stress-reduction and emotional wellness deserves to be prioritized as much as your daily vitamins.
The key to making wellness a true lifestyle is all about mindful, sustainable changes. You don’t need to make a grand gesture; small changes that you can turn into habits will be much more impactful long-term. From mind-body modalities — like meditation, breathwork, and yoga — to getting a proper night’s sleep, the fact is that feeling your best also has physical health benefits, to boot. After all, stress-reduction‘s benefits range from a more optimistic outlook to better blood pressure!
When you improve your wellness, you are already setting the plan in motion to positively impact your overall health. On this everyday journey to the marriage of health and wellness in your life, let your guiding principle be the goal of rē-connecting authentically to your mind, body, and spirit.