The Nature and Promise of Wellness: Questions Many Have Asked Now Answered

September 25th, 2021 by dayat No comments »


Over the course of many years, I’ve noticed that people have similar questions about the nature of wellness. For a major gathering of 500 or so spa leaders from around the world in Marrakech next month, I put together a list of questions frequently asked to spark interest and discussion for a joint presentation I’m giving with Dr. John Travis, founder of the Wellness Resource Center and a pioneer in the movement. I thought it might be of interest to list a few of these questions.

Question 1: What is your briefest possible definition of REAL wellness?

Well, if I had to offer a wellness definition that fit the 140 character “Tweet” standard, my answer would be: A positive lifestyle designed for superb fitness that embraces critical thinking, exuberance, joy, meaning & freedoms physical and mental.

Question 2: Did you and Dr. John Travis, Dr. Halbert Dunn and others often mentioned as “founders” start from scratch with the wellness idea?

Certainly not. A philosopher named Karl Popper said: We are social creatures to the inmost centre of our being. The notion that one can begin anything at all from scratch, free from the past, or un-indebted to others, could not conceivably be more wrong.

I recognize and embrace the wisdom of Karl Popper. Nothing about the wellness movement started from scratch, free of the past. All wellness promoters are indebted to innovators too numerous to mention, many of whom we can’t even identify.

However, depending upon your view of what wellness is, a good number of key individuals, events and institutions can and should be recognized. However, please be aware that everyone who studies and promotes the wellness concept has his/her own ideas as to what’s most important about it. This includes Dr. Travis and myself. We have many different notions about what matters most for enhanced quality of life and human happiness. However, our different perspectives are

complementary, for the most part.

Therefore, while we would agree on the seminal roles of many pioneers of the wellness idea, including of course Halbert L. Dunn, M.D. who coined and described the phrase high level wellness, we would (and have in books and articles) also identified a few different contributors who deserve recognition.

Question 3: Where do you see wellness going in 20 years?

Where REAL wellness goes (the only kind of wellness worth our best efforts to advance at all) depends almost entirely on larger global issues over which we have, as individuals, almost no influence (though, of course, collectively, it’s all in our hands).

Question 4: How can spas help develop wellness?

Certain kinds of spas (those with sufficient size, resources and leadership) can advance REAL wellness and, in time, guide the industry to a dramatically more significant role in advancing the health and quality of life standards of populations. The business of spas, no matter what other services they offer, should be the promotion of human happiness and positive mental well being.

Question 5: What’s in it for spas?

Imagine, if you will, this same excellent and necessary question having been asked of Da Vinci, of Edward Land and Benjamin Franklin and Hero of Alexandria and Jerome Lemelson and George Westinghouse and Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla and-let’s not overlook Archimedes of Syracuse. What would they say?

Would they say that their ideas, their inventions will reap riches and fame? Perhaps they might have listed such, eventually, somewhere down the list of returns. But, not at the top. In varying words and languages, I think they would have spoken excitedly about a better life for all and the sighting of new horizons for futures until then undreamed of.

Something like that might be in it for spas.

Question 6: What is the origin of the word wellness?

Four years ago, Ben Zimmer, the New York Times columnist who writes the feature On Language, interviewed me about the origin of wellness. On April 16, 2010, Mr. Zimmer wrote:

Though the Oxford English Dictionary traces wellness (meaning the opposite of illness) to the 1650s, the story of the wellness movement really begins in the 1950s. He then connected the word to the phrase high level wellness, which led to a commentary on the life and work of Halbert L. Dunn, M.D. (1896-1975).

Here’s my own summary of the highlights of Dr. Dunn’s life and work.

I visited with his widowed wife Phelpsie shortly after his death. She gave me the grand tour of her home, proudly displaying his garden-and stationary bicycle. She also gave me a library of his papers, which I passed along to Jack Travis when I moved to Florida from California in 1984.

In addition to being a physician, Dr. Dunn was also a biostatistician who worked in hospitals (in New York City and Rochester, MN) before moving into public health with the National Office of Vital Statistics, the Bureau of the Census and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, where he was Assistant Surgeon General for aging. He is best known, however, for his then unusual, rather odd focus and advocacy for greater environmental awareness and personal assumption of individual responsibility for health, which he called high level wellness. He gave 29 talks under this banner at a Unitarian Church in Arlington, VA over the course of a year. The lectures were eventually published as a book, High Level Wellness, in 1961. It did not make the New York Times best-seller lists but it did get in the hands of many doctors and other thought leaders who adopted and adapted Dr. Dunn’s ideas. Many of the early adopters made seminal contributions along the lines advanced by Dr. Dunn beginning in the middle 1970′s. My own book by the same name (subtitled An Alternative to Doctors, Drugs and Disease) and Elizabeth Neilson’s journal Health Values: Achieving High Level Wellness, were inspired by Dr. Dunn’s writings.

Question 7: What led you into wellness?

Random good fortune. A list of such good turns would include a few key intersections in the early 1970′s that would prove to be life-changing.

Among these fortunate interconnections was a chance encounter with the founder of the first-ever Wellness Resource Center at a time when I was experiencing a major job change. I could, if so inclined, credit this seemingly dumb luck meeting to divine intercession. Not being so inclined, I instead rank it near the top of my list of chance encounters of the random good fortune variety.

Other such fortuitous links included an opportunity to pursue post-graduate study mid-career owing to receipt of a generous Bush Foundation grant. This award enabled my enrollment at the Stanford Business School, which in turn sparked a decision to pursue a doctorate in public health policy.

Also critical were the following:

Invitations to write for Prevention Magazine and Rodale Press.

Becoming the editor of the national journal of health planning.

Meeting and working with several remarkable characters who were exploring alternative approaches to improved well being (e.g., self-actualization, organic farming, holistic health, stress management and plant-based nutrition), to name just a few.
I came to the realization that these innovators were probably having a greater impact upon health status than the large health care agency I headed at the time would ever have on the population of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Question 8: How big a problem is the fact that the word wellness is used in so many different ways, without a clear understanding of exactly what it means?

Wellness is indeed a word applied widely and in different ways to medical products, treatments and services as well as to what individuals can and should be doing for themselves. Is this a worry? Will this compromise or undermine a bright future for wellness promotions?

The murky definition of wellness can be overcome. There is not much to be gained from energy or time spent pondering how the word wellness came to be interpreted so broadly in ways at odds with the original positive emphasis. Nor is there much to gain in worrying about how others use and misuse the word, in my opinion.

There is a lot to gain if we can understand, shape and come together around a common concept most likely to facilitate a rise in the health and life quality status of populations.

If people are exposed to the most compelling ideas about wellness, the ensuing discussions and studies should reveal the value of wellness education that provides consistent meanings that enable the best results.

The vibrancy and relevancy of the wellness concept for fostering excellent health beyond the medical model is a great opportunity area for schools, worksites and other educational centers. I think the destination spa industry with the resources and the vision to undertake wellness education will be positioned to create a common perspective on what wellness best represents. The industry can also identify what such lifestyles represent for individuals, families, cultures and societies.

There is no better concept than wellness promotion that, if embraced as a shared industry purpose, can impact public health and life quality while expanding the spa business model.

The nebulous nature of the word wellness that exists at present within spas and throughout societies is an asset, not a liability. The path is clear for a common advance with a unified perception about and leadership for genuine wellness beyond medicine or health care.

So, the answer to the question boils down to this: The current definitional confusion is not a worry-it’s a tactical advantage. Most of those who simply embraced the term for promotional reasons will likely adapt to wellness promotions that embrace a clear life-enriching wellness interpretation.

Question 9: Is wellness a panacea for whatever ails people?

Knowledge about and even the skilled pursuit and maintenance of wellness thoughts, habit patterns and deeds will not represent a panacea that will redirect the slings and arrows of occasionally cruel fortune. And you will still be mortal. So, no, the wellness concept is not a panacea for what does or will ail you. Commercials and other messages to that affect are no more realistic or sensible than television gurus and doctor show hosts who sell “miracle” products and magic pills, or televangelists, superheroes or space aliens. Nobody is going to save us-we have to work out our own best ways of being and living on this earth and making our lives as cheerful and successful as possible. There is no easy way; nothing worthwhile follows without risks and hard work.

Sam Harris, in his latest book entitled, The Moral Landscape, makes a case that the primary value for all humans should be the well-being of conscious creatures. I was not thinking in terms of moral imperatives when I commenced my new career promoting wellness lifestyles in the mid-70′s. I would have been satisfied if those who listened to my talks or read my books simply embraced more responsibility for their health. I would have been delighted if only a few thousand people decided to rely less on pills and medical treatments-and to exercise regularly. I would have been beside myself with delight if they also acted to improve their diet patterns, better manage their stressors and pay more attention to the environment and the shaping of supportive cultures.

Who knew I was talking and writing about the primary value for human beings, the well-being of conscious creatures?

Well, sometimes things turn out better than one ever imagined. I often recall Daniel Burnham’s sage advice that I and my classmates in city planning classes at UNC-Chapel Hill heard repeated many times in the mid-sixties:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.

I memorized the first four and last two words of that advice. I think that’s what wellness promoters might want to consider.

Where better to aim high and fast forward than to embrace and shape a concept that defines a spa wellness that prospers, adds quality of life and boosts the well people of society? That’s the potential of the wellness concept, whatever we choose to call it.

But, no mention of panaceas, please.

Question 10: Are spas not already engaged in wellness? What else might they do to promote well being beyond the current spa wellness menu?

Yes, it’s true that spas around the world are already very much engaged in wellness. By doing the things they already do, the audience for wellness seems very appealing. Even if the agenda is not expanded, there is probably more business opportunities in wellness than any spa is organized to manage at present. At least it would seem so, based on a few landmark investigations that have been done on spas and wellness.

A 2010 SRI report commissioned by GSWS estimated that there are nearly 300 million wellness consumers in the world’s 30 most industrialized countries. The report, Spas and the Global Wellness Market: Synergies and Opportunities, organized wellness consumers by three categories of wellness pursuits: periphery, mid-level and core engagement.

So, the future looks bright just by continuing wellness offerings as they are presently understood and organized.

However, I think the best future for spas lies in developing a broader interpretation of wellness beyond the current model. My idea is keep doing what seems to be working at individual spas in the sense of pleasing the clientele and realizing a good return on investments.

However, I suggest beginning now to assess and plan for another model that takes the wellness concept to a new level, vastly beyond the status quo.

I call it REAL wellness.

Question 11: What is meant by REAL wellness.

REAL wellness is a phrase that reconnects the word wellness to the kind of ideas, values and passions that Dr. Dunn had in mind more than half a century ago. It is also something I’ve sketched in recent years expanding the scope and purposes of the wellness philosophy beyond my initial embrace of it as an alternative to doctors, drugs and disease.

REAL wellness exists entirely on the right side of the illness/wellness continuum. It is about the vibrant energy and rational thinking of people who want to live beyond mere disease avoidance levels of being non-sick. REAL Wellness is not the absence of disease but rather a purposeful striving to live a healthy, fun-filled life based on four pillars or foundations of a more challenging, fulfilling and healthful standard of well being.

I can summarize the focus of the four R-E-A-L dimensions:

R – rational, data-driven thinking, where science, not religion, gurus or doctors have simplistic, previously secret answers.

E – exuberance and energy to live with a passion and interest about everything, especially happiness, joy, meaning and purpose, love and learning.

A – athletic embrace of physical activity and healthy food for a sense of exceptional well being.

L – liberty and freedom to think and say, and do as you like that harms no one else, and to enjoy these opportunities free of guilt and fear.

Reason entails skills in effective decision making. It is thinking and valuing on the basis of evidence and respect for science. It is a learned cognitive process consistent with the famous baloney detector criteria made famous by Carl Sagan. It enshrines skepticism and doubt, at least until a claim can be supported by independent verifications by objective parties. Reason can be contrasted to faith-based thinking, superstition and truths founded on non-testable assertions of revelation, miracles or supernatural events.

Exuberance in the REAL wellness context entails the devotion of equal attention to qualities of mental health as to those of physical well being (addressed in the next dimension-Athleticism). This means understanding the nature and approaches to the realization of happiness and joy, meaning and purpose, love and passion, fulfillment, awe and wonder-qualities that poets and philosophers throughout the ages have addressed and revered.

Athleticism is about physical fitness and optimal nutrition principles. These two fields are interconnected disciplines equally crucial to physical excellence. Both exercise and wise food selections are emphasized for health enhancement rather than for disease avoidance benefits. (The latter, of course, is a significant side benefit of enjoying positive levels of physical well being for the attractive returns from doing so.)

Liberty is the fourth dimension of REAL wellness. The L for liberty is synonymous with freedom, with the two terms being what Ingersoll viewed as the blossom and fruit of justice, the perfume of mercy, the seed and soil, the air and light, the dew and rain of progress, love and joy.

Liberty is a key element in the pursuit of well being. It is vital in the quest for the best life possible in concert with the other REAL wellness dimensions. By developing skills that enhance personal freedoms, citizens can boost their resistance to and protections against non-democratic forces that seek to change the nature of government in restrictive ways. In America today, the wall the Founders erected to keep religion and government separate is under assault. The right to enjoy freedom from religion continues to be eroded by powerful voices on the Supreme Court, in the U.S. Congress and interest groups in every state in this country. This challenge to personal freedoms and thus REAL wellness is not unique to America.