The two terms, health and wellness, are very intimately connected, and we can be forgiven for using them in conjunction and interchangeably. But as we go about exploring the various global health and wellness initiatives, it is perhaps important to take some time to explore the difference between health and wellness.
Let us start with a simple definition. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health in very broad terms as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Notice how this definition seems overly inclusive and unattainable, and extends health beyond the simple absence of disease. You may start to wonder how, with such an all-inclusive definition, we can begin to differentiate between health and wellness. But the difference is actually pretty simple. Wellness, in contrast to health, is defined by the National Wellness Institute as “an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.”
Comparing these two definitions and the difference between health and wellness becomes very clear. Health is a state of being, while wellness is an active process of becoming. So in simple terms, wellness is the active process by which we seek to attain, enhance and maintain complete physical, mental, spiritual and social health. Let us explore this in a little more detail. By its dynamic nature, wellness is an active and evolving multi-dimensional process that seeks to encompass all aspects of our life. It depends on our conscious and directed effort, and is by nature empowering and positive in aspect. This allows us to pull out three characteristics of wellness, namely that it is positive, it is dynamic and it is conscious. In essence, wellness is an attitude! Health, in contrast, is something we can seek to achieve, but we cannot control and determine. The state of our health is not always in our hands. We can get cancers and high cholesterol even if we lead the healthiest life. Many of us are predisposed to genetic diseases, and some of us are born with ailments. Accidents can strike at any time, and injuries happen to even the most careful individuals. Wellness, on the other hand, is something we have a significant control over. We can choose to exercise, eat well and meditate. We can quit smoking and seek help from a therapist when anxiety overwhelms us. And we can choose to be positive in everything we do and put a conscious effort into building our social capital. In this sense, wellness becomes a way for us to work towards better health, and serves a holistic and preventable function. It helps to make us stronger and more resilient in the face of possible health problems outside our control, and it reduces our predisposition or vulnerability towards such problems. Though none of us can achieve or be guaranteed “perfect health”, we can choose to work towards this goal through a conscious investment in our wellness.
Every day we face challenges and obstacles, be they physical, mental, financial or emotional. And every day we have the choice on how we will approach and maintain our physical, mental, spiritual and social well-being and balance. By making decisions and choices based on sound knowledge and understanding, and by being conscious of our choices, we can work towards our holistic wellness. Wellness is not a number on a scale, or the size of a bicep, or the pace at which you can run a mile. Rather, it is your active choice of goals and aspirations, and your feeling of fulfillment and well-being. Either way, we cannot achieve good health without first achieving wellness. So remember, while good health is the goal for us all, wellness is the action by which we choose to achieve this goal; and since we are all unique, we can each choose our own path.