What *is* wellness anyway? And why do I even care?

By Alive & Well

Good question. I’m glad you asked. It happens to be top of mind for me because I’ve just spent two amazing days at the World Wellness Project’s inaugural summit in Melbourne, but I know some people find it hard to put their finger on what ‘wellness’ actually means.

So I thought I’d do some quick polling using a rigorous, scientifically-sound approach to see what some people I know think it might be – and the answers I got were revealing:

“Healthy and happy”

“It’s not like [conventional] medicine, because that’s all about being sick or not sick, and wellness is something different.”

“Mental and physical wellbeing”

All of these touch on some aspects of wellness, but don’t quite capture it in its entirety. Because wellness doesn’t always mean completely ‘well’ in a physical and mental sense. So let’s delve into things a bit more …

The term was first used by Dr Halbert Dunn MD PhD in the late 1950s (in a series of lectures in the U.S.) as a way of describing different degrees of health. He then wrote papers and released a book on the topic called High Level Wellness.[1] Since then, its meaning has been discussed and researched in a wide range of professional fields including medicine, public health, occupational health, social work, mental health, health management, economics, women’s health and nursing.[2]

While there is still debate about what a single, precise definition would look like, there are some overall themes that are now widely accepted:


  1. Wellness is not just the absence of physical illness
  2. Wellness is multifaceted, incorporating physical, intellectual, social, mental and spiritual health
  3. Wellness recognises actual and potential states of being.

Wellness as a continuum

What we know for sure is that wellness is completely individual, and constantly evolving. It is often described as a continuum[3] because:

  • The absence of illness does not necessarily equate to a sense of wellness, because anxiety about the future, fear, boredom and a poor sense of life direction can all impact negatively on us
  • By contrast, the presence of illness does not necessarily preclude a sense of wellness, because an individual’s wellness could include a strong sense of life purpose, solid and supportive community relations, an ability to create ‘down-time,’ and healthy breathing, eating and sleeping patterns.

So that means that our individual wellness encompasses everything from how we breathe, eat, sleep and move, to how we feel, think and communicate, to finding meaning and purpose, to taking time to relax (or ‘chillax’ as my 10-year-old likes to say!).

Adopting ‘the wellness model’ (perfection not required)

When we adopt a ‘wellness’ approach to life, we make conscious choices based on the knowledge that:

  • We are what we eat and digest – so we give our bodies energy-generating wholefoods instead of non-food as much as possible and make sure our systems are functioning as well as they can
  • We are also a product of how we think, feel and interact with the world around us – so we decide not to yell at the car that just budged in front of us in the traffic because it just creates stress in our own bodies, AND
  • We accept that we (and others) are not going to get things right all the time every time – as long as we know that we’re doing the best we can do at that time, that’s what matters.

This kind of approach helps me live my life with a sense of vitality and clarity, and that’s why I care about this stuff so much. Wellness, or wellbeing, is about living this lifetime – right now – and collecting people, habits and evidence that support a sense of gratitude, love and trust. My Masters of Wellness professor calls these ‘blissors’ (as opposed to ‘stressors’). I like the sound of that.

Over the next few weeks, I will dig deeper into the different dimensions of wellness and explain each in detail.

What are your tips for creating greater wellness in your life? What’s one little thing you could add to your life that would give you a greater sense of wellness?


1. Dunn HL, 1961, High Level Wellness, Beatty Press, Arlington, VA.
2. Mackey S, 2009, Towards an ontological theory of wellness: a discussion of conceptual foundations and implications for nursing, Nursing Philosophy, Apr; 10 (2): 103-112.
3. Travis JW and Ryan RS, 2004, Wellness Workbook: How to Achieve Enduring Health and Vitality, 3rd edition, Celestial Arts, Berkeley.