What is wellness? Jump onto social media and the answer would appear to be an elusive formula involving cauliflower smoothies (yup, that’s a thing), yoga poses, and sunsets. Go beyond the buzz, though, and wellness is a lot more than just a hashtag on an Instagram gym selfie. So what is wellness really and how do we know if we’re working toward or against it?
We’re not alone in the struggle to define this whole wellness thing—the experts have grappled with the details too. It’s worth it to dig through their wellness theories, even if the universal definition is still in the air.
Let’s get into three research-backed ways to look at wellness and show you how to use them to increase your own personal sense of well-being. Ultimately, you get to make the call on what wellness means to you. We’ll help get you there.
How to Define Wellness, According to Science
Wellness has always been notoriously hard to define—even before the Gwyneth Paltrows of the world turned it into a trendy buzzword. For a long time, wellness, or well-being, meant the absence of illness: aka, if you’re not sick you must be well. But we all know that’s not the case.
Thankfully science stepped in and tried to sort things out. Psychologists put together various models to describe, define, and measure well-being. They expanded our understanding of it, acknowledging that it goes beyond physical health. To be “well”, they determined, our mental, emotional, social, and spiritual dimensions also need to be healthy. There are lots of models out there, but we’re going to look at just three perspectives from positive psychology.
Three Ways to Look at Well-Being
1. PERMA: Based on work by positive psychology founder Martin Seligman, PERMA describes five factors of well-being—positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and achievement. Maximizing each of these factors leads to increased well-being.
Well-being cannot exist just in your own head: well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships, and accomplishment. The way we choose our course in life is to maximize all five of these elements.” —Martin Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being
2. Subjective Well-Being (SWB): Developed by psychologist Ed Diener, Subjective Well-Being includes three concepts—positive and negative affect (how you experience emotions and moods), happiness, and life satisfaction. SWB includes both cognitive and emotional aspects of wellness. In other words, it evaluates how good you think your life is as well as how positive or negative your moods and feelings actually are.
Plot twist: Even though these models define wellness differently, a recent study suggests that they ultimately measure the same phenomenon. So both models get at the same concept of well-being; they just describe it in slightly different ways.
3. See-Saw: Other researchers think about wellness like a see-saw, with challenges on one end and resources for coping with those challenges on the other. When resources and challenges are balanced, we have a state of well-being, according to the 2012 analysis in The International Journal of Wellbeing.
According to this definition, well-being exists in spite of psychological, social, and physical hardships. The takeaway? Rather than trying to avoid negative experiences and emotions, we should equip ourselves to deal with them when they (inevitably) occur.
What does this mean for you? Knowing the definitions is partially about figuring out what factors affect wellness overall and then experimenting with ones that resonate most with you.
What Does Wellness Look Like in Real Life?
Models can only take us so far—they don’t tell us much about what a “well” person actually looks like and how they think, act, and behave. So that’s what researchers set out to do. They analyzed the personality traits of over 700 people. Their goal? To find out which traits are most predictive of well-being, according to the 2016 study in the Journal of Personality.
The study found that five particular traits were correlated with wellness, based on a wide range of measures:
- Enthusiasm: You know who you are. You’re friendly, sociable, expressive and full of energy.
- Low withdrawal: If you’re not very self-conscious, and aren’t easily discouraged or overwhelmed, you have a low level of withdrawal. This makes you more autonomous and less susceptible to anxiety.
- Industriousness: Stand up if you’re willing to put in the hard yards to reach your goals. This trait correlates with life satisfaction, among other things.
- Compassion: You care about the feelings of others. This translates to things like positive relationships, self-acceptance, and sense of purpose.
- Intellectual curiosity: Do you think deeply, reflect on experiences, and happily open yourself to new ideas? If so, you’re intellectually curious. As a result, you’re more engaged with life.
Don’t see yourself as an enthusiastic, industrious, utterly compassionate human being? That’s okay. In fact, that’s normal. The good news is that you can learn these traits.
These findings show that there are certain traits you can capitalize on more if you want to increase well-being in your life. There are multiple personal paths to well-being.” —Scott Barry Kaufman, positive psychologist, Scientific American
All you have to do now is choose your path and get going.
How to Increase Your Wellness
Now that you have a sense of what wellness is, you can figure out how to increase it. We’re not going to tell you what model to use or what trait to focus on; that’s totally up to you. Rather, we’ll give you four steps to find wellness-boosting strategies that work best for you, letting the research be a guide. It’s not that scary, promise.
Step 1: Take it one wellness factor at a time
You probably noticed that there are all kinds of things that affect wellness—anything from how much compassion you have to how satisfied you are with your life. Those might seem like very big and perhaps very different things to work on. So now what? Focus on one wellness factor at a time, using both research and your own knowledge of your personality, strengths, and interests to help you choose.
Here’s an example: Maybe the R in PERMA really struck a nerve—you know that quality relationships have a huge effect on how you feel, but you’re struggling with them right now. Guess what? Improving your relationships just became wellness priority number one.
Step 2: Boost your wellness with science
Now that you know what wellness factor you’re working on, it’s time to figure out how to do it. This is where the science comes in. Researchers have studied the ways to wellness and have created (and tested) strategies that boost well-being. Find them and see what you can learn.
Back to our relationship example: How did researchers study the quality of relationships? What did they find? Here’s a quick one: How we respond to our loved ones’ good news appears to be as important to the well-being of our relationships as how we support them through difficult times, according to research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Now that’s a strategy you can try.
Step 3: Be your own wellness experiment
Found some research-backed strategies on the wellness factor you’re working on? Awesome. Now you’re going to choose one and conduct an experiment of your own. Sample size? One. Jot down the tip you’re trying out and how you’re going to do it. And then get going.
Here’s what that might look like from our previous example: Practice being more supportive when the people in your life share good news with you. This might mean asking follow-up questions, showing enthusiasm, getting together to celebrate, or merely being more engaged in the conversation. And no, a simple, “that’s nice” won’t do. Then see how they respond.
Step 4: Keep track, keep trying
Like any good data collector, you have to keep track of what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and any revelations that pop up along the way. Are you feeling more satisfied with your conversations with friends? Are you noticing that they’re more likely to reach out to you? What about you and your good news? How often are you sharing it?
Tracking your wellness strategies doesn’t have to be complicated—throw your notes in a journal or a note-taking app. You might not notice the differences until you start to pay attention. And you might not notice any differences at all. Wellness-boosting takes time, so keep at it.
And remember—if one strategy isn’t working, you can try something else. The key is to keep working on your wellness lifestyle, whatever way you decide, and keep track as you go.
Now choose a way to expand your well-being and get started. Here’s a quick summary to keep you on track to hitting your wellness-boosting goals:
- There are many ways to wellness. Go with the one that works for you.
- Choose one wellness factor or personality trait to focus on at a time.
- Use research to help you choose a wellness-boosting strategy.
- Put it into action in your life.
- Keep track of the results and your well-being along the way.
- Keep trying different strategies until you feel satisfied with that particular factor.
- Choose another way to increase wellness and repeat.
- Enjoy the ride.
Your turn: What’s your top wellness-boosting tip? Share in the comments below and come back for more science-backed ways up your wellness.
Author: Tania Braukamper
Tania Braukamper is an Australian-born writer and photographer. She believes in curiosity, kindness, and adventure as a state of mind.