Why Have We Become So Obsessed With ‘Wellness’?

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This fad has ancient roots.

Woman reaching for her toes on a yoga mat

Move well, eat well, live well… Sounds like a bumper sticker slogan, right? Well, it probably is (and if not, trademark that!), but it’s also the sentiment that underlies our concept of wellness, and always has for that matter.

A modern term with ancient beginnings, the buzzword ‘wellness’ began to gain popularity in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s when an informal network of physicians and thinkers in the US started writing about wellness as we know it today. It has since been on a journey of evolution as medical, spiritual and intellectual movements have made new discoveries and returned to the very early philosophies of what we consider living well.

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One of the very first of these traditions stretches back as far as 3,000–1,500BC when Ayurveda, the Hindu holistic system that strives to create harmony between body, mind and spirit, initially impressed the East. Tailored to each person’s unique constitution (their nutritional, exercise, social interaction and hygiene needs), Ayurveda aims to create a balance that prevents illness. Yoga and meditation are cornerstones to the approach and remain central practices around the world (and increasingly so according to the Yoga Alliance) today.

Wellness is “… an active process of becoming aware of, and making choices toward, a more successful existence.”

Then there’s Traditional Chinese Medicine. It is one of the world’s oldest systems of medicine, originating from Taoism and Buddhism in 3,000 – 2,000BC, which is seen in acupuncture, herbal medicine, qi gong and tai chi.

The ancient Greek physician himself Hippocrates, is one of the first (if not the first for that matter) to focus on preventing sickness instead of simply treating disease back in 50BC. He also argued that disease is a product of our diets, lifestyles and environments that later saw Ancient Rome develop an extensive system of aqueducts, sewers and public baths to help prevent the spreading of germs and to maintain a healthier population (Koloski-Ostrow, 2016).

But has this holistic approach to health always been the case? Well, not necessarily.

From 1790-1890, we saw homeopathy, osteopathy, chiropractic, and naturopathy enter the scene, but not without resistance. These sciences with their focus on self-healing and preventative care were often discredited by the mainstream health sector, considered “wacky” for their spiritual beginnings, but it wasn’t long until we saw a shift (Global Wellness Institute, 2014).

Come the 20th century, and a quick search of our buzzword on Google n-gram, a pattern arises. In 1946, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially defines wellness as “… a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” also attesting that wellness is “… an active process of becoming aware of, and making choices toward, a more successful existence.”

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Our buzzword starts to gain solid footing, but it wasn’t until a clever physician by the name of Halbert L. Dunn published a book called High-Level Wellness in 1961 – the first of its kind. While it received little attention at first, his ideas on harmony of mind, body and spirit as contributing to a feeling of wellbeing were later popularised by doctors like John Travis, Don Ardell and Bill Hettler in the US during the 1970s. These “fathers of the wellness movement” went on to create their own comprehensive models and wellness assessment tools, and wrote and spoke actively on the concept.

This is when wellness enters the world’s psyche, loud and clear. Our vocabulary changes from simply ‘health’ to ‘wholesome’, ‘holistic’, ‘nourishment’, ‘nurture’ – all derivatives of what it means to live well (see the beginnings of another bumper sticker?) and is implemented widely by the media, medical institutions and governments in their outreach programs, research and reporting.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the dangers of cigarette smoking is widely publicised and Boeing becomes the first large company to ban smoking in the workplace in 1987. It isn’t long until other employers follow suit.

The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) calls the 21st century “the tipping for wellness”, and rightly so! Worldwide obesity and chronic disease hit an all time high, having an adverse affect on healthcare systems around the globe. We see complimentary and integrative health take centre stage as medical departments and government programs shift from treatment to prevention.

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Ground-breaking research by Dee Edington at the University of Michigan in 2003 further tips the axis. Edington concludes that people don’t have consistent health behaviours or outcomes. That we move freely between low and high risk over our lifetime, even within a given year.

By 2014, more than half of all global employers use health promotion strategies in the workplace, and a further third invest in complete wellness programs for their employees (GWI, 2014).

People like Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil and Mehmet Oz are not only well-known self-help experts, but have become household names.

From those ancient beginnings in India, China and Greece to the widespread acculturation of the concept of wellness, our approach and interpretation to living well has changed and wavered over the centuries, but there has remained one constant – wellness starts and ends with you.

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