The evolution of the word “wellness”

Back in April, the New York Times Magazine published an article in the series On Language on the word wellness.

Since that is what I’m going for here with this blog, I thought I’d summarize and share.

In 1979, wellness was not a word you’d hear every day. Today it is. My former workplace had a wellness committee and a wellness room.

Wellness is considered an antonym (opposite) to the word “illness,” and it’s been traced back to the 1650s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Wellness is a relatively new way, in the western world view, of looking at health.

The wellness movement really began after World War II. The preamble to the World Health Organization’s 1948 constitution states:

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.

The author, Howard Dunn, went on to develop his ideas and publish a book, High-Level Wellness, in 1961. He defined high-level wellness as:

an integrated method of functioning, which is oriented toward maximizing the potential of which the individual is capable

The book languished, ahead of its time. In 1972, a medical student picked up the book at a clearance sale and found its ideas inspiring. In 1975, he opened the Wellness Resource Center in Mill Valley, CA. He was constantly having to spell the word over the phone, it was so uncommon! Prevention magazine spread the word about the center, and eventually 60 Minutes did a segment on the center. The Times says:

The center promoted self-directed approaches to well-being as an alternative to the traditional illness-oriented care of physicians.

Then someone started a national conference on wellness, and it became both an academic topic and prestigious. The Berkeley Wellness Letter dissociated wellness from the perception of flaky hedonism in neighboring Marin County, and with a million subscribers, the word gained credibility.

Some people still ridiculed the word until the 1990s, when it became an everyday word.

I like this word a lot. (I also like well-being.) As a baby boomer, it’s exciting to be part of this paradigm change, from a focus on illness to a focus on wellness. We are lucky these days to live in a society that offers both kinds of medicine.

It does still seem that the traditional western paradigm still has a huge hold on the public’s imagination about health care. Otherwise (in my opinion), wellness practices would be taught in homes and schools from an early age — practices like eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and exercise, and general awareness to be able to address problems as they emerge.

Add in occasional massage, monthly acupuncture, yoga, and meditation, and we’d have a healthy society. We would of course keep western medicine for when there were no alternatives!

What would that be like?

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