Wellness is a Personal Endeavour, not a Prescriptive One
The notion of “wellness” is often promoted on social media as an aspirational lifestyle. It is packaged as a specific aesthetic, the achievement of which requires adherence to a rigid set of behaviours (“drink lemon juice first thing in the morning”), attitudes (“good vibes only”), and products (matching workout sets, minimal interior décor, fitness watches, pillow sprays, the list goes on and on).
Certainly, exposure to this singular version of “wellness” can feel motivating – and there is really nothing wrong with enjoying these pleasures if they bring some added happiness into your everyday life. But the focus on a singular concept of wellness also comes with negative consequences. As we scroll through images of all the things we need to do, be, and acquire in order to be “well,” we often feel weighed down by the unattainability of it all. As a result, we are left feeling demotivated, demoralized, and less able to translate our goals into meaningful action. Moreover, as we scroll through images of someone else’s version of “wellness,” our own concept of what it means to be “well” can become increasingly obscured.
So, how do we re-claim our definition of “wellness?” In my view, we can begin pursuing wellness by (a) taking care of our basic needs, (b) clarifying our values, and (c) committing to small, attainable actions that function to bring us closer toward those values every day.
Back to Basics
Before we can start focusing on our values, we need to make sure that our basic human needs are being met.
A healthy amount of sleep, nourishment, and movement are the fundamental tenets of well-being. Often, pursuing wellness involves honestly checking in with ourselves to consider whether one (or more) of these core areas is being neglected. Once our unmet needs have been identified, we can begin implementing small changes to our behaviour. If you’re struggling with sleep, you may consider working on your sleep hygiene or introducing a nighttime relaxation practice (progressive muscle relaxation is one great option). If you’re sitting in front of a computer screen all day, you may need to set an alarm to remind you to do some gentle stretching at your lunch hour.
Another simple step toward pursuing wellness is considering the number of “mastery” and “pleasure” activities in our everyday schedules (Martell et al., 2022). Mastery activities refer to any activities in our lives that provide a sense of accomplishment; pleasure activities are those that provide a sense of ease and enjoyment. In a form of therapy called Behavioural Activation, clients are often encouraged to track their activities and any fluctuations in their mood over a 1-week period. Through this process, therapists and their clients can identify whether there is a notable imbalance in their mastery and pleasure activities. Although the “ideal” balance will vary from person to person, things go awry if one type of activity is neglected. If we engage in all mastery and no pleasure, our lives might feel overly regimented or demanding. If we engage in all pleasure and no mastery, our lives might feel void of a sense of accomplishment or meaning.
By “checking in” with ourselves and being honest about our unmet needs, we can begin to pursue wellness by identifying and implementing simple behavioural changes in our everyday lives.
Once our basic needs are met, we are well positioned to focus on enriching our lives through value-driven action.
If we aim to pursue wellness in this manner, we must first clarify for ourselves what our values are. If you are unsure what your values are (and many of us are!), it may be helpful to review one of the many lists of values that are readily available online (see here for one example). Start by crossing off any values that are obviously unimportant to you and narrowing your list down from there. You should aim to focus on 2-5 key values.
Once you have a few values identified, the next step involves brainstorming individual behaviours that are consistent with these values and can be easily incorporated into your daily routine. Importantly, individuals will differ both on their identified values and their paths toward pursuing these values. If you value is friendship, your behaviour might involve calling a friend once per week during your commute. If your value is financial stability, you might commit to putting away a certain amount of your paycheck each month. What’s key is that you are deciding to do these things not because someone on the internet told you to – but because they foster the values that matter to you most.
When we approach wellness from this perspective, no behaviours are inherently “bad” or “good.” Coming home from work and deciding to spend time with a partner or go for a walk rather than watching TV may bring one person closer to their values of communication or presence. On the other hand, spending an evening curled up on the couch with a great show may bring someone else closer to their equally important values of relaxation and restoration. These ideas are foundational to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (check out Russ Harris’s The Happiness Trap if you are interested in learning more). The beauty of this form of therapy is that when we feel lost, anxious, or down, we can always rely on our values as a guiding compass to help us determine our next course of action.
A Personal Endeavour
It is nearly impossible to escape the messaging surrounding the singular version of “wellness” that we see online. The good news, though, is that we all have the power to choose whether we want to subscribe to that ideology, or if we want to pursue wellness on our own terms instead.
I maintain that the pursuit of wellness is not a prescriptive endeavour, but a personal one. The pursuit of wellness begins when we are honest with ourselves about our needs and our values. It continues when we make small day-to-day choices to behave in a manner that brings us slightly closer to these values, allowing us to become more in tune with our authentic selves.