Wellness: A Concept Worth Reclaiming

It's time to reclaim the true meaning of the word wellness. And to think more deeply about its dimensions, the unique challenges to it that arise in the office, and possible solutions to those challenges.

Right, now, there doesn't appear to be a whole lot of agreement on what "wellness" means. When I run a Google search for the term, the results page lists a pet food company, a university counseling center, a medical research initiative, an alternative health center, a health promotion institute, and a naturopathic doctor's website.

Office Wellness:

(Interestingly, there's not a single workplace wellness program or vendor on the first page of those search results. When I talk to people about wellness, they almost always assume that I'm talking about, or working on, a corporate wellness program. Granted, I spend an inordinate amount of time with office workers and folks who work for companies, but folks from many other circles make this assumption, too.)

"High Level Wellness," Halbert Dunn

"High Level Wellness," Halbert Dunn's original book.

So, how did the term wellness come to have so many different meanings? Where did the idea even come from?

Origin of the Wellness Concept

The idea of wellness as a separate concept - distinct from health, medicine, fitness, and similar ideas - is pretty new, little more than 50 years old.

The term "wellness" was first used by Halbert Dunn, a doctor who headed up the U.S. Office of Vital Statistics. In 1959, the American Journal of Public Health published Dunn's paper, "High-Level Wellness for Man and Society" (actually, the word had been used as early as 1654, and the concept had been explored in the 19th Century, but the modern development of the idea arguably starts with Dunn).

In his 1959 paper and in his other writing and speaking, Dunn was building on a new definition of health that the World Health Organization had adopted in 1946: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

Dunn expanded on this idea, saying, for example, that "the state of being well is not a relatively flat, uninteresting area of 'unsickness' but is rather a fascinating and ever-changing panorama of life itself, inviting exploration of its every dimension."

Looking back at Dunn's entire body of work in high-level wellness, you can find all of the components of a comprehensive definition of the term wellness. In a 2005 paper, James William Miller, summarizes the core elements of Dunn's concept of wellness [emphasis added]:

  • "Wellness is a continuum rather than a specific fixed state. All individuals, depending on their particular circumstances, are located somewhere along the continuum between death and wellness
  • "Wellness is a holistic approach to health, encompassing physical, mental, social, cultural and spiritual dimensions
  • "Mental wellness is the responsibility of the individual and cannot be delegated to someone else
  • "Wellness is about potential – it involves helping the individual move toward the highest state of wellbeing of which he or she is capable
  • "Self-knowledge and self-integration are the key to progress toward high-level wellness."

Let's Reclaim the Wellness Concept

Alas, despite the clarity of his vision and the efforts of the wellness pioneers he inspired (most notably Jack Travis and Don Ardell), Dunn's conception of the term has been lost in a sea of corporate wellness program jargon, traditional and alternative medical practices, old-school health-promotion and fitness programs, and pet-food marketing.

Not that there's anything wrong with the fields that have adopted the term. If I worked in corporate America, I'd take full advantage of my company's wellness program. I'm a massage therapist myself. I love hanging out at holistic spas. And I've been an office-fitness educator for the past eight years. Most of the activities wrapped in the wellness label are fine endeavors. But few of them actually embrace or advance Dunn's thoughtful and visionary ideas.

One of my main goals here at Well9to5 is to exemplify the original meaning of the term "wellness." I'm not saying that Halbert Dunn's conception is the be-all and end-all of the field, but he put forth some really good ideas which haven't yet been truly adopted and tested. I think there is still an opportunity for his ideas to elevate our lives.

Dunn's idea of a continuum of higher-level wellness can help us move from mere non-disease to get us on a path to optimal physical health.

His idea of taking a holistic approach can help us integrate not only our mind, body, and spirit, but also the occupational and cultural aspects of our lives that are so important in the office.

His ideas of seeing wellness as a personal responsibility and as a self-integration process give us an opportunity to break free from programmatic and reactive external approaches (like employer programs and medical and spa treatments) and be more proactive in our quest for true high-level wellness.

An Invitation

My invitation to you is to join me here at Well9to5 to explore how we can reach this higher level of wellness, to explore together how we can:

  • optimize our mental acuity and performance in the office, to not only keep from going crazy in the face of 24/7 connectivity and ever-increasing work expectations, but to also think clearly and work intelligently all day,
  • optimize our physical health and fitness in the office, to not only prevent back pain, repetitive strain injuries, and sitting disease, but to also fine-tune our bodies to feel our best all day,
  • optimize our vitality and happiness in the office, not only to survive yet another HVAC-droning, fluorescent-light-flickering conference-room meeting, but to also genuinely thrive at work,
  • honor our very humanity, to authentically express ourselves, to genuinely balance work and life, to tame the technology that surrounds us, to move naturally throughout the day, and to otherwise embrace and nourish that lovely human spirit that dwells in each of us but is all-to-rarely seen in the office.

Care to join me?


“WHO Definition of Health.” World Health Organization, 1946.

Dunn, Halbert L. “Points of Attack for Raising the Levels of Wellness.” Journal of the National Medical Association 49, no. 4 (July 1957): 225.

Dunn, Halbert L. “High-Level Wellness for Man and Society.” American Journal of Public Health and the Nations Health 49, no. 6 (June 1959): 786.

Miller, James William. “Wellness: The History and Development of a Concept,” 2005.

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