What is the Difference Between Health, Wellness, and Wellbeing? - Orange juice and sandwich, background looks like folks running a race

What is the Difference Between Health, Wellness, and Wellbeing?

Kristen Peairs
January 31, 2023
January 18, 2023

This blog post was written by Kristen Peairs, Nutritionist and Meditation Guru at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.

In today’s corporate world where terms such as health costs, health benefits, wellness plans, wellness programs, and wellbeing initiatives have become commonplace, it’s important to be able to distinguish the difference between health, wellness, and wellbeing. Even though these words are sometimes used interchangeably, they are quite different.

What is health?

Despite the fact that the World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing,” health is more commonly viewed from a reactive standpoint that evaluates for disease and illness. When someone asks about health, we typically pause and reflect on what is happening in the body. If there are symptoms, we say there is poor health. If there are no symptoms, we say here is good health. Without a specific descriptor such as mental, emotional, financial, or social included in a question about health, most people evaluate for what’s occurring in the physical body.

Let me offer an example of how I visualize health. When I think about my own health, the image of standing on level ground is what I equate with being healthy. Level ground is comfortable and feels good. On level ground, I can do what I want to do. When I’m unhealthy, the image of being in a hole below level ground is what comes to mind. In the hole, I am uncomfortable and it’s hard to function normally. Generally, I am motivated to do what’s necessary to return to being in the state of health I associate with level ground.

When it comes to health, there is plenty of room for subjectivity. Some people have a very low standard of what constitutes healthy, while other people have a much higher standard. With added knowledge, experience, education, and guidance, a person’s perception of their health can shift.

Even with abundant standardization regarding what defines a person as healthy, there continues to be a plethora of cases that don’t fit that paradigm. For example, a person may feel ill, but all of the doctor’s tests reflect health. Another anomaly may be when a person feels healthy based on their personal standards, but tests indicate illness. In these situations, how does one proceed? What is the process for moving from one degree of health to another?

Let’s talk about wellness.

What is wellness?

Like with health, wellness can be defined in several ways. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines wellness as “the quality or state of being in good health especially as an actively sought goal.” 

The National Wellness Institute (NWI) defines it as “functioning optimally within the current environment.”

The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) defines it as “the active pursuit of activities, choices and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health.” 

All three definitions focus on wellness as a state of good health and recognize it as active, rather than passive. Both NWI and GWI regard wellness as inclusive of many areas of life including physical, social, mental, and occupational.

When I think about wellness, I view it from the standpoint of good health fueled by a desire to be healthier.

Referring back to the analogy where health was likened to level ground, consider that wellness is above level ground. From that place of feeling good, a person focusing on wellness wants to be more than baseline healthy. They want to do what they can to add layers of separation between themselves and unhealth.

For people who ask themselves about how they can be healthier, the answers they receive and act on are the ones personal to their needs and interests. If they care most about having more energy, they choose wellness options that support them in having more energy. Additionally, their path forward reflects the whole of their life rather than just one piece, because energy isn’t just influenced by food, it is also influenced by physical fitness, social relationships, work environment, mental status, etc.

The problem with a wellness focus, though, is that it encourages people to constantly be working toward attaining a goal. When one goal is reached, setting a new goal is encouraged. That mentality can become exhausting. Is there a different way we can approach the subject of optimal health?

Yes! Let’s talk about wellbeing.

What is wellbeing?

Wellbeing is a state of equilibrium or balance that can be affected by life events or challenges. While some sources include words such as comfortable, healthy, happy, and/or prosperous in their definition of wellbeing, these descriptors can be extraneous. The term wellbeing inherently recognizes that wellbeing is personal, influenced by life, and can change. The person assessing their own state of wellbeing can choose the appropriate words to communicate what equilibrium in the form of wellbeing is for them.

What is the difference between wellness and wellbeing?

When we are talking beingness, as we are with wellbeing, we are focusing on our state of being in the present moment. We are asking ourselves what our state of beingness is right now. We aren’t looking for a symptoms report as we might when discussing health, nor are we asking for goals and actions as we might when conversing about wellness.

An inquiry into wellbeing invites an assessment of a person’s sense of feeling balanced in their life right now. Balance, which is influenced by anything and everything, including career choices, family responsibilities, physical health, mental health, and social relationships is perceived uniquely by everyone.

A person can be very ill and still report experiencing 10/10 for wellbeing. A person may have markers of health in all areas of their life and still report 3/10 for wellbeing.

Because we’re dealing in the realm of perception and processing, wellbeing is linked most closely with the body’s mental and emotional systems. It is the mental and emotional systems that interpret and react to stimuli, regardless of the areas of life from which the stimuli arise.

Through focusing on wellbeing rather than wellness or health, we are acknowledging a person’s current equilibrium status by knowing that many factors may be contributing to what they are experiencing. We are conscious that their experiences and how they are perceiving them may or may not need to change. From the place of beingness, we acknowledge where each person is on their journey, and we work with them to determine the best types of support for their needs.

Remembering our analogy of health as level ground and wellness as above ground, where does wellbeing fit into the picture?

I visualize wellbeing as a sphere with a person inside. In a person who rates themselves highly on a scale of wellbeing, the sphere is buoyant and mobile. It can go below ground into ill health and it can go above ground into wellness, all the while providing insulation from the world’s stimuli for the person inside. With a person who rates themselves low on a scale of wellbeing, the sphere is still mobile, but it looks like a partially deflated balloon. There is less buoyancy and less insulation.

Wellbeing is a sense of balance and equilibrium in the present moment. All aspects of life have the potential to affect a person’s wellbeing, so when looking to support wellbeing, remember to investigate resources that cover a variety of areas such as social, physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, etc.

Understanding the difference between health, wellness, and wellbeing can help you gain a greater self-awareness and different perspectives on your life.

For more information on how to prioritize your health, wellness, and wellbeing, check out: How to Prioritize Self-Care and Your Mental Health

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Kristen Peairs
Kristen Peairs
Kristen Peairs is a Registered Dietitian, Licensed Massage Therapist, and Professional Educator. Throughout her 20-year career, she has worked with many people suffering from a diversity of chronic health conditions. Understanding how food affects the brain and the whole body has been a key factor in the success of her healing strategies. At Nivati, she has researched, written, and filmed over 100 health and wellness videos for their content library. Kristen is currently writing a cookbook for people living with food allergies and intolerances.