Happiness As A Key Element of REAL Wellness

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The theme of a recent National Wellness Conference (NWC) was “Pathways to Optimal Well-being: Exercising Strengths / Increasing Real Happiness”. I was guided that some leaders in the wellness movement were trying to devote more attention to quality of life, in part by advancing an awareness of the nature of happiness. I'd like to see the wellness movement become more of a positive, health-enriching and life-affirming concept that many of its early promoters, myself included, wanted it to be in the first place.

Few would question the significance of happiness to a state of excellent health. It is equally good that the NWC presentations next summer will probe the art and considerable science of happiness. In recent years, an entire segment of the field of psychology has developed around this issue, known as hedonic studies or positive psychology (as opposed to negative psychology – the traditional emphasis on dysfunction, deviation and assorted neuroses and psychoses). Happiness is one aspect of REAL wellness, that neglected form of positive lifestyle promotion focused on an increase in the quality of life, rather than a reduction in the risks of illness. Other REAL wellness dimensions include efforts to advance critical thinking skills, richer levels of meaning and purpose, more awareness of and allegiance to common decencies (applied ethics), an enhanced sense of environmental awareness and positive choices for exuberance and freedoms. In short, happiness is a key element of REAL wellness for life enhancements. Much of the wellness movement to date, including the focus of previous NWCs, have offered a less-than-REAL-wellness agenda (eg, disease prevention, illness management, risk reduction and segments of positive health such as fitness promotion). Thus, it is good that the entire orientation of the next NWC is optimal well-being in general and happiness in particular.

I reviewed sixteen presentation proposals submitted for the coming NWC. My sense from these proposals is that the event will focus on quality of life and those who attend will learn a lot about happiness and optimal well-being as a focus for worksite and other wellness programming. However, there are many sources for learning more about the links between lifestyle success and happiness.

For starters, know that there are many paths to happiness, but most (like sex, drugs and rock and roll) lead elsewhere. It is quite an art not to get lost looking for your own best path (s) to happiness. Many have gone down roads to nowhere or gone through the years – such searching is the stuff of great literature (and classic movies, including The Wizard Of Oz). We can learn much about happiness from the trials and errors of other journeys. Like Dorothy, we may find that gurus and wizards are humbug – that happiness is in part a quest for self-discovery and even a life-long rite of passage in which we overcome challenges by learning the best uses for our talents. In time, some conclude that happiness is not a destination at all, but a way of traveling.

If we are to fortunately, we may discover that feelings of happiness occur regularly, though they can not be held without renewal and good works. From a wellness perspective, we might ask, How can we experience more happiness as part of a healthy, fulfilling existence?

I mentioned several elements of REAL wellness. All are equally important for happiness purposes, but if one is more equal (thanks, George Orwell) for boosting the prospects of happiness, it would probably be discovering what you need for sufficient meaning and purpose. Yes, exercise and fitness are critical to optimal health. Yes, the manner in which you nourish yourself, most of the time, also matters, as does quality medical care, when needed. But, for happiness-boosting life satisfaction, good health and near-daily doses of joy and peace (ie, happiness), finding your purposes may be the way to the richest of all returns. If this is the case, I'm obliged to give you the keys to happiness.

Ready? It's nothing very special really. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. (Source: The female character played by Michael Palin in the 1983 Monty Python film The Meaning of Life.)

Another point of view on the matter comes from Dr. Wilbur Larch in the John Irving novel, Cider House Rules. Dr. Larch naturally admonished his orphan charges to be of use, a variant of Frankl's call in Man's Search for Meaning to be of service. Happiness follows good works appreciated by yourself, it does not ensue (for long) from attempts to secure it directly. This is also the advice given by Irving Yalom in Existent Psychotherapy.

Finding happiness and highest and best purposes is not the easiest thing to do, but searching can be interesting and rewarding. Where to begin? Well, we all began long ago. We've been at it since setting out on our own. Keep looking.

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