Worksite wellness began in fits and starts in the late 70’s and gained modest momentum in the early 80’s. It was initiated by the discovery and promotion of a concept (high level wellness) that had been introduced decades earlier by a single visionary, Halbert L. Dunn, M.D.
While never a celebrity like many physicians and others who promote wellbeing in the current era, Dr. Dunn’s lectures, papers and book influenced a number of colleagues and students. In turn, they shared Dunn’s teachings and even expanded upon the good doctor’s call for reforms. In time, a critical number of post-Dunn enthusiasts for high level wellness began spreading his ideas for proactive living. This would lead to a new way of viewing health services, facilities and manpower – a shift in focus from avoidance and treatment of health problems to pursuit of a higher quality of life. In short, Dunn set in motion greater attention to environmental sensitivity and other attractive states ignored by the health system.
I benefitted from interactions with several medical innovators who knew and respected Dunn’s body of work. Guided by the doctor’s widow Phelpsie Dunn, who granted interviews and access to Dr. Dunn’s library, I described wellness from both an individual and a health planning perspective. This was done in 1977 in my version of
High Level Wellness, which carried a subtitle, An Alternative to Doctors, Drugs and Disease.
By 1982, I had given wellness talks and seminars throughout Canada and all but four U.S. states. Jack Travis, Bill Hettler, Bob Allen and others had similar experiences. The American Hospital Association adopted wellness as a priority function soon after my keynote at their national convention in Chicago in 1979. (This is not to suggest I get the credit – it may be that AHA did this despite my speech.) Concurrently, other wellness events were promoted, most notably at UW-SP, which organized conferences under the auspices of what would become the National Wellness Institute. (NWI is still going strong 40 years down the road.)
During these promising early years, the wellness focus was led and sustained by major corporate sponsors, including Sentry and Progressive insurance companies, Kaiser, Boeing, Johnson & Johnson, Coors and Alcoa, among other prominent firms. Most offered a mixture of wellness-related activities (e.g., exercise options, often in new company athletic facilities, revised cafeteria menus, classes in stress management and so on) but not so much on the philosophy of a wellness mindset.
Wellness Goes Off the Rails
After the initial years, the term wellness devolved into different things for varied interest groups. The focus at corporate and other institutions lost the upbeat, lifestyle-enrichment track. Before long, wellness began to mean whatever a sponsor wanted it to represent. The basic idea that wellness is a lifestyle worthwhile in its own right, that is, as a positive, enjoyable way to think and make choices that boost quality of life mentally as well as physically, was minimized. Instead, the concept was represented as risk reduction, AKA cost containment for companies. Paradoxically, it’s more likely that cost containment would have followed from positive wellness, not the medical focus on illness discovery, prevention and treatment. Better health was less likely to follow from early detection and/or prevention than from consistent delight at being fit and having fun.
Early detection and prevention are worthy efforts, but they should complement wellness, not be represented as paths to improved wellbeing. The early advocates of wellness did promote approaches that would boost human flourishing, but the message of seeking improved functioning rather than avoiding illness did not get through.
It seems that we early promoters fell short in explaining positive wellness, particularly in not making clear how completely different it was and is from prevention, risk reduction and all things medical.
For this reason, about a decade ago I added REAL to wellness. In doing so, I moved away from fitness, nutrition and other physical-related matters. The focus on three new dimensions draws more attention to mental wellbeing as the focus of human flourishing. These three dimensions are reason, exuberance and liberty. (A fourth, athleticism, enables the acronym REAL, which represents both exercise and nutrition as equally vital areas worthy of considerable attention.)
This helps, but it may be time for yet another label. I propose linking the nature of REAL wellness to the values advanced by and still associated with the era called The Enlightenment.
The dates marking the era of the Enlightenment in Europe vary widely, but the span of time between the death of Louis XIV and the start of the French Revolution favor 1715 to 1789, at least amongst the French. (Some others prefer a start date approximating the initiation of the scientific revolution – around 1620.)
During the Enlightenment, philosophers, scientists, politicians and other leaders (throughout the Western world, at least) challenged and largely overcame the power, cruelties and irrationalities of monarchies and the Church. The Enlightenment paved the way for new forms of liberal governments in the 18th and 19th centuries, including our own.
Perhaps the time has come to introduce Enlightenment values and principles as elements of mental wellness founded on the verifiable laws of nature. This would enable us to advocate for the indivisibility of human rights as closely associated with wellbeing and happiness, as was done so well centuries ago by Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Nickolas De Condorcet, Baron De Montesquieu, Sir Isaac Newton, David Hume, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke, Alexander von Humboldt and Baruch Spinoza. Nor should we overlook Thomas Paine, Robert Ingersoll, Thomas Jefferson or the ideas of lesser known (due to the gender suppression common to the times) but equally heroic women of the period, including Matilda Joslyn Gage, Clara Barton, Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Helen Gardener, for starters. With the Enlightenment reliance on logic and reason, women, too were largely freed from the conventions of accepted truths emanating from church officials and afforded the same civil liberties enjoyed by men.
Thanks to the Enlightenment, to paraphrase Ingersoll, credulity, ceremony, worship, sacrifice and prayer no longer took the place of honest work, of investigation, of intellectual effort, of observation, of experience. Progress became possible.
With this infusion of REAL wellness linked to an extraordinary period in human history, we might better advance and celebrate elements of good society and health. Enlightenment values are among the noblest forms of human flourishing. What topics could be more important to address with worksite wellness programming?
Can you imagine employees showing indifference and non-involvement if offered first-rate Enlightenment-based corporate wellness? Over the past 35 years, employees have been bribed, cajoled, prodded and lured into participating in risk-reducing, cost-containing medical wellness with a mongrel blend of tips on exercise, diet, stress, mindfulness and so on. The proposed turn toward promoting humanistic values might turn apathy into spirited involvement.
Enlightenment-based wellness education promoting reason, science, meaning, personal liberties, joy, happiness, freedom, human rights and the like could have consequences relative to extant controversies. It seems likely that such discussions, and the reflections that follow, might lead to much needed changes, perhaps some of the following:
- Strong gun controls similar to other Western nations;
- Greater support for separation of church and state (i.e., elimination of religious access to taxpayer funds, God references on the currency and in public school classrooms, courthouses and government assemblies);
- Citizen understanding and respect for established science, with greater acceptance of vaccines, the reality of evolution and climate change and policies that effectively address the latter;
- Full rights for all regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, religion or no religion at all.
I’m confident that Enlightenment-based worksite wellness would not only improve employee wellbeing but would also do wonders to reduce the extent of ignorance, anger, mindless patriotism, resentment and tribalism that divides us today and makes so many good people rather deplorable.
What, you might wonder, will be made of spirituality in an Enlightenment phase of REAL wellness. Perhaps more people will turn to the arts, a love of music, theater, literature and nature. As Susan Jacoby noted in The Great Agnostic:
For Ingersoll, evidence-based science did not occupy a separate category from the greatest works of painting, sculpture, literature, and music: all were glorious evidence of the best human achievements, rendered even more precious because they were products of natural evolution and human inspiration rather than supernatural creations and divine design.
With Enlightenment values newly discovered, science might at last be more widely embraced. In addition, miracle claims, prophesies and revelations might invite polite requests for supportive evidence. Pointy hats, flowing robes and other pretentious accouterments of spiritual superiority may not be taken so seriously.
Finally, when Pat Robertson or others like him attribute mass murders like the Las Vegas shooting to a god’s displeasure at disrespect for President Trump, we’ll all enjoy a hearty laugh, which usually adds a bit to health and happiness, if only a bit for a fleeting moment.
Be well and as enlightened as possible.