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The evolving state of wellbeing

Sarah DaVanzo
Chief Cultural Strategy Officer
sparks & honey


‘Wellbeing’ trends in the health space signal a cultural and cognitive shift … tracked by Sarah DaVanzo

There’s a cultural and cognitive shift underway regarding perceptions and behaviours vis-à-vis health: data shows that people globally are increasingly searching online to understand the difference between ‘wellness’ and ‘wellbeing’. Forty years ago, similarly, people started the process of replacing the word and concept ‘health’ with ‘wellness’, an expanded definition, heralding a new era for healthcare. Today, ‘wellbeing’ searches are sharply rising while ‘wellness’ searches are in decline, and while ‘wellness’ searches and conversations still outnumber ‘wellbeing’ by nine-to-one, change is afoot.

Since language = culture = thought = behaviour, we can learn much from the way words enter our lexicon. When ‘wellness’ hit the scene in the 1970s it was considered to be a flakey and faddish concept by Big Pharma and serious health professionals, only becoming fully accepted as part of our health lexicon 30 years later. While ‘health’ can be measured with empirical evidence, measuring someone’s ‘wellness’ or ‘wellbeing’ is squishy. But, alas, ‘not everything that counts can be counted’.

The concept of wellbeing goes beyond a cartesian body-mind outlook

So what do today’s linguistic, cultural and cognitive shifts from ‘wellness’ to ‘wellbeing’ signal?

Progress over perfection

Wellbeing demonstrates how unapologetic people and society are becoming (just visit Instagram’s #unapologetic). We’ve moved from a culture of celebrating perfection to one that celebrates progress and even failures and flaws. Effort is starting to trump success (think: everychild’s-a-winner style of parenting). In health, this means the journey up the mountain is more important than reaching the pinnacle of health. Wellbeing – as opposed to health and wellness – celebrates comfort and happiness, which oft accompany indulgences and unhealthy behaviours. Healthcare needs to embrace that the new norm is unapologetic, imperfect behaviour.

Some examples of this trend-manifesting culture include:

  • People are openly expressing their love/hate relationship with physical activity. Virgin Active gym offers compelling reasons for users to stay fit: running away from bad dates
  • Adele’s unapologetic Instagram post about her less-than-perfect workout garnered 718,000 likes, 274,000 comments and 91% favourable sentiment. In a similar vein, this woman shared with the world real time her panic attack
  • People are unafraid to show vulnerability and imperfection: Blink Fitness embraces body positivity and diversity in its Every Body Happy ad campaign, while TV show characters share their struggles
Health ecosystem

The concept of wellbeing goes beyond a Cartesian body-mind outlook, and considers health to be a physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, environmental, economic, political, social and technological balance. Society (aided by new scientific proof) is recognising the interconnectedness of the world (think: Butterfly Effect), and people as part of a complex and delicate ecosystem and mesh network. In fact, the discovery of the Microbiome shows that humans are individual ecosystems. Healthcare needs to be more holistic to include the tangible and intangible ingredients to health.

Some of the manifestations of this trend in culture include:

Mind and Mood balance

Wellbeing connotes mental and emotional health, two outsider topics; mental health has only recently started breaking out of the taboo box in many cultures. Social listening data confirms that wellbeing has a close association to mind-mood (the #4 global search is for ‘mental wellbeing’). Social conversations about wellbeing include ‘mindfulness’ and ‘happiness’ topics. Recent scientific discoveries are showing the connection between food, gut microbes, mood, personality and even IQ. Yet, there are still stigmas around mental and emotional imbalances. The health industry is slowly starting to move into this space as it sees society seeking ways to track, measure and manage mindmood balance.

Some signals supporting this include:

'Mutable' and 'Mercurial' individuals

Wellbeing reflects that society sees healthfulness as being individualised – what’s ‘well’ for your being may not be ‘well’ for my being. This mirrors the increasing personalisation and accountability of health. Further, wellbeing (i.e. a state of being) allows for change over time, reflecting heightened awareness of the mutability of people as a result of life experiences, life stages, mood stages, etc. and the environment (i.e. nature and nurture argument). In fact, new discoveries show that people are in constant flux (think: all cells in the human body are replaced within seven years), against the backdrop of an exponentially changing environment, or VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous).

Evidence of this in culture includes:

Work-life blur

Wellbeing as a state existing in time suggests an always-on 24/7 form of healthfulness. In today’s world of work-life blur, especially in a side-gig and work-shift economy, healthfulness needs to be even more deeply embedded into industry and economy. The wellness trend was championed by business and HR (think: workplace wellness programmes); the wellbeing trend is taking it a step further as the lines between work and home, and job and life, are increasingly blending.

Examples of how wellbeing is synonymous with a work-life marriage include:

Living a life in ‘health and wellness’ happens to you, while living in a state of ‘wellbeing’ happens by you. There’s a growing sense of accountability for one’s wellbeing, and thus people are hacking their health habits to suit their needs. The implications of a society focused on wellbeing are that the health industry needs to be hackable – open, modular, decentralised.

This demonstrates how a simple, nuanced shift in language – from ‘wellness’ to ‘wellbeing’ – signals a new era of thinking and behaviour.

So, what’s next? Following the trajectory of cultural change in the health space, the future of health, wellness and wellbeing looks like it will evolve into something like ... wellishness!