Personally, I find the word wellness to be unsatisfying, as it lacks boundaries and a clear, street-savvy, and practical definition. The fundamental challenge is that we are all the same in one sense - that we are human beings, but in reality each of us is profoundly unique as individuals. One only has to think of the staggering variability and uniqueness of our human faces - all 7,888,000,000 (billion) of them, and you realize that this one external manifestation of our uniqueness as individuals is but one example of the incredible diversity of who we are as individuals, both inside and out.
Marcus Buckingham highlights this in his book Love + Work where he notes that our human brains have 100,000,000,000 (that is 100 billion!) nerve cells, the same number of cells as the Milky Way Galaxy has stars. And those 100 billion nerve cells are all connected to each other by 100,000,000,000,000 (3 more zeros to make 100 trillion) connections to each other, which creates an infinite number of unique "brain wiring" configurations. This helps explain the wildly complex and messy ways that we all see and interact with the world, in our own utterly unique way. For those of us with children, how often have you been amazed at how different they are compared to you or to their siblings??
So the word wellness, although well-intentioned, can really be different for different people. Our uniqueness is showing up all over the place now in this new Age of Personalization, a term coined by Todd Rose, the author of the masterpiece Dark Horse: Achieving Success Through the Pursuit of Fulfillment. We now have personalized workout plans, personalized diets, and personalized cancer treatment, to name a few, because our individuality does matter, even though we are all indeed human.
Which is one reason why I prefer the term Best Self over Wellness. Most of us have had the good fortune to have had days or periods in our lives when we were firing on all cylinders and felt as if we could not be stopped, or periods of contentment, satisfaction, joy, and peace. When we are in these lanes we are manifesting the side of ourselves that is our Best Self, and this varies for each of us, depending on a myriad of things such as our personality profile, environmental influences, and the impact of others on our lives.
I attended a course on public speaking by Matt Church (a very well-known thought leader in Australia) a few years back where I learned about the idea of living above the line, and I applied this notion to the concept of being our Best Self. Basically, in all walks of life, be it parenting, exercising, diets, work, financial, or romantic relationships, we all are either operating above or below the line. When we are operating above the line in any area of our lives we intuitively know it, and as Matt says, Below The Line = Not Good, and Above The Line = Good!
So what are the elements that go into operating Above The Line in the land of being your Best Self? I believe that there are four key areas that are the engine of operating Above The Line: Self-Awareness, Habits, Purpose, and Connection.
Self-awareness is the big one of the four, which Tasha Eurich in her book Insight defines as “the ability to see ourselves clearly, to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world.” Psychologically, self-awareness is the foundation of your home of individuality, and it involves understanding what makes you tick, what your values, priorities, and preferences are, and living according to those, as this is what gives birth to real authenticity which, to circle back again, is living according to your values, priorities, and preferences, based on a deep understanding of yourself. This is the land of mental freedom and fulfillment.
Purpose is a derivative of self-awareness, for if you really understand and know yourself and your values, priorities, and preferences you actually can then engineer your purpose, instead of searching for it.
In any constructed archway, the top stone is called a Keystone, which is the keystone that supports the other stones in the archway and prevents them from collapsing.
Thus, the habit of introspection and growing through self-awareness is a keystone habit. There are several other keystone habits that support the foundation of your life, and in my review article The Resilience Bank Account, I did a deep dive into several of the crucial keystone habits that are the foundational underpinning for us to be our Best-Selves as much of the time as possible, including sleep, exercise, avoidance of processed foods, self-compassion, and mindfulness. It is in the Keystone Habits where we all have something in common and overlap of our humanity.
And finally, connection at work and at home is so vital for our mental and physical health. In the Harvard Study of Adult Development that meticulously followed 268 men for 80 years, having good relationships in life was the strongest predictor of longevity and mental health, and without meaningful connections, the negative impact on one's physical health was as powerful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, because of the chronic low-grade stress that results from isolation. Physiologically, it is like being left out of the tribe and alone on the Savannah - which in those days was a death sentence, and highly stressful. Although in our modern world isolation and loneliness is no longer a death sentence, they still register physiologically as a life-threatening issue.
In my own experience, and that of so many of my colleagues that I know and coach, lack of connection at work continues to be a major source of despair. And this is also true of residency. During a wellness day retreat I led at the University of Pittsburg Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery, I had all of the residents send me a photo of something or a time in their life that was meaningful to them, and I collected them into a PowerPoint, and at the retreat, each resident got up when it was their turn and told the story of the picture. It was a powerful experience for everyone, and everyone was stunned at how little they actually knew about the lives of their fellow residents.
We all want to be our Best Selves as much of the time as possible, and the task can be overwhelming with so many variables. I like this framework from Sahil Bloom:
If everything were to stay the same, what is the one change that would create the greatest impact?
When one is faced with a variety of potential variables, a decision becomes very challenging. By adding a forced constraint (one change), we can create new clarity.
What one change would create the greatest positive impact in your life?
What one change would move you most efficiently and effectively in the direction of your ideal life?
That is the atomic variable.
Focus there first. Everything else is a distraction.