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Sep 13, 201812:57 PM Live Well, Work Well

with Debra Lafler

What is wellness?

(page 1 of 2)

Have you seen the word wellness? Likely, yes. It’s on everything these days, from fitness centers to supplement stores to pet food! But what does it mean? Long before it got commercialized, the term was coined by Halbert Dunn, MD, PhD (1896–1975) in the 1950s and 60s, when he introduced the concept during a series of 29 lectures. His concepts were then made into a book in 1961 called High Level Wellness.

In Dunn’s lectures and book, he aimed to expand the concept of health and our tendency to only look at the physical body. He explained that we are made up of five dimensions — physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and social — and these operate within a continuously changing multidimensional environment (i.e., physical, biological, social, and cultural environments).

“[Wellness] is an integrated method of functioning which is oriented towards maximizing the potential of which the individual is capable of functioning within the environment.” (Dunn, 1961)

Let’s unpack that quote in thirds. First, wellness is “an integrated method of functioning,” meaning it is the integration of all the dimensions as an operational system. Second, wellness is “oriented towards maximizing the potential of which the individual is capable of functioning,” meaning it is our focus, intention, or the direction that we are facing, not our ability to transcend our situation. In any given moment, and in any given situation, we can focus on the negative or focus on the positive; we can focus on our illness, disease, or potential death, or we can focus on our health, living, and life that we have today. Third, wellness is based on “the environment,” meaning that everything is contingent upon what is happening all around us.

Dunn influenced many throughout the 60s and 70s, so much so that those decades have been called, “The Wellness Movement.” A few notable men at that time, Dr. John Travis, Don Ardell, and Bill Hettler of the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point got together and helped to create the nation’s first wellness organization, The National Wellness Institute (NWI) in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and organized an annual National Wellness Conference (NWC), which is still in operation today.

The NWI and each of those men over the years have expanded on Dunn’s concepts, creating their own versions of wellness models and related concepts, and many others have followed in their footsteps. If you Google “wellness model” and click on images, many come up. The most expanded model to date, which has gotten recent attention, is the Eight Dimensions of Wellness Model from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Those eight dimensions are: physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual, social, environmental, occupational, and financial. Environmental was added to the model, rather than have it separate from it. Occupational (job or hobby) was added because what we do for most of the hours of our day — and how we feel about it — impacts our health. And financial was added because our financial situations — and how we feel about them — also impact our health.

Why is defining wellness important? In the wellness field, especially worksite wellness, we often point to someone’s health status (e.g., conditions like Type 2 diabetes) or their biometrics (e.g., weight, blood pressure, glucose, or cholesterol) as a way to assess them. But physical health status is just an indicator that something is happening with all the systems at play. We can’t help or cure the physical health status by looking at it alone. We must assess what is going on in all the dimensions in order to help. 

You may be thinking, isn’t physical health really just about lifestyle behaviors though? The answer is yes and no. Have you ever known someone who tries to do everything healthy, eats nutritious foods, works out regularly, gets plenty of sleep, doesn’t use alcohol or tobacco, and still is overweight or has high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, or other health issues? Conversely, have you ever known someone who doesn’t do anything healthy, their diet is poor, they don’t get any physical activity, they stay up late, drink alcohol freely, and yet, their biometrics are in recommended ranges? Yes? So, how do we explain that?


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About This Blog

Debra Lafler is a Madison-based wellness consultant, coach, and speaker with over 20 years of experience in the field. She currently works as the employee wellness and employee assistance program manager for the Wisconsin State Department of Health Services, and as an adjunct instructor for the University of Wisconsin’s Health and Wellness Management program. She also is available privately to hire as a business consultant, personal coach, or motivational speaker. Debra has a doctorate degree in Divinity & Spiritual Studies from Emerson Theological Institute; a master’s degree in Health & Behavior Studies specializing in Health Education from Columbia University; a bachelor’s degree in Communication, with certificates in Wellness and Coaching from The University of Wisconsin—Parkside; and certificates in Worksite Wellness, Holistic Stress Management, Grief Support, and Yoga. She can be reached at or



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