SEVEN DIMENSIONS OF WELLNESS
Exploring the Path to Personal Health
by Amy Boyd Austin, MSS, Director of the Collegiate Recovery Community
Center for Health & Wellbeing, University of Vermont
Most people think of wellness as a physical state, as something we achieve by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, etc. But true wellness involves much more than your pant size. Wellness is a mindset and a holistic way of life. It means that we take responsibility for the quality of our lives, striving for balance in all areas. Wellness doesn’t accidentally happen. We have to pursue it—intentionally.
So how do we do that? Because overall wellness is complex, it helps to break it down into its component parts. Let’s take a look at the seven dimensions of wellness: physical, emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual, environmental, and diversity/social justice. Thinking about these individually helps us see where we’re putting the most energy, where we might be struggling, and why we might feel imbalance in our lives.
Of course, these dimensions often overlap. For example, if you were to go hiking in the woods with a friend, you would be addressing physical, social, environmental, and possibly spiritual wellness. Even so, looking at the dimensions of wellness separately, and understanding how and why they overlap, can help you live a more balanced life. First, however, you have to recognize that we’re all individuals. Your circumstances, needs, strengths, and challenges are uniquely your own. It’s important to stay focused on your own goals, rather than comparing yourself to anyone else.
Dimension #1: Physical Wellness
Physical wellness comprises fitness/exercise, diet/nutrition, sexual health, and sleep. Don’t focus on how many crunches you can or can’t do but on the positive steps you’re taking, regardless of how large or small they might be. You’ll be engaging knowledge, motivation, commitment, self-management, attitude, and an array of skills—everything from food preparation to swimming, biking, or other physical activities. Set reasonable, attainable goals. You can’t transform yourself overnight. But you can commit to walking 30 minutes a day, starting right now. You can drink more water, gradually increasing your intake over time. You can actually perform those self-examinations your doctor recommended—regularly, no excuses. Physical wellness is a continuous process. We’ll never “arrive” there. Instead we keep reaching for it and improving throughout our lives.
Dimension #2: Emotional Wellness
Emotional wellness means having a strong sense of self and the ability to recognize and share a wide range of feelings with others in a constructive way. It involves being attentive to our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, whether positive or negative. When we’re emotionally healthy, we have realistic expectations and take responsibility for our own behavior. We consider the feelings of others, as well as our own beliefs and values, recognizing that we will not sacrifice our own independence by acknowledging our interdependence with others. We adjust to change and cope with challenges in a healthy manner. Emotional wellness empowers us to take positive risks, engage in conflict in a healthy manner, and explore life to the fullest. The key is to develop, maintain, and engage our coping skills, actively seeking help and support when we need it. Some of us gain emotional strength from regular counseling or from support groups. Others prefer meditation, reflection, or journaling. Regardless of our individual paths, emotional wellness helps us all to understand that we will never rid ourselves of occasional disappointments and frustrations—the goal is to enjoy life in spite of them.
Dimension #3: Intellectual Wellness
Intellectual wellness makes us open to new ideas, allows us to think critically, and empowers us to seek out new challenges. Engaging both our creativity and our curiosity, intellectual wellness can best be described as a desire for life-long learning.
Maintaining intellectual wellness means constantly acquiring, developing, applying, and articulating critical, expressive, and intuitive skills. It involves questioning what’s commonly accepted and exposing ourselves to new experiences, participating in activities that challenge us to think more broadly and to consider different perspectives from our own. You can exercise intellectual wellness by attending a play, a concert, a sporting event, or the theater; trying crossword puzzles or Sudoku; learning a foreign language; visiting a museum; exploring another culture and embracing it with an open mind—in short, by doing things that stimulate your brain in a new way. That’s how we take positive steps toward wellness in this dimension.
Dimension #4: Social Wellness
How we interact with others is a reflection of our social wellness. Whether we communicate well, enjoy meaningful relationships, respect ourselves and others, and successfully create a support system of family and friends—these are all determined by our level of social wellness. Each of us must learn to consciously balance our social lives with our academic and/or professional responsibilities. Budgeting and balancing time to include both is an ongoing project as our lives shift and change.
Again, everybody’s different. It’s important to recognize and respect your needs for both social connection and alone/down time. Some of us thrive in clubs and organizations. Others prefer more one-on-one relationships. As much as we all love Facebook, having 3,792 friends in cyberspace doesn’t necessarily mean that your social wellness needs are being met. Identify those needs and respect them.
Dimension #5: Spiritual
Spiritual wellness means we’re in tune with our spiritual selves, that we find meaning in life, can see our place in the world, and have a sense of individual purpose. Our spirituality can be defined by religious faith/higher power, values, ethics, morals—some of the above or all of the above. Seeking our own spiritual selves can involve exploring a variety of values and belief systems, as well as considerable self-reflection. Your path to spiritual wellness could lead from many different directions—from time spent in nature to time spent in church, contributing to causes, or investing in reflective meditation. Find what brings meaning to you, personally.
Dimension #6: Environmental Wellness
How well do we live in harmony with the Earth? How fully do we understand the impact of our interaction with nature and our personal environment? What actions are we willing to take to protect the world around us—or to protect ourselves from environmental hazards? These are the primary questions surrounding environmental wellness. Each of us has a responsibility to protect our environment and minimize harm to it. To strive for environmental wellness, we must reach toward a sustainable lifestyle and promote an environment that supports good health for all. We’re all familiar with common environmental hazards: air pollution, chemicals, noise, water pollution, and second-hand smoke, to name a few. We’re equally familiar with ways to live more sustainably: telecommuting, carpooling, biking to school/work, buying local, supporting organic farming, using reusable water bottles, composting, recycling . . . We know what to do—but often, we don’t do it. We have a responsibility, as individuals and a society, to maintain an environment that is conducive to wellness.
In a college setting we are still responsible for the greater environment, but we are also responsible for considering our own environment. Specifically this could mean considering such issues as shared space, noise, and cleanliness, perhaps managing these concerns through mutual agreements with roommates, housemates, etc.
Dimension #7: Diversity & Social Justice
Many wellness models do not break this out as a separate dimension, perhaps because diversity and social justice overlap with so many other dimensions. Still, it has such an impact on wellness that it merits attention. Wellness in diversity/social justice centers on a commitment to examining one’s own biases, prejudices, and assumptions, and to learning about the world by exploring, appreciating, and experiencing various cultural traditions, practices, values, and issues. Through this work, we continuously strengthen our sense of social responsibility. We recognize our own ability to work both individually and collectively as instruments of positive change. Through this work, we develop more and more a sense of social responsibility toward and with others.
Results, Not Labels
As you evaluate your own wellness and work toward greater balance in your life, remember that the seven dimensions are just a tool to guide you. It’s not as important to make sure you’ve “filed” each goal in the proper dimension as it is to be aware that wellness has many facets, all of which need attention. Also, you’re a unique and special individual. There’s no need to compete with anyone—including yourself. Just set realistic, attainable goals, and begin making space for them in your life. Each tiny step in the right direction will make a big difference—for you and everyone around you.
Definitions of various dimensions adapted from: University of Vermont, University of New Hampshire, and University of California Davis & Riverside. For additional information, visit