What Is Wellness?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines wellness as “the quality or state of being healthy.” It seems simple, but for people with rheumatoid arthritis this is not a clear definition.

We can’t compare ourselves to the epitome of health. I can’t even think of what that would be—an Olympiad? A triathlete? These comparisons don’t seem fair because most of us never achieve this level of physical accomplishment even if we didn’t have RA. Plus, I can’t think of some great athletic competitor who has not struggled with injury or longer-term health issues.

Most people are never perfectly well for very long, if ever. So I can’t spend time comparing myself to unrealistic dreams of healthfulness.

Instead, what I have to do for myself is assess: what is wellness to me?

What does it mean to be well with my condition? And if I am off track, or not as well as I would like, what are the things I can do to make myself feel better? If I don’t have a clear path to wellness, what can I do to cope?

In my case, wellness comes primarily from three factors:

  • Pain level
  • Amount of joint stiffness
  • Energy level

Pain, stiffness, and energy are the top indicators of how I feel and how well I will manage a day. For me, they also interact. For example, if I have a high level of pain throughout a day I will become tired faster. If I am tired or didn’t sleep well, I’ll generally have more pain and stiffness. I can have stiffness without pain, but they also can arrive together.

Wellness is also about quality of life. I usually have some pain and stiffness every day. But that does not necessarily mean I have a bad day. If I have quality time with my husband and family, feel accomplished in my work, enjoy a friend, have a laugh, read something worthwhile—then I am well.

Wellness is about enjoying the little things, even when I feel awful. I may be sick with RA, but I do not see myself as unwell because I continue living a life I value and enjoy. I think that if instead I gave up on the activities and people I love, if I only stayed in bed and didn’t make any effort to find joy in my day, that I would feel unwell. I also believe that my RA would feel worse because I would be unhappy.

Even on my worst days, when I have been stuck in bed or recovering from a painful surgery, it has been  important to find some joy—in a conversation with a loved one, listening to music, smelling a flower or some other small thing that may seem insignificant to others. It’s these sensations and moments that make life beautiful. I feel it’s my job as a person to appreciate life in even its smallest joys.

On days when I feel “wellness challenged”, I often do feel more negative and grumpy. I’m lucky to have loved ones who support me on these days, either by listening to my grumbles or reaching out with a hug or a joke to relieve my spirits.

Bad days can also remind me to take better care of myself if I haven’t been resting enough, regularly exercising or eating healthily. Unwellness is sometimes a consequence of my own neglect, but mostly I don’t know what may cause a flare day. It could be the weather or some far off astronomical event. In any case, I am reminded that when I feel worse it is OK to go easier on myself and take extra steps for self-care with a call to the doctor, temporary increase in medication or extra rest.

My path to wellness may have many unpredictable turns, but for me the key is keeping everything in perspective and concentrating on what well-being means to me in my daily life.

Wellness may be defined as “the quality or state of being healthy,” but for me, wellness is more complex. What does wellness mean to you?

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