Balancing the Eight Dimensions of Wellness in Your Life
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
Last New Year’s Eve, whilst sitting around a bonfire, sharing a few drinks and lighting fireworks, it was suggested that whoever wanted to could write down their wishes for the New Year and throw them in the fire at the stroke of midnight. I thought it was a pretty interesting ritual and quickly started to jot down all my, let’s say, goals rather than resolutions (but that distinction will be a post for another day!).
Looking back over my list, I realised that each of my goals fell under a very discrete area of my life: physical, intellectual, social, emotional, spiritual. And before ringing in the New Year, I quickly made a mental note to look into research on whether anyone was using that kind of paradigm therapeutically...
What I found unfortunately was actually not a lot. Though there’s been very little empirical research done, similar models to promote holistic wellbeing have been employed mostly within the context of recovery and rehabilitation, either from severe mental illness, or substance abuse and addiction. They also often differ in their number of dimensions, but the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a model, which I’m a big fan of, and they have identified eight dimensions to focus on for optimising wellbeing:
That New Year’s experience and my subsequent reading is what inspired the general format for this blog, but rather than only focusing on recovery from severe problems, I thought:
Why would these eight dimensions not benefit everyone? What about subclinical populations who are just dealing with a bit of stress in their daily lives, who have specific goals they want to focus on, or who feel like they are excelling in some areas of life whilst floundering in others?
Related: Past, Present, and Future (Plans!)
Using such a model could be an incredibly helpful heuristic, focusing not only on problem areas but predominantly on a person’s strengths and their interests, to promote a growth-oriented mindset.
Eight Dimensions of Wellness
So, below, I’ve rounded up the big eight, along with some examples of how one might consider supporting each dimension to try this balancing act out in one’s own life.
Emotional wellness relates to our capacity to express feelings and deal with stress, whilst also being introspective with ourselves and empathic towards others. It involves having a sense of self-awareness – not just with our emotions, but with behaviours and thoughts as well. Emotional wellbeing likewise includes the ability to recognize our personal strengths and weaknesses, and how these relate to our intimate relationships.
Possible Goals: Breaking up maturely with that partner who isn’t right for you, learning to forgive, planning weekly date nights with your spouse, learning assertiveness training, having a self-care routine
Intellectual wellbeing is about activities that encourage gaining new skills and knowledge, whilst fostering creativity and multifaceted interpretations of information. On a purely cognitive level, it promotes areas such as memory, logic and concentration, but it is also about learning productive ways to share one’s ideas and talents, or of engaging in debate on polemical issues.
Possible Goals: Learning a new language, taking part in NaNoWriMo, continuing formal education, creating community art, joining a book club
At a base level, physical wellness deals with engaging in healthy behaviours related to nutrition, exercise, sleep, and general healthcare access. Yet, for some people this could also consist of having body awareness or of creating a sense of responsibility over their healthcare needs. On another level, it may also involve learning to listen to one’s own body and to trust in its ability to heal and self-regulate.
Possible Goals: Running a 5k, applying sleep hygiene, overcoming dentophobia to finally get dental work done, drinking more water, joining a yoga or dance class to promote proprioception
Social wellness encompasses all of our relationships with family, friends, and the wider community. It is about managing those interactions in a healthy way, including the appropriate use of communications skills and boundaries, in a way that is respectful of others and to ourselves. It is also about having a strong social support system during difficult times, whilst enjoying a sense of belonging and community in the good times.
Possible Goals: Making new friends after moving house, cutting out the toxic neighbour, organising a family reunion, keeping in touch with friends abroad, saying no to too many commitments
Financial wellness is about having savvy money-management habits, which will support your current life-style, as well as help you to prepare for future economic needs through creating realistic and responsible short- and long-term goals. This includes having an understanding of personal finance concepts related to your income, expenses, savings, and debt, and learning to balance these in order to live within your means.
Possible Goals: Getting out of debt, having an emergency fund, investing for retirement, funding children’s university, paying off the mortgage
Many people make the mistake of conflating occupational wellness with financial wellness, because in a capitalist society we’re taught that our work-life’s value is primarily measured monetarily. However, this ignores those people whose calling may be their hobby, not their main job, and it ignores homemakers, whose most important work is not paid. It is about developing skills that are personally and/or professionally rewarding, and not becoming burnt out from work.
Possible Goals: Attending a training seminar, working from home, finding time in the evenings for your passion project, completing a DIY project around the house, organising drinks after work with colleagues
Spiritual wellness deals with people’s personal values and beliefs, and how these can grant their lives meaning and a sense of purpose. It also consists of exploring the existential angst that all humans struggle with and the need to find answers surrounding loss, suffering and mortality. Whether it is through organised, religious practice or individual, philosophical introspection, spiritual wellness is a process of reflecting on life and our interconnectedness with the universe.
Possible Goals: Joining a philosophy club, learning to meditate, praying every day, going on a silent retreat, keeping a gratitude journal
Environmental wellness is not only about living and working in surroundings where one feels physically secure, but also about creating spaces that actively promote a sense of emotional safety, warmth or relaxation. This could be applied within the microcosm of one’s room, or seen within a much greater framework of global ecology. It also includes a person’s ability to understand and alter the impact of their interactions with the environment.
Possible Goals: Practicing hygge in the wintertime, asking for an ergonomic keyboard at work, taking part in a School Strike for Climate demonstration, keeping to a house cleaning routine, going to a beach clean-up
The Balancing Act
Having read through the list above, the aim now is to take stock of how these dimensions are doing in our own lives, and to set aside some time to think up personal goals for each one. The SAMHSA offers a great guide with worksheets for every dimension for writing in goals and progress.
I believe it would be a struggle to find anyone who feels that they are excelling in all areas – let alone at all times – so this is not about perfection. The truth is that all of these areas will naturally fluctuate. At times, some will dip very far down indeed. When there is a health scare, a job loss, a death in the family, for example, the respective dimension will of course become the myopic focus of that misfortune, and rightly so – in in order for it to be dealt with balance must shift.
But the idea is that by working on all dimensions during times of calm, we are not only benefiting our overall quality of life in the present, but creating a preventative safety net when things do go wrong. For instance, how much more challenging would an unforeseen job loss (occupational) be, if saving an emergency fund (financial) or having a strong social support network (social) hadn’t been goals ahead of time?
Conversely, because of the dimensions' interconnectedness, when things are going positively, goals can build upon one another, facilitating overall growth. For example, learning to forgive (emotional), whilst also setting healthy boundaries (social), could easily parallel and add to the understanding of non-attachment as an antidote to suffering (spiritual). In this way, rather than only emphasizing problems and crises, this approach alters focus onto a holistic framework in which individuals are empowered to balance different aspects of their life through setting unique and meaningful lifestyle goals.
If you are interested in learning more, or feel like any of the issues discussed above resonated with you, feel free to contact me directly!
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