“‘Wellness’ is one of the hottest buzzwords and trends in today’s culture. Physical wellness dominates today’s global market, with consumer demand for health and wellness products and services estimated to be a $3.4 trillion-dollar industry. Americans are now spending more on health and fitness than college tuition.” (Market Watch, January 21, 2018).
Is physical wellness really just physical?
The American Institute of Stress has compiled more than 60 years of data directly linking stress to mental and psychological factors that most often result in physical illness. Stress and anxiety underlie a majority of doctor visits and the World Health Organization has predicted that this year (2020), depression alone will cause more days of work loss and impairment than any other illness.
We know that physical exercise helps to alleviate stress, increase physical energy and productivity, as well as improve our general sense of wellbeing. There is no question that physical activity is a vital element of our overall health. Why then, in an age of hyper focus on physical health would we also see depression as the number one illness in America? Have all these wellness initiatives overemphasized the importance of physical health while ignoring other vital components that relate to overall wellbeing?
Thankfully, emotional and relational wellness are beginning to be more openly discussed. In just the past couple of years, notable people such as Prince William and Prince Harry have courageously initiated conversations to fight the stigma that has long been associated with mental health and family instability.
The reality is that life is stressful — in both positive and negative ways. No one is immune from experiencing the death of loved ones, illnesses, relational conflict or financial strain as times in life that trigger stress. But if we are honest, positive life experiences also are often quite stressful. Graduations, job promotions, getting married and having a baby are some of the most joy-filled life events, yet they can also be incredibly stressful. What if we normalized the natural human response to life events in a way that destigmatizes the toll they have on our emotional and relational health and focus on ways we can better respond to these events and come alongside one another more compassionately? Good self-care involves the body, mind and spirit. It needs to happen every day of our lives, as our bodies are exquisite and fragile containers of the whole of us.
Day to day stress: emotional and relational wellness
We are also impacted by the different environments in which we live our everyday lives. Writer Annie Dillard says, “How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.” The average person will spend 90,000 hours, essentially one-third of their lifetime, at work. Our work environment therefore has a tremendous impact on our quality of life. And what is the #1 complaint of most employees about their jobs? Stress. One out of every three workers reports being chronically stressed on the job, but less than half of working Americans say the climate of their organization supports employee well-being, or that their leadership sees it as a priority. And even with companies that do offer these services, only about a third of workers actually participate in health programs offered by their employers.
We have a problem.
What to do?
Initiatives toward physical wellness seem to be bearing some fruit because of public education and buy in from the top. What if the same intentionality was applied to emotional and relational wellness? There is an old saying that says, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
The American Psychological Association conducted a Work and Wellbeing survey in 2016 that found widespread links between support from senior business leaders and a variety of employee and organizational outcomes. More than 90 percent of employees reported that they feel motivated to do their best, are satisfied with their job and have positive relationships with their supervisors and coworkers when senior leaders are invested in their wellbeing.
In short, workers who feel valued by their employers are: more likely to be satisfied with their jobs, loyal and motivated to do their best; more likely to regularly participate in their employer’s wellness programs and training activities; less likely to report chronic stress.
Ultimately, our wellbeing can never depend on how physically fit we are or supported in our families or workplaces. Our circumstances can temporarily lift us to heights of delight or the depths of despair like waves on the sea. We need an anchor for stable wellbeing that is not defined by any circumstance. As the old, familiar hymn says:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Horatio Spafford, author of “It is Well with My Soul,” wrote from experience that our overall wellbeing ultimately is not defined by our circumstances. Spafford lost his four-year-old son to scarlet fever in 1871 and later that same year, the great fire of Chicago decimated most of his wealth. Two years later, Spafford and his family were booked on a steamship for voyage to Europe for a long-needed family vacation. Delayed by business, Spafford only accompanied his wife and their four daughters to New York, where for reasons he could not explain, he made arrangements to move his family’s cabin closer to the bow on the ship. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship, the SS Ville du Havre sank in just 12 minutes after being struck by an iron sailing vessel right where the family’s originally booked cabin was located. The family was thrown into the sea, where his four young daughters all drowned, but his wife was miraculously rescued as she floated unconscious on a piece of wreckage.
A few days later, as Spafford voyaged to join his bereaved wife, the ship’s captain summoned him when they were crossing the place where the Ville du Havre sank. In his grief, Spafford returned to his cabin and wrote the lyrics to what became the famous hymn, “It is Well with My Soul.”
Spafford’s lyrics tell us he learned the secret to true wellbeing. He experienced strength and peace that made no sense to our human understanding and sustained him where loss and misfortune seemed to prevail. His words remind us today — 150 years later — that our wellbeing can never truly rest in the circumstances of this world. Our only real and lasting peace and emotional wellbeing does not come just from physical exercise, modern day mindfulness, or even community support. Real and lasting peace of mind and stability in the midst of life’s stress ultimately comes from a Person, the Prince of Peace.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul
Stress is part of this life for all of us. As Christians, we are part of the Body of Christ and we know that when one member suffers, all suffer. We see this practically played out every day in our physical bodies, families, neighborhoods, workplaces and across the world. Our physical wellbeing interacts with our emotional, spiritual and relational lives. Real wellbeing involves attention and care of all of these beautiful parts of ourselves and our communities that make up the whole.
So what does a man do in the wake of such loss? Does Spafford’s legacy end with the penning of this famous hymn? No! When we allow God to work in the midst of our lives, the joys, triumphs and deepest times of loss, He promises to make all things work for our good (Romans 8:28).
In the aftermath of suffering such unimaginable loss, Spafford and his wife started a small Christian group in Chicago called “The Overcomers.” They later moved to Jerusalem in 1881 and founded the American Colony, whose philanthropic purpose was to serve the poor- Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, thus beginning a family legacy of humanitarian work that continues to this day. They had three more children, two daughters and another son, (who also died as a young child from scarlet fever) and later adopted a Turkish son. One of his daughters, Bertha, continued their humanitarian work through both World Wars and later became known as the Spafford Children’s Center. Today, the Center works to empower mothers and provide psycho-social, educational and therapeutic programs for all children of the Holy Land who face hardship and trauma, regardless of religion or ethnicity. This is Horatio Spafford’s legacy, born of adversity and loss, sustained by his deeply rooted faith — a legacy that resulted in the care and service of others. What will your legacy be?
Dr. Barbara Boatwright is a Clinical Psychologist and the founder of Life Resources, a non-profit Christian emotional and relational resource center located in Mount Pleasant, S.C. Life Resources provides a variety of educational and training opportunities that foster emotional, relational and spiritual wellness for individuals and organizations. On April 1, Life Resources is offering a free informational luncheon for area business leaders to learn more about how to cultivate a psychologically healthy workplace for employees. For more information and to register, visit their website at www.myliferesources,org.