Understanding the difference between health and well-being

February 23, 2021 - 19 min read

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What are health and well-being?

How does well-being affect health?

5 ways to achieve well-being

Put it into practice

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Health and well-being: they’re buzzwords that we hear a lot about today. But what are they, truly? And how can you achieve them in your own life?

While being healthy and well sounds great, figuring out how to generate those qualities is easier said than done.

In this post, we’ll discuss the meaning of both health and well-being, how they intersect, and how you can create more of each in your life.

Let’s get started.

What are health and well-being?

Health and well-being are connected, but they are two different things. Let’s cover them one at a time.

First: what is health? Health can be thought of as the state of being free from injury or illness. Physical health means living in a body that is strong, capable, and free of disease. 

Mental health, meanwhile, means having a mind that is strong, capable, and free of disease. If we are mentally healthy, we can navigate daily life and its setbacks and difficulties without excessive or debilitating stress, frustration, anxiety, or sadness. Taken together, physical and mental health affect everything we do. 

Next, what is well-being? If you consult the dictionary, health and well-being might be described as the absence of “negative” things, like mental distress and physical illness. 

A more positive well-being definition might be the maintenance of physical, mental, and emotional stability and balance — not just the absence of illness.

From a scientific point of view, there are two types of well-being: objective and subjective well-being. 

health and wellbeing - objective vs subjective wellbeing

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Here’s a breakdown of each:

  • Objective well-being. Objective well-being has its foundations in basic human needs, including food, education, health, safety, and shelter. Objective well-being rises and drops with social, cultural, and political events, and can be gauged by asking people to self-report on their overall well-being. 
  • Subjective well-being. Subjective well-being, on the other hand, can be measured by asking people how they feel about their well-being. It relies on less tangible (but no less important) measurements, like satisfaction, social well-being, happiness, and a sense of meaning. 

When objective and subjective well-being come together, they create an overall sense of wellness. But why does it matter?

The answer is simple: a foundation of mental and physical wellness allows us to function at our highest potential. If your health and well-being are lacking, everything else in your life, personal and professional, is more difficult and less rewarding. Let’s take a deeper look at why that is. 

The effects of stress on health and well-being

One significant impediment to health and well-being that most of us experience is stress. When stress affects us, it bleeds into every aspect of our lives, including our relationships and personal lives. 

While stress can come from many places, one common culprit is work. According to recent data, 64% of employees say they experience frequent stress or frustration at their current job. 

health and wellbeing - deloitte burnout survey

What’s more, these stressed, frustrated employees are absent from work 37% more frequently, 18% less productive, and 15% less profitable than their counterparts.

For a real-world example of how stress can impact the health and well-being of employees, look no further than some of the tech companies that have come under fire in recent years for employee treatment.

Whether it is delivery drivers, warehouse workers, or programmers sleeping under their desks, demanding company goals and policies can result in excessive stress for workers. This, in turn, increases injury and exhaustion rates (thus damaging employee health). 

Consider this: 94% of American workers report experiencing “extreme stress” at their jobs. Each year, this work-related stress results in about $190 billion in healthcare costs. 

Excessive stress also makes it harder for workers to perform effectively and “leave work at work”, thereby decreasing employee well-being.  

While many companies have responded to complaints with a renewed commitment to employee wellness, the stresses of our modern workplace can pose real risks to health and well-being.  

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How does well-being affect health?

We’ve discussed how stress impacts health and wellbeing, but how does well-being affect overall health? 

There’s a direct link between our well-being and our physical health. Poor mental and physical well-being impacts our ability to fight off chronic diseases and make healthy choices. Put simply: when our well-being starts to suffer, our physical health declines, as well.  

Think of it this way: stress is a factor that impacts well-being. When people experience excessive stress, it increases the risk that they will also develop depression. Developing depression drastically decreases a person's well-being. Once this happens, a person’s physical health also begins to suffer.  

While depression is technically a mental disorder, it has real impacts on the body.

For some people, depression causes sexual problems, weight changes, gastrointestinal upset, forgetfulness, difficulty with short-term memory, and much more. 

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The bottom line is this: it’s impossible to perform well or stay physically or mentally healthy when well-being is lacking.

The relationship between mental and physical health

Just like well-being impacts health, mental health has very real and far-reaching impacts on physical health. Good mental health is essential to good physical health. 

Here are a few facts that illustrate that point:

  • Healthy lifestyles - defined as those that include a balanced diet, ample water and exercise, and adequate sleep - can prevent the development or worsen of mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.
  • Healthy lifestyles can help people recover from mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. 

When it comes to mental and physical health, it’s impossible to have one without the other. 

The relationship between mental health and well-being

Both physical and mental health impact well-being. When people feel mentally fit and balanced, they’re more resilient. Being better equipped to cope with life’s difficulties and bounce back from difficult events improves overall well-being. 

Likewise, both objective and subjective well-being affect mental health

When people’s basic needs — including shelter, food, and freedom from discrimination and violence — are met, people tend to be happier, less stressed, and more present in their daily lives. This illustrates how comprehensive well-being promotes good mental health. 

5 ways to achieve well-being

Bringing more well-being into your daily life is as easy as adding a few new habits. 

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Here are a few of our top tips:

1. Connect with others

Relationships with other people are critical to our well-being and mental health. And for good reason: humans are social creatures. We evolved to live in tight-knit groups of other people. In evolutionary terms, our survival depended on it. 

Even though we’re not living in primitive societies anymore, our well-being still depends on our relationships and social connection. Meaningful relationships enhance our sense of purpose and promote healthy behaviors — just to name a few. 

While connecting with other people can be tough in the post-COVID-19 world, there are still plenty of ways to nurture meaningful relationships. Here are a few to try:

  • Get on a FaceTime or Zoom call with a friend or loved one
  • Carve out quality time with your partner, housemates, kids, or whoever else you share a home with
  • Strengthen your loose connections by getting to know your neighbors with an outdoor social, think driveway or front step happy hour
  • Send a text message to let a friend know you’re thinking of them
  • Start an online book club. Here’s how.
  • Get outside for a safe and socially distanced walk with a loved one. 

2. Be physically active

Did you know that exercise can improve your sleep, enhance your mood, and decrease feelings of anxiety, depression, and stress? 

In fact, studies show that physical activity can treat moderate depression as effectively as leading antidepressant medications, without the side effects.  

If you want to reap the benefits of exercise for well-being, you can start small. According to a study conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, running for even 15 minutes or walking for an hour a day can decrease the risk of depression by 26%

3. Learn new skills

Lifelong learning is more than just a positive way to spend your time: it’s also an excellent way to maintain well-being. 

Research shows that learning improves confidence and self-esteem, promotes a sense of purpose, helps build connections with others, and can slow cognitive aging.

With that in mind, get out there and learn something new. Use a language app like Duolingo to learn a language, sign up for a class at a local university, or audit a course from the world’s top institutions for free through edX. It’s fun and good for your well-being.   

4. Give to others

Generosity feels great, but can it improve your well-being? The answer is yes. 

If you’re looking for a way to start giving back, begin with your community. Do some research on community organizations that support causes you’re interested in, or donate some money to a local food bank or shelter. 

The great thing about charitable work is that there are thousands of ways to do it, so you can find a cause that truly ignites your passion and aligns with your interests. 

5. Pay attention to the present

Most of us have experienced, firsthand, how stressful it can be to live in the past or the future. When we live in the past, we get caught up in the shame, anger, and regret associated with old emotions or negative situations we’ve experienced. 

When we’re caught up in the future, it’s easy to be consumed by anxiety and anticipation about what will come. So it’s no wonder that learning to pay attention to the present is such a critical component of well-being. 

The Mayo Clinic defines mindfulness this way: “Mindfulness is the act of being intensely aware of what you're sensing and feeling at every moment — without interpretation or judgment.”

When you practice mindfulness, you spend more time in the world around you as it is, not as you’re planning for it to be or afraid of it becoming. Over time, mindfulness can promote many health and well-being benefits, including:

  • Reduced stress
  • Less anxiety and depression
  • Better mood and outlook
  • More focus

If you want to incorporate more mindfulness into your daily life, we recommend using one of the many available apps on the market. You can also practice breathing exercises, walking meditation, yoga, or other practices that help root you in daily life. 

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Put it into practice

Health and well-being are more than just “nice to have'' — they’re essential to our functionality, happiness, and fulfillment as people, partners, employees, and parents. 

In today’s fast-paced and often hectic world, however, it’s easy for health and well-being to take a beating. 

Fortunately, there are many ways we can improve our mental and physical health and promote well-being in our daily lives, starting with understanding what creates well-being and knowing how to generate more of it. 

Through mindfulness, giving back, moving our bodies, learning new things, and connecting with others, we can improve our well-being and health daily.  

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Published February 23, 2021

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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