Years ago I trained as a medical practitioner. These days, I prefer to think of myself as a wellbeing practitioner. I see this role as exciting, inviting and life-enhancing.
The shifts I’ve made in my transition from medicine reflect a deeper perspective change relevant not only to health-care but also to life in general.
The first shift is in our direction of gaze
When I was a GP, the question I’d ask more than any other is, ‘what’s the problem?’ My training was to focus on the sick part of someone, give it a name and prescribe a treatment. While that can be very helpful, a talk I went to as a medical student decades ago switched me on to a more engaging track. The talk was by holistic medicine pioneer, Professor Patrick Pietroni. He taught me about a picture that has become one of my most valued wellbeing tools. Being well and healthy, he said, is a bit like rowing a boat. Illness, or other kinds of problems, can thought of as crashing into a rock.
Most approaches to tackling difficulties tend to focus on the rock. Healthcare professionals are like geologists who know lots about rocks you might hit. But the problem, or rock, is only half the story. The water level, said Patrick, represents our background level of wellbeing. When we’re feeling good in ourselves, with our emotional reserves at a higher level, we may float over rocks that on a bad day we’d hit. When we’re feeling depleted, our water levels low, we’re more likely to crash.
How do you know your water level is high? One way is to ask yourself, ‘what does it look like when things are going well?’ Raising the water level takes you this way. You can apply this to any area – to your physical health, emotional state, relationships, work, community and connection to the wider world. When you focus on raising wellbeing in any of these domains, you not only reduce the chances of a crash, you also take yourself to a place that feels better and where you tend to function at a higher level.
So the first shift is in our direction of gaze, moving from a dominant focus on rocks, to widening our view so that it also considers wellbeing. Rather than just thinking about problems we want to avoid or move away from, we’re also giving attention to a positive vision of what we want to move towards.
The second shift is from Health-Care Delivery to Wellbeing Practice
When I teach courses about wellbeing, I use this boat and water level metaphor as a mapping tool. I ask people to draw a wavy horizontal line to represent their current level of wellbeing, then put in downward arrows for factors that lower this, and upward arrows for those that raise it. I invite you to try this out. What are your downward arrows? And what are the ones pointing up?
Common answers for downward arrows include sleep disturbance, high levels of stress, difficult relationships and toxic environments. We can include here anything that makes a difficult day more likely. Upward arrows include support from friends, enjoyable activities, a sense of purpose and good nutrition. Another important upward arrow is being so interested in wellbeing that you give your attention to the purpose of nourishing it.
While much healthcare delivery involves rock-focussed interventions by active practitioners to relatively passive patients, the water level approach is more participatory. If a practitioner is someone who engages in practices, then when we engage in upward arrow activities, we can all be wellbeing practitioners.
Three Levels as a Wellbeing Practitioner
In my training work, I distinguish between three levels of wellbeing practitioner. The first we’ve just looked at, where we take part in practices that nudge up our water line. I see this as the foundation and a role of the wellbeing movement is to promote engagement here.
If you’re a level 2 practitioner, you might not see wellbeing as your main focus, but you do play a role in supporting it in others. You might be a teacher, coach or administrator weaving this theme into the work you do. Or you may take upward arrow actions in your family, organisation or community.
You’re a level 3 practitioner if you’ve chosen to make wellbeing your professional focus or key area of expertise. Here you’ve undertaken trainings and built experience that deepens what you can offer others. For example, you might be a community organiser, a wellbeing coach or a nutrition adviser. There’s such a need to populate these roles of expertise and commitment needed to cultivate wellbeing in our world.
Whatever your level, whatever your role, we are all practitioners, let us build wellbeing together.