Home All Wellness Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

Wellness Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

written by Judd Allen and Marie-Josée Shaar 28 May 2013

Dr. Judd Allen is President of the Human Resources Institute, LLC, a firm that has assisted several hundred government, business, and community settings to bring about lasting and positive culture change. He earned his Ph.D. in Community Psychology from NYU and is on the Board of Directors of the National Wellness Institute. Dr. Allen has authored more than 50 books, journal articles, training manuals, and software titles on positive cultures. Full Bio

Marie-Josée Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, founded Smarts and Stamina (SaS) to help organizations implement healthy living as part of their business strategies. She combines positive psychology with fitness and nutrition to accelerate personal and professional health and growth. She co-authored Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance with 50 practical ways to build good health. Full bio. Marie-Josée's articles are here.

Marie-Josée’s Author Note: A longer version of this article will be included in Smarts and Stamina Online, a 6-week program for those who realize that we can only be at our best if we give our body due R-E-S-P-E-C-T. If you know someone who is ready to develop the habits that build robust health and make all other goals possible, please let them know about this program. If you’d like to use this research-based online program with your own participants, please visit Build your coaching business online. Finally, I was recently a guest for Karel Vredenburg’s Life Habits podcasts to talk about building healthy communities. Listen in to Life Habits Podcast 80. My other interviews in his series are #42, #51, #56, and #66.

There are places where people live longer, happier and healthier lives. They are mostly in far off and remote places such as Okinawa in Japan, the Nicoya peninsula of Costa Rica, and the Italian island of Sardinia. On average, those who live in such places live 10 or more years longer than the average, enjoying active lives well into their 90s. Just as importantly, these lucky ones are much more likely to benefit from a delayed onset of chronic health conditions and disability.

What can we learn from these healthy people? The most important lesson is that people living in these geographic areas do not achieve this in isolation. They adopt these healthy behaviors together. Their positive health practices have become integrated into their friend, family, work and community cultures such that the healthy choice is also “the way we do things around here.”



Those in wellness culture zones don’t have to drive to a health club. They live and work in settings where getting places and making a living require physical activity. These people don’t have to walk by supermarket isles brimming with processed foods to get to their whole grains, fruits and vegetables. They don’t have to log onto Facebook to find their friends. Visiting with family and friends face-to-face is a part of the rhythms of their days. While most of us would not choose to adopt the religions, livelihoods, and foods of those living in any of these distant lands, we have another option. We can create wellness cultures at work, at home and in the community.

Let’s see how.

Identify your influencers

When trying to change a culture, it is helpful to determine which zones of influence have the largest impact on health behaviors. For example, it is likely that work norms and pressures play a large role in determining whether someone gets sufficient time for social activities or a full night’s sleep. Family, friends, and coworkers can be large contributors or hinderers of your wellness efforts. Help them help you by making your needs more explicit.



You can even ask some of your closest friends and family members to be your health buddies so you keep each other on track. Keep in mind that health buddies don’t need to have the same goals. They just need to be supportive of and resourceful for each other. Helping someone else also benefits the person offering assistance by reinforcing his or her own healthy behavior.

Helpful Suggestions for Identifying Influencers: Develop a full value proposition that will make a connection between the benefits of wellness and your peers’ own values and interests. You can also develop a buddy system that focuses on strengths rather than risks. For example, you can ask a buddy to take an after-meal walk with you as a way to skip dessert. This will increase joint ownership of wellness and give more people an active role.

Defining a new normal

It is difficult to change cultural norms and habits. The best strategy is to focus on one or two change goals at a time. Other norms can be addressed in future rounds of culture change.

Helpful Suggestions for Defining a New Normal: Shift day-to-day influences so that healthier norms will take root. More precisely, consider the following questions:

  • Rewards and Recognition: Are healthy choices being rewarded and recognized? Are positive practices undermined through rewards for unhealthy choices?
  • Pushback: Does the culture include unintended penalties for healthy choices? Is unhealthy behavior challenged?
  • Modeling: Do leaders demonstrate healthy choices in their own behavior? Are unhealthy behaviors being modeled by mistake?
  • Organizational Recruitment and Selection: Do we have a reputation as being a good place for health-oriented people? Are people made aware that support for healthy lifestyles is one of the primary benefits of joining the group/organization?
  • First Impressions and Orientation: Are new people made aware of all the programs and activities that support wellness? Are people assisted in their efforts to integrate healthy activities into their new roles and responsibilities?
  • Learning and Training: Are people taught the skills they need to excel at practicing healthy behaviors? Is training in unhealthy practices (such as going without sleep or taking safety shortcuts) being offered or encouraged by mistake?
  • Information and Communication: Are people given the feedback they need to set individual and group wellness goals? Are people kept abreast of wellness activities and opportunities to support the wellness initiative?
  • Traditions and Symbols: Are there wellness traditions? Are there old traditions that might be adjusted so that they do not undermine wellness?
  • Relationship Development: Are friendships and teams being formed around healthy activities? Are relationship-forming opportunities unintentionally being organized around unhealthy activities?
  • Resource Commitment: Do people have the time, space and equipment they need to adopt healthy lifestyles? Does the allocation of resources send the mistaken message that healthy lifestyles are not important?

A new health behavior will take root in a culture when enough of these touch points are aligned with the goal. Change or push-back against unsupportive touch points and reinforce existing positive influences to reach the tipping point.

Connect to Your Community

Successful wellness cultures around the world show how much can be accomplished when we make healthy changes together and open our eyes to possibilities.

Helpful suggestions for Connecting to Your Community: Find wellness resources in your area. Where are the healthiest restaurants around town? Which parks are most interesting to visit? What fitness activities are available? Start a community group that will meet on occasion to share new local wellness resources. If you’re feeling courageous, you can also address those aspects of community life that undermine the general welfare. For example, you can write to your local restaurants and request healthier options to be added to their menu, or you can ask your mayor to install new bike racks in the busiest areas of town as a way to encourage non-polluting transportation and reduce traffic.

Final Thoughts

There is substantial evidence that social connections are essential to health and happiness. Social connectedness may even be one of the most powerful determinants of life expectancy, health, and recovery from illness. There is much work yet to be done in developing more wellness zones around the world, so let’s join forces and start right away!


Allen J. (2008). Healthy Habits, Helpful Friends: How To Effectively Support Wellness Lifestyle Goals. Burlington, VT: Healthyculture.com.

Allen J. (2008). Wellness Leadership: Creating Supportive Environments For Healthier And More Productive Employees. Burlington, VT: Healthyculture.com.

Allen J. (2009). Bringing Wellness Home: How to Create a Household Subculture that Supports Wellness Lifestyle Goals. Burlington, VT: Healthyculture.com.

Buettner D. (2008). The Blue Zones, Second Edition: 9 Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Buettner, D. (2010). Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way. National Geographic.

Christakis, N. A. & Fowler, J. H. (2009). Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. New York: Little, Brown.

Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. Little, Brown & Company.

Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Okinawa woman courtesy of streetphoto365
Opportunity courtesy of Beppie K
Yoga platform courtesy of Angela Seven
Working together outside courtesy of Mary J.I.

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Jeremy McCarthy 29 May 2013 - 7:50 pm

Love this article!

Marie-Josee Shaar 29 May 2013 - 11:30 pm

Thanks, Jeremy! That means a lot coming from such a great writer/blogger as you! 😉

Ina Q. Shepard 11 June 2013 - 9:35 pm

This guidebook is intended for older adults who are interested in how our communities work and how we might help them become more ‘age-friendly.’ Many of us have longed for the kind of age-friendly neighborhood that has different types of homes for people at different stages of life; walking paths and public transit to make it easy to get around without a car; and parks, shops, services, and homes that are closer together. Older adults are finding that by designing new neighborhoods differently — as well as redeveloping existing neighborhoods and roadways — we can make places that are healthier for ourselves, our neighbors, and the environment. Rather than let aging limit our options, we can actually become more independent by reducing our dependence on the auto, increasing our travel choices, and improving our quality of life right when we’ve started to have time to enjoy it. We can enrich our own remaining decades, as well as hand off a more sustainable community to future generations. That is, if we decide to do something about it.

Amanda Horne 17 June 2013 - 6:18 pm

Another fantastic reminder that well being is a collaborative effort. Thanks!


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