It’s amazing to me that after two decades of investigating the source of wellbeing, my clients, friends, and family members still open my mind to new insights. What causes wellbeing? What develops it? What sustains it? As leaders seeking to create healthier organizations and communities, I believe both inspiration and immense power are rooted in the act of asking these questions.
I was pondering these very questions last week while writing this entry from my sister’s bedroom. We sat together on her queen-sized bed. It was an uncharacteristically cool day in May, so we had the striped, pearl-colored comforter scrunched up to our necks to stay warm. Magazines and pill bottles were scattered about the room while a home improvement show droned on the television. Kim was alternating her attention between checking Facebook, talking with me, and dozing off. The pain pills she was taking several times a day really knocked her out.
You see, my sister had been combating lupus for at least a dozen years. Besides her daily physical discomfort—her joints, digestive track, lungs, and muscles in relentless pain—the disease attacked one of her body’s organ systems about every other year. She’d been through brain seizures, congestive heart issues, and renal problems. A few weeks ago it was respiratory failure. Honestly, that time I thought we’d lost her for good. Amazingly, she reemerged from the hospital, not as strong as before, but still here. Still with us. Still engaging in the stuff of life with a sense of wellbeing no matter how incapacitated she had become.
I had always been in awe of Kim’s ability to participate in life, even when she was feeling her worst. Given her gift for staying upbeat in the midst of suffering, she seemed to have some essential wisdom that many of us chase our whole lives. So sitting there together beneath that comforter, I decided to pick her brain on the wisdom of wellbeing. Here’s a peek at our conversation.
Me: What does the word “wellbeing” mean to you?
Kim: Wellbeing? Hmm. I think wellbeing means being okay with where you are in your life: your health and any other areas.
Me: Does this work even when things are tough?
Kim: Yes, you can experience wellbeing even if you are ill or down. Wellbeing is a state of mind. Even this last time, when I was so severely sick in the hospital, I had a sense of wellbeing because I was okay with whatever was going to happen. Within me was a sense of peace.
Me: Is wellbeing important to our experience as human beings?
Kim: Yes! A wellbeing state of mind gives you the opportunity to live in the present and to be okay with whatever the future holds.
Me: So … how do you do it?
Kim: For me, the main way to stay well when ill is to keep a positive attitude. This is a hard one, because when I’m sick, it’s easy for me to feel powerless and depressed. But I’ve realized there’s no reason that my suffering needs to cause suffering for people around me. Being optimistic helps. It may sound simple, but watching a comedy or reading a funny book can get me back into a positive attitude when I’m feeling down.
What also brings me wellbeing is to reach out to friends. Sometimes I reach out because I want support from them. But mostly, I reach out as a way to encourage people in whatever they’re doing, to support whatever is meaningful to them. Since my disease prevents me from getting out of bed much, one of my good friends says that Facebook is my weapon for my secret mission of helping others. All I know is that by focusing on other people, I feel better.
I can’t say that I really pray much, but I do have conversations with God. These conversations help me be well, too. It’s another way I get outside of myself; knowing that there is a greater wisdom working in and through me—in and through all of us—reminds me that everything is okay.
Dr. Martin Seligman, author of Flourish: A Visionary Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing, would agree with Kim’s words. He claims that wellbeing as a resource is available to us always; we need not merely call on it during our times of greatest suffering. Tapping into the wisdom of wellbeing—like my sister learned to do so well—certainly helps us manage difficulty, but also helps us prevent illness and stress.
This is good news for us as leaders. One of our many roles is to show up well, fully engaged, and at our best. We must be ready and able to foster a work environment where others can thrive. But we’re human too, dealing with the latest crisis (or illness) as much as the next person. When we as leaders tap into the greater wisdom of wellbeing that worked in and through my sister, we can flourish as she did.
[Kim passed away last night at age 45. Her lifelong upbeat outlook continued through a 12-year battle with lupus. She touched many of us through her “secret mission of helping others” and we will all dearly miss her.]
Laptop photo by Johan Larsson