Wellness and Well-Being—Are They the Same Thing?

While we often hear the words “wellness” and “well-being” used interchangeably, they do have slightly different connotations. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a universal definition for well-being does not exist. However, leading researchers and scholars generally agree that it is a state of functioning in which positive emotions, sense of purpose and fulfilment, and satisfaction with life are predominant. When well-being is present, you feel good about life.

Well-being is an outcome of many enabling features. One of these enabling features is wellness. If well-being is an outcome, wellness is an ingredient. It relates to the intentional practice or behaviors individuals perform on a regular basis that contribute towards improving health and well-being. In fact, you cannot have health or well-being without wellness. For over 70 years, the World Health Organization has defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Wellness practices in college and beyond can contribute towards good health and well-being.

Think of wellness as a multidimensional concept. Many college and university campuses utilize a “wellness wheel model” like the one below to help you explore wellness and the behaviors and resources that support it. Like a bike or car tire, when you are balanced in your wellness practices, things will “roll” more smoothly and your sense of well-being will be greater. In addition, when your wellness is in balance, if you hit a bump in the road, like receiving a poor grade or experiencing a conflict with your roommate, conflict, you are more likely to cope with the stressor positively. However, if your wellness practices are not in balance with one another, the wheel may be deflated and you may struggle to “roll forward” and cope with challenges. Your overall sense of well-being may also be diminished.

As you can see from this Wellness Wheel Model, there are many different areas where you can focus on wellness practices to support your well-being and ultimately your academic success. At first glance, these may look more like “have to” items, but many people find that they already practice wellness without knowing it. In addition, not every dimension of wellness is part of a person’s daily routine. For some areas, wellness-based practices can be part of a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly routine. Read on below for more concrete definitions of these dimensions and examples of what they might look like for a college student.

Physical Wellness includes all the things we do take care of our bodies. Physical wellness includes fitness and movement, nutrition, sleep, illness prevention, stress management, and choices about using alcohol and other substances. On campus, physical wellness could include regular exercise, healthy food choices, good sleep habits, proper hand washing, taking prescribed medications as recommended, routine medical, dental or vision care and healthy choices around alcohol or other drugs.


Social Wellness includes the things we do to connect and interact with others. It includes developing healthy and supportive relationships and how we manage our interactions with other people. While in college, social wellness could come from participating in a student club, joining an intramural or athletic team, learning from others in a study group, or attending events and gatherings in the residence or dining halls. It can be routine like watching a show with the same friends every week or weekend brunch with your classmates or hallmates.


Intellectual Wellness is directly related to learning. Openness and curiosity to new ideas are foundational. Participation in discussion, co-curricular, and cultural opportunities expands your knowledge and skill sets while simultaneously allowing you to share your skills with others. While in school, you can practice intellectual wellness by pushing your “comfort zone” and exploring new and different things  in order to learn. Joining a club you know nothing about, attending an event of a different spiritual or cultural practice, learning a new skill or more about a topic that interests you, and engaging in a dialogue group or debate with peers are all ways to practice intellectual wellness.


Emotional Wellness practices are the things we do to identify and manage our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors so we can manage stressors. It can be hard sometimes to name and express your feelings, and your ability to learn from previous experiences depends upon your emotional wellness. In addition to managing stress and getting enough sleep, you can improve emotional wellness by seeking support from others if needed, naming and writing out your emotions as you are experiencing them, keeping a positive outlook by identifying a good outcome from a negative experience, practicing mindfulness, accepting failure as a normal process and learning from it, emphasizing gratitude, and acknowledging positive things that happen throughout the day or week.


Occupational Wellness is two-fold. It includes your ability to balance work, academics, and other commitments. More importantly, occupational wellness gives you a sense of purpose. It involves participating in classes and activities that you find gratifying and meaningful. People who practice occupational wellness can often describe the importance of their work. Finding purpose increases your level or engagement and satisfaction. In college, you can develop occupational wellness by learning more about your strengths and the types of tasks you enjoy most. You can explore classes, volunteer or service opportunities, internships, or jobs that allow you to both love what you do and do what you love.


Environmental Wellness is our ability to respect and take care of all of the environments we occupy. It is more than just taking care of our earth. The living and academic spaces you create for yourself are part of environmental wellness. Keeping your residence hall room clean, organizing your virtual spaces, and picking up after yourself in classrooms or other campus spaces are all ways to respect different environments and practice environmental wellness.


Financial Wellness includes the things we can do to manage financial commitments and the choices we must make in order to use our resources to meet our basic needs. Developing habits like setting a budget and sticking to it and regularly paying bills are simple ways to improve financial wellness. Utilizing student discounts, coupons for shopping, and buying used goods instead of new are all strategies that could improve financial wellness.


Spiritual Wellness are the practices and behaviors that ground us. This could include faith-based or secular practices and exploration as well as personal values. Maintaining your faith if you are religious and/or cultural practices are one way to practice spiritual wellness. Mindfulness, yoga classes, walks in nature, or stargazing are all activities that can increase spiritual wellness.

We have greater balance and well-being when we incorporate practices into our lives inclusive of all the dimensions of wellness. Learn more about which dimensions you exceed at and which you can focus more on in this well-being assessment.