Reason, Science Education and Critical Thinking – The Most Overlooked Areas in Worksite Wellness

I admit that reason is a small and feeble flame, a flickering torch by stumblers carried in the star-less night, — blown and flared by passion’s storm, — and yet, it is the only light. Extinguish that, and nought remains.

Robert Green Ingersoll, from A Reply To The Rev. Henry M. Field

Introduction

Over the past five decades, the term wellness has been described and promoted in many ways. One of my regrets as an early promoter of the wellness concept is that so much programming under this banner has turned out to be medical in nature. Companies, hospitals and universities, for example, have applied the term wellness to a range of corporate and non-profit risk reduction programs, testing for health problems and conducting procedures that address physical and mental challenges.

It does not disparage the value of such medical initiatives to protest that they are best not considered to be of a wellness nature. However useful such programs might be in their own right, they are designed for outcomes markedly different from the goals of REAL wellness.

In my view, the term wellness (REAL or otherwise) should be understood as a mindset or philosophy consciously chosen to boost quality of life. Wellness was envisioned by Halbert L. Dunn and some of us who came along after his passing as an approach for enriching the nature of human existence. It was and is still seen as a way of thinking and acting most likely to boost satisfaction and enjoyment of life. It was never intended to promote or characterize strategies for pain relief or mitigation of difficulties.

I do not believe most people have been exposed to this distinction. Just the same, I think participants in company programs now labelled as wellness would gain from recognizing the functional difference in goals advanced by activities appropriate to these two separate realms. As Stephen Jay Gould said of religion and science (though few scientists accept his attempt at a diplomatic distinction), the two in this case (faux and REAL wellness) are non-overlapping, separate magisteria.

Think of the practical implications of the difference in the two forms of wellness. The objective of a health assessment questionnaire or a test for coronary or other risk factors is premature death avoidance via reforms in personal behaviors; the objective in teaching critical thinking (one of four dimensions of positive wellness) is to improve decision-making capacity leading to more effective living. Both important, to be sure and not mutually exclusive, but clearly different in outcome purposes.

In short, wellness is separate from treating problems; whether the two are equal or not is irrelevant. The two areas of emphasis are not competitive. Both are valuable – and complementary. I elaborated this point in a message to a professor the other day who wrote to seek advice on clarifying the two realms. I explained that those of us acting as scouts for the Wellness Calvary seeking the best route over the mountains to the fertile if not promised lands, those splendid places more like El Dorado than Detroit, should resist giving the impression that RW mindsets and behaviors are alone sufficient to discover the best ways to get there.

As a triathlete, I protect my advanced state of cardiovascular fitness and all the activity-enhancing elements associated with that with regular training. Doing so is hard work but rich with satisfactions. Think of that as the wellness element of being a triathlete. But when I swim, run and especially when I bike, I do all manner of things that are risk reduction in nature (sun block, helmet, etc.). Why would I spend a minute making distinctions? The two purposes are inextricably intertwinked.

The two ends are complementary. We simultaneously work to promote wellness and prevent disease.

It’s not twice the effort; it’s twice the gain for one activity. The first purpose is “to promote higher levels of wellness. It’s circular only in the broad sense that life is circular – day and night, birth and death, etc.

The take away – If you are doing something primarily for existence enrichment, as in the above example, don’t jeopardize the quality enhancing outcome by failing to cover the risk factors. Well designed implementation of health enrichment initiatives of a RW nature takes care of the preventive elements; however, doing something for prevention does NOT result in increased quality of existence enrichment.

REAL Wellness

The other three foundation dimensions of life quality-enhancing wellness in addition to reason are exuberance, athleticism and liberty. These four words form the acronym modifier – REAL wellness.

The R in REAL wellness, namely reason, can also be identified as critical thinking, respect for evidence and science and rationality, among other terms that mean the same things. An emphasis on reason is a counter to the absence or undervalued nature of these qualities associated with superstitions – and much of alternative, so-called complementary medicine. The latter are subjective, unsupported by facts and impressionistic and/or spiritual. Critics of alt med quip that there is only one valid kind of medicine – the kind that evidence has shown to be effective.

Reason

Many legendary thinkers have explored the nature and boundaries of reason. One notable whose works are basic references on reason is Emmanuel Kant, author of The Critique of Pure Reason in 1791. Kant addressed the limits and scope of reason separate from other senses, cultures, experience and knowledge.

Reason plays an outsized role in Kant’s writings on ethics. He emphasized rationality as more consequential than cultural influences, so this would not be popular in most wellness programming today that gives primary attention to the cultural, social and emotional influences on our lives. However, study and discussion of Kant’s ideas about the potentials of our rational nature could inform wellness education while adding interest and cache to the programming. Kant could shed much light on why reason is overwhelmed and diminished, how it can protect and foster personal responsibility and add to individual effectiveness. According to Kant, our rational nature informs our morality or ethical stature, our capacity to set goals and how far we will go to achieve them. In Kant’s way of thinking, we have a duty to recognize the value of the rational nature within us and to respond accordingly.

If Kant was on to something, can there be any doubt as to the importance of reason in REAL or any other kind of wellness? If reason is at least as consequential as the usual and customary physical risk factors, shouldn’t we be describing and facilitating discussions about it in worksite programming?

An article in the Washington Post this week explores Kant’s model of reason as a way to explore wellness-related topics, particularly duties to the self and others around self-respect and respecting others. Kant is referenced in relation to several contemporary hot button issues, including sexism and bullying, deception and coercion and using people as means versus ends. (See Carol Hay, A Feminist Kant, Washington Post, December 8, 2013.)

There is no room for Kant or other philosophy in worksite wellness programming that is medical and risk reduction in nature; it is hard to avoid philosophy and maybe Kant as well when programming includes REAL wellness.

All good wishes.