Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

The Function of Meaning and Purpose for Individual Wellness

Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

The Function of Meaning and Purpose for Individual Wellness

Article excerpt

The authors review the literature on meaning and purpose in life as it relates to models of individual wellness. An overview of wellness models illustrates the importance of a sense of meaning to wellness. Suggestions are provided for how counselors may work with clients' sense of meaning in therapy.


The general public and health care practitioners have become increasingly interested in finding alternative paradigms to the biomedical model (Gordon, 1981; Granello, 2000; Gross, 1980; Still, 1986; Witmer, 1985; Wulff, Pedersen, & Rosenberg, 1990). In contrast to the biomedical model, wellness is a paradigm that has a salutogenic (i.e., health enhancing) focus (Ardell, 1977; Deliman & Smolowe, 1982; Dunn, 1961; Johnson, 1986; Opatz, 1986; Ryff & Singer, 1998; Tubesing, 1979). The general public's interest in wellness has continued to grow. For example, a study (Eisenberg et al., 1993) on the use of alternative practices to traditional medicine found that, in the previous year, one third of Americans used a treatment that could be classified as unconventional (e.g., acupuncture, massage). In addition, 75% of the spending for these treatments (the total of which was $13.7 billion) was out of pocket (Eisenberg et al., 1993).

Possibly in response to the interest expressed by the general public, more mental health practitioners and physicians are adopting holistic medicine practices as part of their approach to patient care (Pert, 1997). The National Institutes of Health, in reaction to the growing practice and scientific interest in this area, opened its Office of Alternative Medicine in 1992 (recently renamed the National Center for Complementary Medicine and Alternative Medicine) to promote the study of wellness, holistic practices, and adjunctive medical services.

Despite this increased interest by both the general public and the health care community, there is currently no clear definition of a well person (Granello, 1995,1999). The World Health Organization (1958) included some definitional characteristics in a 1947 statement saying that health is "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease" (p. 1). This definition supports the idea that if an individual is to be considered healthy, there are discrete spheres of human functioning in which the individual must strive to achieve health or wellness. Dunn (1961) characterized wellness as a "dynamic striving" inherent in individuals that drives them to achieve their highest potential. From a therapeutic practice perspective, Westgate (1996) noted that the holistic implication of the wellness perspective was that one could not treat one component of a person without knowing the balance of all components.

One characteristic of an individual that has been suggested as being an important sphere of functioning in wellness models is having meaning and purpose in life. The purpose of this article is to review the literature related to meaning in life and wellness. It is beyond the intended scope of this article to define meaning or purpose or to review implied definitions from the literature. Rather, we review the proposed functions and benefits for individuals having such qualities (i.e., meaning and purpose) and their relationship to individual wellness.


Several authors have proposed models in an attempt to define the specific physical, psychological, and social characteristics of a well person, and all of these models place emphasis on meaning and purpose in life (Hettler, 1986; Sweeney & Witmer, 1991; Zimpfer, 1992). Zimpfer proposed a wellness model based on his treatment of clients with cancer. His model includes seven areas of treatment important for client wellness: medical health, immune function, lifestyle management, spiritual beliefs and attitudes, psychodynamics, energy forces, and interpersonal relations. …

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