by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

Putting the Joy Back in Healthy Living

“When I started this challenge, my two granddaughters were upset — they'd never see me. No more sitting on the couch watching funny cat videos and streaming cartoons. But then I started showing them photos of where I’d hiked — the beautiful flowers, the amazing streams and ravines, the winding paths through tall trees — and the dozens of people and dogs I’d met on the way. And in just a few days, the big screen on the wall and the little screens in their hands didn’t seem so interesting.

They began to join me on my walks. We found new parks and new things to see. I gave them their own walking poles, got them new hats and jackets, and let them discover the ‘great’ in Great Outdoors. Where they used to complain about walking 4 blocks they now walk 4 miles through those same ravines, up and down trails — and want more.

When I told them that today was the last day of the challenge — they looked sad and insisted, ‘But we still get to go to Swan Creek and hike on the trails don't we?’ This month they learned that it’s not the first step that begins your journey, it’s turning off the TV and lacing up your boots.”

The greatest benefit I’ve seen is the stronger bond with my grandkids.

Each January and July we pause at HES to do an all-staff year-in-review and mid-year review. A definite highlight is when our account management team shares favorite testimonials like this one. Everyone smiles, feeling gratified, and some of us even get a little teary-eyed. The person reading it to staff often has to pause in the middle to regain composure.

After 30 years in wellness, I still get my biggest thrill when a participant shares a personal triumph and thanks those responsible for helping them, including — in our own small way — HES. If you’ve been in wellness for a while, you know what I mean. There’s nothing more rewarding than learning you’ve helped someone live a little healthier, enhance quality of life, and feel better about themselves.

We’re lucky. We get to read thousands of these positive stories in response to this question in each of our wellness campaigns: What did you like most about... It’s not just a feel-good exercise (though it certainly is that); we’re analyzing feedback so we can leverage what works and fix things that don’t in response to this question: What did you like least…

After many years analyzing stories, we’ve come up with a few recurring themes. We believe these traits apply to all wellness services — screening, coaching, classroom education, assessments, and more:

  • It’s personal. Almost everyone expresses personal satisfaction in what they’ve achieved. I haven’t felt this (good, positive, happy, healthy, motivated, excited, confident) in a long time. And although many are proud for having lost weight, lowered blood pressure, or reduced A1C level, it’s framed in the context of I did this… for me.
  • It’s social. Successful participants are quick to credit those around them — My kids got into it, too… My husband was so supportive… Our team all worked together to help each other over the finish line… I made new friends at work and in my neighborhood on regular walks… I was inspired by the sharing on the message board… My supervisor was enthusiastic for me and my progress.
  • It’s challenging. Many acknowledge their behavior change wasn’t easy, especially in the beginning. And those who don’t will often share that it got easier as they experienced success, suggesting that it wasn’t easy at the start. I wasn’t sure I could do this… I didn’t realize how little produce I actually ate — that was a big change for me… I had to push myself to not plop on the coach at the end of the day and go out to get another 4000 steps — but by the 3rd week I was looking forward to it.
  • It’s fun. Much of the fun centers on the campaigns’ social elements, but people also delight in experiencing progress in novel ways, learning something new, and having the occasional surprise randomly pop up on their journey to better health. The department had a blast seeing our cars move along Route 66… I couldn’t wait to learn what attraction was coming up next — in fact, we’re planning our next vacation around some of the places we learned about on HealthTrails… The most fun was the Gift Box activity because you got to do something different with an emphasis on gratitude or supporting others — wonderful!

While I wouldn’t suggest there aren’t other important elements in successful wellness programs, reading thousands of such testimonials over the years has convinced me that joy is the emotion we should be aiming for. It comes through almost every time. So as you plan, build, buy, promote, and execute wellness services in your organization, ask yourself if what you’re doing has a chance of eliciting joy from those you serve. If it does, you’re well on your way to success.

“And the Gift Card Was Nice, Too”

Many of our customers offer incentives for participation in wellness programs, including our campaigns. And while we’re up front about how we believe carrots and sticks are a net negative for long-term population health improvement, each client has to decide what model works best for them. But in 20+ years analyzing thousands of Liked most comments, I can recall only 1 instance where a participant commented: And the gift card was nice, too (somewhat as an afterthought) after 2 paragraphs highlighting the joys of healthy living.

To be sure, if you train a population to expect rewards for doing this or that, they will come to appreciate it if they’re successful. After all, who doesn’t want another $1000 — whether it’s in their paycheck, premium discount, or HSA? If they’re not successful, they won’t. And in either case, you run the risk of taking the joy out of healthy living — because you’re shifting the emphasis from doing something because it’s fun, challenging, social, and personal to a monetary transaction.

I’ll opt for joy.

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