Salutogenesis: Why it is healthy to give your life meaning

The word salutogenesis is composed of the Latin word salus (= inviolacy, happiness) and the Greek word genesis (= origin). Thus it stands for the origin of health and was coined in the 70s by the Israeli-American medical sociologist Aaron Antonovsky. Antonovsky was looking for an explanation for his observation that, while many Holocaust survivors were suffering from severe after effects (physical and emotional illnesses), others did not show any such symptoms, at all. He intended to find out, which factors determined whether a person would cope with the same traumatic experiences more easily or with more difficulty than another. Therefore he was interested in the origin (or retention) of health – even under difficult and stressful conditions.

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This was an entirely new approach because previously research had been occupied with the question about the origin and treatment of diseases (pathogenesis). Antonovsky believed that this approach was akin to the attempt of pulling people out of a raging river with a lot of effort without giving a thought to how they ended up there and why they could not swim any better. He saw the river as the river of life and wrote in his book “Unraveling the Mystery of Health: How People manage Stress and stay well”: “Contemporary western medicine is likened to a well organized heroic technologically sophisticated effort devotedly engaged in this task and often quite well rewarded, of pulling drowning people out of a raging river. The establishment members never raise their eyes or minds to inquire upstream and around the bend in the river, about who or what is pushing all these people in.” Antonovsky later redefines the river as the “stream of life”. He points out that “none walk the shore safely, so the nature of one’s river and the things that shape one’s ability to swim must all be considered.” Therefore it is Antonovsky’s objective to study the river in order to find out “what facilitates the capacity to swim well and joyously for some and, for others makes even staying afloat a constant struggle.”

He found out that the so-called sense of coherence is an especially important factor differentiating a “good swimmer” from a “bad swimmer”. The sense of coherence describes a person’s basic attitude towards the world and his/her own life. The more pronounced a person’s sense of coherence the healthier he/she is or the more speedily he/she is going to get well and stays that way. People with a strong sense of coherence see a meaning in their lives; they experience it as a whole, as having meaning and are confident that they can handle emerging crises and pressures on their own. Thus they face the world with a confident, optimistic basic attitude – also, and especially when things get tough. A strongly developed sense of coherence ensures that a person is able to react flexibly to challenges. It helps him/her to activate the necessary and suitable resources and therefore with a high degree of probability leads to his/her ability of actually dealing with the situation – and consequently to another affirmation of his/her positive worldview.

It is exciting that the sense of coherence appears to be even more important for our physical and emotional health than many other much more tangible and quantifiable factors influencing it. It literally represents some sort of a basis making us more resilient and able to withstand stress. Therefore rather than observing strict diets or athletic activities, it can by more crucial for humans to live in a fulfilled partnership or that he/she enjoys his/her profession. Because the latter gives him/her a sense of meaningfulness in his/her life – and that strengthens his/her power to resist. That‘s why someone - although living on green tea, salad and lean turkey meat - loathing his/her daily trek into the office because he/she experiences his/her work as meaningless is going to hurt his/her health a lot more than the children’s book author who works fulfilled through the night for three months and while writing nibbles lots of jelly babies and chips.

That does not mean that you should live on jelly babies and chips from now on and get rid off the newly acquired jogging shoes! However, it very clearly demonstrates how important it is for us to develop the feeling of meaningfulness in our lives. Therefore I am always particularly happy about feedbacks like that from Warren in Australia who recently wrote me: “The iPersonic Career Profile was 100% correct and inspired me to a positive professional change. I realized that I want to devote myself to humanitarian work.”

And, how about you – have you developed a good sense of coherence within yourself? If not, our iPersonic Profiles will be happy to help you along.

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