Wellness. We hear this word bandied about these days, which may lead us to dismiss it as a trendy buzzword. But we need to acknowledge its importance in each of our lives, and make it a priority in our homes, schools and workplaces. We may think we can’t spare the time, money and effort for wellness, but the truth is we can’t afford not to.

One definition of wellness: An approach to health care that emphasizes preventing illness and prolonging life, as opposed to focusing on treating diseases. Western medicine has traditionally been characterized by fixing what is already broken, often through medication or surgery. It has also tended to view the patient as having compartmentalized problems, rather than investigating how the parts interrelate as a whole.

But the tide has been changing. Health officials are recognizing that it costs less in the long run to keep people from getting sick in the first place. (I would argue that prevention is always less costly and takes less effort overall, whether we’re talking about health, car maintenance, or keeping your basement from filling up with junk.)

The old mindset would have been to hit the gym once we look like we need to go. But now we see how important it is to go to the gym even when we don’t look like we need to, so that we don’t end up looking up like we need to go to the gym. It’s a pretty worthwhile positive feedback loop.

Also the concept that emotional and mental disruptions can have an effect on physical health is more widely accepted. We are seeing the connection between mind and body and how they are connected. Anxiety, depression and chronic stress can lead to physical problems; taking care of the whole person is beneficial to both individuals and those with whom they interact.

Many employers are offering wellness incentives with benefits such as paid time off for achieving certain goals. The healthier your employees are, the happier and more productive they are. There will be less absenteeism and fewer interpersonal conflicts. You will save money on health care costs for the employee, and there will be reduced turnover — which can be expensive and can negatively affect workplace morale.

Having unwell people in your place of employment (or school or home) can spread symptoms like germs — physical manifestations like overeating, inactivity, and substance abuse — as well as emotional negativity. You wouldn’t want someone with the flu coming to work and infecting others; similarly, you don’t want an employee who is unhealthy in other ways distributing contagions.

Conversely, wellness can also be spread through interpersonal contact, especially if employees are given external motivation such as friendly competition between departments. If you get a reputation for being a workplace with happy people, then you will be a desirable to job seekers. As a result, you will attract good people who value workplace wellness.

Wellness is an overall change in lifestyle, encompassing activity, diet, sleep habits and preventive screenings. Wellness also means learning how to say no to additional responsibilities that could lead us to becoming overwhelmed — and giving us permission to stop the constant multitasking or obsessive phone checking. Wellness equals attending to those we are with instead of feeling the need to rush to something else.

We can survive without making wellness a priority but we will not truly thrive. We must take responsibility for health instead of relying on a fix once a problem has surfaced. This proactive decision is the first step. The next is structuring our environments to ensure health and happiness for all.

Stephanie Haines is a Greenfield native. She can be reached through her website, www.stephaniehaines.com. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.