The Portrait of Dorian Gray is one of those classics that everyone knows but few actually read. The original text by Oscar Wilde seems dated and Hollywood hasn’t produced a global hit based on the story of a beautiful young man whose moral corruption is manifested on his portrait, instead of himself. Yet, the theme is still compelling: Aestheticism has its limits and a beautiful facade can mask sin and ruin.

If only we could hide our illnesses in the same way. Truth is, even if the condition is as minor as a flu or cold, you look terrible. You might grumble about too much work and stress. Or be fatalistic and believe that, as Ralph Waldo Emerson summed up, all diseases run into one – old age. Many, however, are actively searching for a remedy. It may involve doctors and medicine but, increasingly, the focus is shifting from treating illness to viewing human health in a wider context.

There are questions, for example, about what we eat and do for exercise, what we do for work and how we sleep. Some seek answers outside the hospital, and in various practices, therapies and beliefs.
If you are a medical doctor, or reading this in his waiting room, you may at this juncture hear the sound of migrating ducks passing overhead: “Quack, quack, quack.” There are indeed false cures and fads. Consider the 18th- and 19th-century practices of “taking the waters”, whether in Bath, England, or Spa, Belgium, the town that gave its name to that now ubiquitous business. Treatments often relied heavily on a “change of air”, together with laxatives and bleeding using leeches to clear impurities from the body. Such practices seem silly in the light of subsequent medical science. But many treatments still remain in the limbo of pseudo-science – neither disproved nor proven by laboratory tests and scientific paradigms.

Consider the traditional medicine halls that abound across Asia, or the practice of acupuncture.

Rather than clinical testing, treatments rely on rather obscure herbs, tradition and philosophical precepts such as yin and yang, or “heaty and cooling”. Yet, so many people attest to the efficacy of such cures that researchers are finally reconsidering traditional remedies.

That acupuncture does alleviate pain is now not only the belief of old uncles but the conclusion of a 2012 study involving 18,000 patients and doctors from eight universities and hospitals in the UK, the US and Germany. Similarly, scientific opinion is shifting about herbal cures such as St John’s Wort, which is increasingly prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep disorder.

Other treatments are still being quizzed. One trend is to use enzymes – dietary supplements from plants and animals – to catalyse digestive processes. Usually prescribed only when the patient is suffering digestive disorders, the enzymes are now used to improve the metabolism of the otherwise healthy. Proponents claim they purify blood, boost the immune system, enhance mental capacity, and maintain proper pH balance in the urine. More than one corporate chieftain swears by this and makes the occasional retreat to Japan, where he can put those digestive enzymes to test with a round at the best restaurants.

More than one injured sportsman recommend bio-resonance – as do those who suffer allergies. This method uses electro-magnetic waves to diagnose and treat ailments, based on the idea that bodies are systems of energy that pulse at different frequencies. The non-invasive therapy corrects those frequencies and returns the body to optimal levels, triggering self-rejuvenation.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, even when someone offers his personal testimony, it’s good not to be gullible. Don’t swallow anything and everything, literally, but an open mind would be… well, healthy.

That’s perhaps one key element about wellness. It’s a mindset that gets a person to think proactively and preventively, not to worry about illness and death, but to focus on health and life, and to live well.

Here are some suggestions you might consider (with a page of fine-print disclaimers, since I am not a medical doctor and, instead, a lawyer).

First, count the pills you take each day. Beginning with vitamins (and that unproven belief in high doses of vitamin C), supplements have proliferated to be a part of our daily rituals. Whether it is French pine bark, pycnogenol or things that were moss, they all claim to have benefits. But pill popping can’t be the route to wellness – it makes you think you can rely on that fistful of supplements. Get yourself a small but nice pillbox, then cut down what you take so all your supplements fit in it.

Conversely, count your calories with caution. A diet is not just about reducing that bulge to get into your clothes. When you think wellness, consider the kinds of food and how they are prepared. Some simply avoid fast food and overeating. Some order organic food – especially fruit and vegetables – that is becoming more available and less expensive. Others adopt the Paleo diet, based on the presumed diet of human ancestors around 15,000 years ago.

Whatever your choice, please don’t become a diet fascist with a doctrinaire list of dos and don’ts. Sure, Palaeolithic cavemen didn’t eat creme brulee or char kway teow. But maybe they died earlier and were less happy due to that. Enjoy your meals, if not every day then at least once a week, and that means more than the food on the plate. Savour the time with people you want to be with, whether familiar long-time friends or interesting new acquaintances.

There is, beyond calories, a case for counting up happiness. Studies have linked health to happiness, and the smile as the indicator of happiness. Proponents of smile therapy claim it can relieve stress, lower blood pressure, increase endorphins and serotonin in your blood, and boost your immune system. This is not to recommend that we walk around like the Joker in a perpetual grimace of a smile. Best it comes from within. So keep a list of the activities and the people that bring that smile out in you, and make sure – no matter how busy the schedule gets – you get to them regularly.

For my late mother, that something each day was the Bible and, even as her body grew frail, her soul and faith grew stronger. Doing what we love and believe is key. Look at the final years of the artist Matisse, born in 1869. In the 1920s, although neither injured nor ill, he suffered an imaginative exhaustion and his work flagged. By 76, he wasn’t healthy, had endured radical colon surgery, and was confined to a wheelchair or bed. Despite that, in his last phase of life – he lived until 85 – Matisse was phenomenally prolific. He produced many works we recognise today and, with gratitude and wonder, he acknowledged this time as “his second life”.

Wellness isn’t commissioning your own Dorian Gray portrait to look beautiful and ageless no matter what you do. It is instead a mirror that can help us look at our lives and how we live, and what we live for. Some may scoff but, potentially, the practices you turn to may blossom into a personal philosophy and your own art of living.