Wellbeing defined and demystified

There are so many conversations about wellbeing at the moment and yet ones I rarely see are:

  • What is the definition of wellbeing?
  • What does wellbeing really mean?

This is surprising, as any strategy designed to improve something, whether as an individual, group, organisation, community or even nation, relies on understanding what it is in the first place.

Wellbeing has often been defined, particularly by the media, in respect to its association with health and wellness. More recently there has been greater recognition of mental health and its links to wellbeing.

However, these are very narrow definitions and it is clear, backed by increasing research in the area, that wellbeing is much broader than this. What isn’t quite so clear is the actual definition! Lets start with reviewing a few.

Some wellbeing definitions

The Oxford English dictionary defines wellbeing as:

the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy

Psychology Today describes it as:

the experience of health, happiness, and prosperity

whereas the International Journal of Wellbeing proposes a new definition as:

the balance point between an individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced

Whilst there is something to be gained from all of these, for me, they tend towards the individualistic and western, focusing largely on wellbeing of ‘self’, and with a bias towards happiness. At least the International Journal of Wellbeing recognises the ‘challenges’ we face in life and that wellbeing is just as much about dealing with the ‘lows’ we experience as well as ‘highs’, and everything in between.

Happiness and wellbeing

At this point it is worth discussing the hazy distinction between happiness and wellbeing. The two are often used interchangeably but in my mind this can be confusing. Happiness is an emotion. Wellbeing is not. Whilst happiness can be used to describe a longer term state, as in: ‘Are you happy with your life?’ it is probably better associated with shorter term positive emotions linked to pleasurable activities.

Wellbeing takes a more rounded view and recognises that life is both pleasurable and challenging with an emphasis on meaning, giving, investing, a focus on others, and responsibility to something greater than self.

Happiness tends to be about you as an individual and is linked more easily to consumption, fulfilling needs, desires, and taking. Don’t get me wrong, happiness is an important element of wellbeing and can contribute greatly to our success in life. Feeling good helps us in many areas but we won’t always feel good and nor should we expect to.

Wellbeing then is much broader than happiness and requires the consideration and balancing of interconnected domains. In this respect the mental, emotional, physical, and social domains have become increasingly recognised, but let’s take a deeper look at this.

Psychological Wellbeing

Scientists often refer to psychological wellbeing (PWB) to describe how we think and feel about life and the meaning and purpose we derive from it. Perhaps the most well known of these PWB models is that of Carol Ryff. The six factors she determined that contribute to a person’s PWB include:

  1. Self acceptance – the degree of positive attitudes you have towards yourself, your past behaviours and choices.
  2. Personal growth – the degree to which a person feels they are realising their potential through positive change, increasing maturity, gaining knowledge and learning new skills.
  3. Purpose in life – the degree to which a person feels they have meaning in life and is able to make a difference by being part of something bigger than themselves.
  4. Environmental mastery – the degree of competence a person feels in being able to meet the demands of their particular situation.
  5. Autonomy – the degree to which a person feels able to think for themselves and do things the way they want without strong pressures to conform.
  6. Relationships with others – the degree to which a person feels connected, supported, respected and loved.

This model also reflects the understanding, drawing from the work of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, that wellbeing includes elements of:

  • Eudaimonia – meaningful activities and thoughts linked more to how we see our lives over time and what holds the greatest value for living a good life.
  • Hedonic – pleasurable activities and thoughts linked more to our emotions and subjective wellbeing at a specific point in time.

A life full of pleasure but with no meaning would become tiresome and meaningless. We can have too much of a good thing! However a life full of meaning but with no pleasure would be dull and over-bearing. Variety is, after all, the spice of life!

Whilst this helps us understand psychological wellbeing a little more the term is perhaps better understood by scientists and less useful for discussing wellbeing with the average person. For one, psychological wellbeing can often be confused with just mental and/or emotional wellbeing. It also makes little specific reference to economic, cultural, or planetary factors that can all have an influence on the quality of our lives.

A broader definition

So, psychological wellbeing doesn’t provide us with the whole story. If you think about your personal wellbeing you’ll have a good understanding that your physical wellbeing (diet, exercise, sleep, relaxation) has a big impact on your life. But there are other domains to consider too.

Who we are and what we believe, our spiritual wellbeing, are important elements of how we get on in the world. When we’re constantly involved with things that don’t align with our values, and who we are, it can become frustrating, stressful and at it’s worst even threaten our health.

Think about your workplace, an organisation to which you belong or even the country in which you live. The culture of the institutions to which we belong also have an impact on our wellbeing. Laws, policies, procedures, leadership and how we are expected to behave will all play their part.

There are two further domains. Firstly, our environmental wellbeing. If our personal environment is too chaotic, noisy, hot or cold, these can all impact on our wellbeing. On a larger scale, if we continue to damage the wider environment and planet, the impact on our wellbeing will be significant.

Finally, our economic wellbeing, which includes not only our personal financial health but also the wider economy to which this is linked. Research tells us that more and more money does not create more and more wellbeing but to a certain degree money does bring increased levels of comfort and satisfaction with life.

So a thorough approach to wellbeing will consider the following eight domains:

To describe the territories of our lives that inform our wellbeing
The eight interconnected domains of personal, group, organisational and national wellbeing

It is important to take this broader view of wellbeing because any one of the domains can impact on the others. They each have a role to play in our overall wellbeing and to really thrive we need to keep a balanced view on each. Indeed we can compensate for lower wellbeing in one domain through strengths in another. However the highest level of thriving occurs when we improve across all domains in tandem.

Again, this will be perfectly apparent if you think about your own life. If you’ve experienced stress or depression, or know someone who has, you’ll understand how this can have a significant impact on virtually every other area of your life. Or perhaps you’ve focused on one particular area, such as financial wellbeing and been successful at earning money. However due to the hours sacrificed this may have been to the detriment of your relationships, physical or mental health.

Based on this reasoning, and using the eight domains outlined above as the areas of focus to improve quality, I put forward the following definition of wellbeing:

Wellbeing is the quality of our lives in balance with other people, species and the planet

This recognises both an individual and collective approach but also that wellbeing is tied to our ecological systems and the planet on which we live.

The ‘quality’ element reflects the fact that wellbeing isn’t about being happy all of the time. Put another way wellbeing is our ability to:

Suffer WELL

Struggle WELL

Survive WELL

Strive WELL

Thrive WELL

Wellbeing doesn’t mean that we will never suffer but it does mean that when we do we have the capabilities to overcome suffering and move back towards thriving.

To help you on this journey the CANBE Wellbeing Model lays out the complex combination of internal and external factors that influence wellbeing and provides a framework to assist you in making improvements.

This post is an excerpt from ‘The Age of Wellbeing’ – A new leadership model for a happier world.

You can find out more and purchase the book here.

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