What is Wellbeing, Anyway?

Has anyone else noticed that ‘well-being’ seems to be everywhere these days? It’s not just me. Over recent years, psychological research has shifted from an emphasis on disorder and dysfunction to a focus on well-being and positive mental health¹. The well-being trend grew by 10.6 per cent between 2013 and 2015, according to the Global Wellness Institute, and is now worth $3.72 trillion globally. The Times even declared that 2018 is going to be the year of self-care.

But what do we really mean by well-being? It seems to be one of those words in popular parlance that we use without really being clear on what we’re talking about. And it turns out that’s for good reason; the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that there is no consensus on a single definition of well-being². Dictionary definitions to describe this state include words like comfortable, healthy, happy, or successful. A New Economics Forum report commissioned by the UK government describes well-being as having two main elements: feeling good and functioning well.

So far, so not very clear!

And I think it’s important to be clear. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing different ideas to cultivate and support well-being in life so let’s start by agreeing on what we’re all talking about.

Well-being = Balance

I’m a huge fan of research; I just love learning! So, as I was thinking about the question of what well-being is, I did what we all do — I hit Google. And I came across an article in the International Journal of Wellbeing which proposes a new definition of well-being “as the balance point between an individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced”³.

I swear I had not read this before coming up with the name, The Practical Balance, but it turns out I might have been on to something!

The authors explain that “stable well-being is when individuals have the psychological, social and physical resources they need to meet a particular psychological, social and/or physical challenge”. This resonates strongly with my belief that balance is that sweet spot between challenge and competence, between effort and ease, where we are neither complacent nor overwhelmed.

The Practical Balance Definition of Well-being

Well-being does not mean that we have to feel good all the time. Experiencing difficult emotions and discomfort is a normal part of life. Our emotions are not inherently good or bad; as Susan David describes in Emotional Agility, emotions are data, a way of understanding what’s going on around us [you can watch Susan’s popular TED Talk here]. Developing our resources so we are able to manage our emotions is essential for our long-term well-being. In fact, having challenge prevents us from stagnating.

Well-being is a dynamic state. The balance between our challenges and our resources is constantly shifting as we grow and go through our lives. We get a new job or a new baby or decide to move house — the challenges get bigger — and the see-saw moves. As we learn new skills and new coping strategies, our resources grow and we move back into equilibrium. And after a while, we start to crave new challenges and the process starts all over again.

This notion of well-being puts us firmly in the driving seat of our own lives. We are active participants in our lives; we have choices and make decisions that affect our well-being in both positive and negative ways. We have preferences and desires and ambitions that shape our experience of the world. That said, I also firmly believe that well-being is not just an individual’s responsibility. There are a range of factors that are a part of the fabric of our society that impact us and which we don’t control as individuals. Mental health is shaped to a great extent by the social,economic, and physical environments in which people live⁴. Poor mental health is both a cause and a consequence of social, economic and environmental inequalities⁵. So whilst I believe there is a lot we can do as individuals to support our own well-being, we also need to take a sledgehammer to the structural barriers that are holding so many people back.

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[1] Huppert F (2008) Psychological well-being: evidence regarding its causes and its consequences (London: Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project 2008)

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/hrqol/wellbeing.htm

[3] Dodge, R., Daly, A., Huyton, J., & Sanders, L. (2012).The challenge of defining wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2 (3), 222–235.

[4] World Health Organization and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Social determinants of mental health. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2014.

[5] Elliott, I. (June 2016) Poverty and Mental Health: A review to inform the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Anti-Poverty Strategy. London: Mental Health Foundation