Wellbeing. We hear the term everywhere these days, so much so that it has perhaps lost any specific meaning and become more of a vibe. It is the stuff of generic political statements and workplace subcommittees. It can be used to describe aspects of our material, physical and mental worlds. Everything from being on a keto diet, to the social media we follow and the bubble baths we missed out on, all fall under the catch-all term ‘wellbeing’.
It was while writing my PhD in psychology in the mid-2000s that I really got to think deeply about the meaning of the word. I wasn’t alone — a whole international movement had been sparked a few years earlier and named positive psychology. Academics and practitioners alike recognised the need to move the conversation beyond what was lacking in the human experience — illness, despair and dysfunction — to a science and language that captured what it meant to shift from a life of surviving to a life of thriving. They chose ‘wellbeing’ as the flagship term.
Fast forward a decade or two and the work of those dedicated scientists and creative practitioners has opened our eyes to the value of wellbeing. In fact, so much so that the concept became popular. In becoming popularised, it also spawned a marketer’s paradise — a new way of selling. Wellbeing became synonymous with happiness, and who doesn’t want more happiness? You just connect your product or service to the idea of wellbeing and, no matter how tenuous the link, mind, hearts and pockets open up to you. Just download this mindfulness app or read this book on gratitude, and your happiness is guaranteed.
If only it was that simple.
The translation of complex ideas — whether from climate change, neuroscience or wellbeing — into plain English and practical applications is difficult but important work. It is an iterative and ongoing cycle to explore, test, learn, apply and keep refining our understanding. At any point in time it is essential to ask anyone trying to sell you ‘wellbeing’ how they are defining this term – what does it mean and look like in reality? That way you can decide if you are buying what they are selling.
Let’s start with defining wellbeing from a psychological perspective and in the context of building personal wellbeing.
What is wellbeing?
Wellbeing is our personal evaluation of how we feel and function in our own life. No politician, boss or neighbour can tell you about your own wellbeing, only you can. That is why the most common measures of wellbeing take the form of self-report surveys. In Australia the response to the question “How satisfied are you with your life?” scores on average 7.1 out of 10 (where 1 is not satisfied and 10 is fully satisfied). The consensus being that the higher people score, the better that they feel and function in life.
The ‘how you feel’ part of wellbeing taps into our emotional experience. When wellbeing is high we are more likely to experience a range of pleasant emotions like safety, joy, peace, excitement, happiness. It is not to say we don’t experience unpleasant emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt or boredom – just that they are less prominent in our day-to-day life.
The ‘how you function’ is about our behaviour and circumstances. Are your basic needs of warmth, nutrition, sleep and safety being met? Do you find life engaging and meaningful and can cope with the normal stressors, challenges and opportunities it throws your way?
Like variations in our physical fitness, people also experience variations in wellbeing. Flourishing (high wellbeing) and languishing (low wellbeing) are terms used to reflect wellbeing variation within and between people, across time and life events. Cultivating flourishing — or high levels of wellbeing — is considered an important endeavour as it leads to a better quality of life for individuals and communities, provides a protective buffer in hard times, and drives social cohesion, connection, creativity and performance. While 45% of the population may experience mental illness in their lifetime; 100% of the population have the opportunity to flourish.
Flourishing and languishing
Flourishing is marked by a higher ratio of pleasant to unpleasant emotions. More joy, less sadness. There is also a greater sense of personal autonomy, environmental mastery, self-acceptance, positive relationships with others, meaning, purpose and growth. Flourishing is a predictor of positive experiences and outcomes in multiple life domains such as health, work and relationships.
In contrast, languishing has a greater ratio of unpleasant to pleasant emotions and lower functioning in one or more of the areas mentioned for flourishing. We may lack a sense of autonomy, feel stuck, and like life has no real purpose or meaning. The term languishing hit the popular press during 2021 as a way of describing the covid-related ennui — a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction — or more simply that persistent ‘blah’ feeling many people were reporting. It was described by Professor Adam Grant as the middle-child of mental health, related to but not the same as illness or flourishing:
This distinction of mental illness and wellbeing as related but separate constructs is important. It tells us that the typical approaches to minimising, treating or managing mental ill-health will not automatically grant you wellbeing. Wellbeing needs its own strategy. If we want to build wellbeing in people we have to look beyond illness-focussed practices and discover the pathways to wellbeing. Complete mental health is more than the absence of illness – and in our next article on wellbeing, we’ll explore how having a fit mind builds a flourishing life.