What do we mean by wellbeing?

We use the term a great deal. I used it countless times when I was writing The Emotional Learner without ever feeling the need to define the term. Wellbeing is sometimes used to mean happiness, or perhaps contentment; it’s often used when people speak about mental illness, suggesting that we can view it in terms of the absence of psychological and emotional difficulties.

And it’s increasingly being used in education circles, in terms of both pupil and teacher wellbeing.

Almost a decade ago, a school I was working at decided to increase their efforts on improving staff wellbeing – a laudable endeavour that was, quite rightly, the subject of praise when government inspectors visited. A senior leader organised a focus group and set about attempting to identify ways to improve staff wellbeing. The group suggested lunchtime yoga sessions, mindfulness and other relaxation activities. Staff, however, pointed out that they used their lunchtimes for marking, preparation, running clubs, revisions session and… well, you get my point.

In the end, they opted for a wellbeing half-day, to take place on the alternate Wednesday that was put aside for meetings and staff development. Staff signed up for a number of activities that included go-carting, a free session at the local gym and a salsa lesson. ‘Choice’ was compulsory and staff were not permitted to do any work related to school during this time.

Many staff certainly benefited from such downtime, although many also fretted that they were dancing the salsa when they could have been catching up on their marking. The more outgoing members of staff benefited the most, I think, while a small group (myself included) managed to hide out in the coffee shop at the gym and hope that nobody noticed that we weren’t joining in (I honestly felt like I was bunking off).

Come three-thirty, a number of staff returned to school to catch up on work.

I don’t mean to be critical of the school in any way, but I think the approach assumed that wellbeing was the same for all of us and, while there might be common elements to wellbeing, it remains highly subjective.

The New Economics Foundation has described wellbeing as:

how people feel and how they function, both on a personal and a social level

Yet wellbeing is much broader than this, indeed the mental health charity Mind list a number of components of wellbeing, including self-esteem and the ability to express a range of emotions.

Indeed, not everybody agrees on a single definition or the components that sustain it. The hedonic tradition views wellbeing as composed of happiness, positive affect, low negative affect and satisfaction with life (affect refers to the subjective experience of feeling an emotion), while the eudaimonic tradition emphasises the role of positive psychological functioning and human development. The latter tradition takes its lead from Aristotle and the view that all desires aren’t worth following as they may be pleasurable but, ultimately, do not increase levels of wellbeing.

For psychologist Norman Bradburn, wellbeing is synonymous with happiness. Bradburn was interested in the psychological reactions of ordinary people, rather than psychopathology, a task that would be taken up by psychologists such as Martin Seligman in the desire to seek a more positive psychology. Wellbeing is, therefore, detached from the psychology that studies psychological disorders, instead, attempting to discover what it is that makes people content with their lives.

Ed Diener and Eunkook Suh suggest that subjective wellbeing consists of three interrelated components:

  • Life satisfaction
  • Pleasant affect
  • Unpleasant affect

while Carol Ryff lists the following:

  • Autonomy
  • Environmental mastery
  • Positive relationships with others
  • Purpose in life
  • Realisation of potential
  • Self-acceptance

Other research suggests a number of additional components:

  • Ability to fulfil goals
  • Happiness
  • Life satisfaction

The problem here is that there appears to be little agreement on what constitutes wellbeing, but then, wellbeing is a subjective concept, that is, we kind of know what makes our lives positive or negative, but my view is unlikely to be exactly the same as yours. For some it might be engaging in meaningful or personally fulfilling work, being able to cope effectively with stressful situations, the realistic pursuit of goals, close friends or a loving family.

Shin and Johnson have suggested that wellbeing is,

a global assessment of a person’s quality of life according to his [or her] own chosen criteria.

Felce and Perry, however, continue to emphasise goal pursuit, in that wellbeing stems from the individuals’ perception of their current situation and their aspirations. If we aren’t reaching our goals or feel that we are incapable of fulfilling our aspirations, wellbeing suffers. There is certainly an element of self-esteem involved her so, as William James pointed out more than a century ago, we can always raise our self-esteem by lowering our expectations.

Defining wellbeing is therefore difficult because of its subjective nature, that is, only I really know what increases or decreases my level of wellbeing. Inviting me to a staff barbecue won’t raise my levels of wellbeing because I actually find such events rather anxiety provoking, so it’s much more likely to decrease my levels of wellbeing. Meeting a couple of good friends for coffee, however, would certainly work for me, but not for other people.

Perhaps we should just drop the definition entirely and focus on individuals, identifying their own personal ideas of wellbeing and helping them to achieve them?

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