What is well-being?

Achieving well-being has been the concern of philosophers since Aristotle, and is, in many respects the essence of human existence. In recent years, well-being has moved from the realm of philosophy to that of science. There has been a growing body of research into what contributes to the quality of people’s experiences of their lives. This has enabled a new understanding of the factors that both influence and constitute well-being.

The science of ‘subjective well-being’ suggests that as well as experiencing good feelings, people need:

  • a sense of individual vitality
  • to undertake activities which are meaningful, engaging, and which make them feel competent and autonomous
  • a stock of inner resources to help them cope when things go wrong and be resilient to changes beyond their immediate control.

It is also crucial that people feel a sense of relatedness to other people, so that in addition to the personal, internally focused elements, people’s social experiences – the degree to which they have supportive relationships and a sense of connection with others – form a vital aspect of well-being.

Defining well-being

While academic debate continues about precisely how ‘well-being’ should be defined, for our purposes it is not essential to address all of its finer points. All of the elements cited above play a role in ensuring that people feel their lives are going well, although their importance may vary as circumstances change.

Well-being is most usefully thought of as the dynamic process that gives people a sense of how their lives are going, through the interaction between their circumstances, activities and psychological resources or ‘mental capital’. The 2008 UK Government Foresight Project drew on key thinking commissioned from nef to define well-being in similar terms.

Because of this dynamic nature, high levels of well-being mean that we are more able to respond to difficult circumstances, to innovate and constructively engage with other people and the world around us. As well as representing a highly effective way of bringing about good outcomes in many different areas our lives, there is also a strong case for regarding well-being as an ultimate goal of human endeavour.

Bookmark and Share