November 7 2016

What is wellbeing?

Dr Lindsay Oades
By Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University of Melbourne

Everyone wants to feel well but there’s a lot more to wellbeing than happiness and yoga.

Think wellbeing and what comes to mind? If you’re anything like most people, chances are health, happiness, pleasure and perhaps even yoga or alternative medicine are top of the list. Lots of people also describe wellbeing as an experience – of feeling good or healthy, for example.

While there’s no doubt feeling happy is a component of wellbeing, there’s actually a lot more to it. Living according to your values and reaching your full potential are key elements of wellbeing. It’s also possible to feel a sense of wellbeing about a specific event as well as an overall sense of wellbeing about your life. Here’s what you need to know about the complex world of wellbeing.

Feeling good versus doing well

Popular conceptions of wellbeing that centre on pleasure, happiness and satisfaction – when you’re feeling good and experiencing positive emotions as endorphins gallop through your body – are what psychologists call ‘hedonic’ wellbeing.

An alternate approach distinguishes pleasure seeking from a sense of wellbeing derived from living according to your values, being your true self, reaching your full potential and developing personally. This is what psychologists call ‘eudaimonic’ wellbeing.

Put simply, hedonic wellbeing emphasises feeling good, while eudaimonic wellbeing focuses on functioning well or doing good. This distinction is important because it can help explain why children make their parents happy. If we take a hedonic view of wellbeing, research shows that small people can reduce pleasure and mood for a period of time, making parents feel unhappy. However, children often fulfil their parents’ desire to have a family and bring purpose and meaning to their lives. Ergo, they boost eudaimonic wellbeing.

Experienced versus evaluative wellbeing

The other big distinction when we’re talking about wellbeing is ‘experienced’ versus ‘evaluative’ wellbeing. If you felt happy yesterday at work or on the weekend with your family, this is known as experienced wellbeing. At the other end of the spectrum, feeling satisfied with your life as a whole fits the bill for evaluative wellbeing as you’re making a judgement about the entirety of your life rather than experiencing a single event.

This distinction is important because it can explain why you might feel satisfied with your life overall – your family, job, home and so on – but feel lousy because you’ve had a bad week. Perhaps you had a bingle in the car park at work or had a fight with your partner.

More than the absence of illness

It’s also important to note that wellbeing is much more than the absence of illness and diagnoses of depression and anxiety. In other words, wellbeing is about positive emotions just as much as the absence of negative emotions.

A popular theory of wellbeing developed by American psychologist Dr Martin Seligman describes five pillars for wellbeing: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment (PERMA). Under this model, wellbeing centres on striving for and having some of these positive attributes in life whether you have an illness or not.

How to improve wellbeing

So how can we improve the various dimensions of our wellbeing? One of the big challenges we face as humans is a negativity bias which causes us to devote much more attention to negative aspects of life than positive aspects.

Scientists believe we’re evolutionarily programmed to focus on negative events for survival reasons, so if something negative happens we’ll pay attention because it might be a threat to us. This is why negative emotions like fear, anger and sadness often feel a lot more intense than positive emotions like happiness and contentment.

One of the best ways to override our innate preference for negative emotions is to engage in ‘intentional wellbeing activities’ that deliberately increase wellbeing. These activities should be simple things that you know make you happy: catching up with friends on the weekend, playing your favourite sport or spending time with your family.

Managing wellbeing is a lot like managing your finances or career as your choices and actions can influence the results – which you’re sure to agree is a lot more empowering than simply waiting to feel happy.