Wellbeing: a new paradigm or just a fad?

As someone with a long interest in language and how it is used, I am often fascinated by how changes of terminology take place. Suddenly people are using a new term, sometimes to refer to a new concept or approach, but sometimes the new term simply replaces an old one.  Well-being is not a new term or even a new concept, but it is certainly being used much more these days, and in different ways too.

I am a great believer in the idea of ‘confluence theory’, the notion that significant changes happen when a number of forces or factors come together, sometimes for an underlying reason, sometimes just by chance. Well-being, for me, is one of those confluence phenomena, with different forces coming together. I recognised this when I set up Well-being Zone, an online community for everyone interested in, and committed to, well-being in its various forms. To reflect this confluence I built the community around the idea of ‘Getting WISE about well-being’, with WISE spelling out:

Workplace well-being ¦ Individual well-being ¦ Social well-being ¦ Environmental well-being

  • Workplace well-being has grown out of the increasing recognition that poor work-life balance and other destructive workplace processes can be detrimental – catastrophic even – for not only the individual staff members concerned, but also for the organisation and potentially all its stakeholders.
  • Individual well-being has two separate but related strands. One is the increasing emphasis on spirituality, based on the recognition that, whether religious or not, everyone has spiritual needs – needs that often go unmet in a highly materialistic and competitive world. The other is a focus on health promotion, recognising that there is more to being healthy than avoiding illness. Such important issues as diet, exercise and sleep are now being recognised as part of everyone’s well-being and that we neglect them at a significant cost.
  • Social well-being is partly about a greater emphasis on having a sense of community and ‘connectedness’, again perhaps a reaction against the competitive materialism of modern life, and partly about the need for a more inclusive society, with less poverty and inequality. This latter aspect is reflected in how social policy seems to be increasingly moving away from potentially stigmatising, dependency-creating notions of ‘welfare’ to more partnership-based, empowering notions of well-being.
  • Environmental well-being is also, of course, appearing much higher up the political and cultural agendas. It is not that long ago that ‘green’ issues were seen as the preserve of environmentalists, those with a particular interest in ecology, but now environment well-being is clearly a mainstream issue all round.

But there is more to this confluence than the very term ‘well-being’ uniting people around four disparate themes. If we look closely we can see that they are inter-related. For example, the emphasis on healthy lifestyles is also part of the focus on workplace well-being (and spirituality in the workplace is also receiving  greater attention). Likewise, the emphases on social well-being and environmental well-being have in common a concern with moving away from our resource-intensive consumerist lifestyles towards something more meaningful and less destructive (and thus linked with spiritual well-being).

Sadly well-being is often oversimplified. For example, I have come across so many documents and websites that have ‘health and well-being’ in their title, but then talk almost exclusively about health. Similarly, there is a tendency to confuse well-being with happiness. The latter is something episodic, whereas the former is something more stable and long lasting. What we need, then, is to continue to explore these complex issues so that we can develop a more sophisticated understanding of what is involved. That way we will be better equipped to make well-being in its various forms a more realistic goal to aim for. Well-being Zone is one platform, potentially a very important one, for taking these issues forward. I shall look forward to seeing you there one day.

Want to think, and talk, more about this? Come to our Future of Wellbeing session.

Written by Dr Neil Thompson. He has held full or honorary professorships at four UK universities and is now a director of Avenue Consulting Ltd (www.avenueconsulting.co.uk). He has over 100 publications to his name, including 31 books. His most recent work is Promoting Workplace Well-being (co-edited with John Bates, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). He established Well-being Zone (www.well-beingzone.com) and Social Work Focus (www.socialworkfocus.com) in 2009. He is a sought-after trainer, consultant and conference speaker. His personal website is at www.neilthompson.info.

Last updated at 17:32 Mon 18/Jan/10.
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Caroline's picture

Caroline

Third Sector Foresight

Whilst flicking around the web this morning I came upon this blog about measuring well-being. As mentioned by Dr Thompson above, there are ever expanding definitions to health and well being which very much depend upon individual circumstances and aspirations. For anyone who has just come home from abroad, it is easy to see that different countries view well-being very differently, however, even amongst people in the same neighbourhood, personal circumstances vary hugely, and for most people well-being involves an interaction of numerous factors which bring joy to your life. The blog questions therefore, given the arbitrary nature of individual measures of well-being, how can a government ever hope to measure the well-being of their nations? If you ask around your home and work place, I bet no-one can quite put a finger on exactly what is necessary for them to feel a sense of well-being. Is it therefore even possible to measure the well-being of an individual, let alone a whole nation? In which case, how can you improve the future life and well-being of those people for whom you work? What do you think?

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