Skip main navigation

Background: the difficulty of defining ‘wellbeing’

Which is most useful: to try to define wellbeing in order to plan and measure it, or to ask how a 'wellbeing lens' can make a difference?
© Neil Thin, University of Edinburgh

Here’s a puzzle: why do so many texts on wellbeing or happiness start by looking for definitions, and why do sceptics complain about the lack of definitional precision, when the vagueness of these terms so obviously makes the value of definition doubtful? These terms point towards our ultimate values, our deepest, our vaguest and our most elusive desires and aspirations. What purpose would it serve to wilfully restrict and therefore distort terms that are clearly meant to be vague?

Perhaps the quest for definition is about simplifying these issues so that we can measure them. But if we’re going to try to measure wellbeing, should our measurements emphasise ‘objective’ realities or ‘subjective’ perceptions?

Maybe there is no prospect of finding an adequate and useful definition of any aspect of wellbeing, let alone of defining wellbeing overall. Perhaps what really matters is that we appreciate the value of talking and thinking about wellbeing. On this course, we are calling this the ‘wellbeing lens’ – i.e. the ways in which it can make a difference to introduce the topic of ‘wellbeing’ into people’s thoughts and conversations.

Our view is that neither wellbeing nor happiness are definable, nor can they be understood even as ‘concepts’. There is no single ‘thing’ to be measured or promoted. Rather, wellbeing and happiness are vague reminders of the importance of thinking and talking about what people value – how they hope to live well and enjoy their lives.

Despite its vagueness, the ‘wellbeing’ reminder can still steer us towards useful insights and better plans. It reminds us of our ultimate values and purposes. Reminders about wellbeing or happiness energize our personal and collective motivations, and demand a logical justification for them.

Using the ‘wellbeing lens’

We use the term ‘wellbeing lens’ to refer to these vague conversational guides. Although wellbeing is vague, elusive, and dynamic, it can sometimes be useful to ‘objectify’ it and try to measure aspects of it. But to engage in wellbeing conversions, instead of asking ‘what is it?’ it’s probably more informative to consider: ‘what difference does it make?’ We argue that the wellbeing lens makes three main kinds of difference:

Positivity: it makes us think and talk about strengths and enjoyments, i.e. about what people ultimately value

Empathy: it makes us consider all aspects of planning from the perspective of the experiencing subject – what does x feel like or how is it perceived and understood?

Integration: it makes us consider the whole of someone’s life, thinking about their various life domains, roles, and relationships over time

We also need to ask what kinds of conversation the wellbeing lens might influence. Wellbeing conversations can be conceptual (how we think about various aspects of living well); evaluative (what we ultimately value, why, and hence how valuable particular processes and outcomes are); descriptive (how we communicate about observable manifestations of the many aspects of wellbeing); analytic (how we understand the many kinds of interaction that enable or inhibit wellbeing); and normative (moral discourse about what we ought to do about wellbeing, for ourselves or for others). So the wellbeing lens can make a difference to how we think and talk, how we evaluate, how we describe, how we analyse and understand, and how we believe people should act.

Our course has a simple structure which starts by reviewing the kinds of difference the ‘wellbeing lens’ can make. Week 2 focuses on normative aspects: what difference can and should ‘wellbeing’ make to discussions about personal and organizational goals and plans? What are our co-responsibilities for wellbeing? How should wellbeing feature in our plans? Week 3 looks at the potential of the wellbeing lens in guiding learning strategies – appraising situations, monitoring progress, and evaluating outcomes and achievements.

Subjective versus objective conceptions of wellbeing

Wellbeing requires consideration of psychology, i.e. the ‘subjective’ or ‘internal’ aspects of human experience, as well as the ‘external’ or ‘objective’ aspects of human existence. A ‘wellbeing lens’ should make us consider ultimate values including psychological happiness. It should enrich our critical and empathic appreciation of how people’s minds interact with their external circumstances.

There are two very different kinds of objective:subjective distinction. First, you can distinguish objective from subjective goods or values. When you think about what ultimately matters in life, do you value wealth or the experience of wealth? Health or the feeling of being healthy? Beauty or the sense of looking ok? Achievements or the sense of achievement? These are evaluative considerations.

Secondly, you can distinguish objective and subjective indicators and means of assessment. When considering different approaches to learning about wellbeing, do you want to measure ‘objective happiness’ by counting and aggregating moments of enjoyment, or would you rather assess ‘subjective happiness’ by talking with people about how happy they feel overall? Do you want to measure people’s actual income, or how they feel about their income? These questions concern our approaches to learning about the world around us.

Both of these considerations are relevant to the ‘normative’ field, concerning what we ought to do. By thinking about objective and subjective goods, and about differences between objective and subjective indicators and means of assessment, we hope to arrive at clearer appreciation of what we ought to try to achieve.

© Neil Thin, University of Edinburgh
This article is from the free online

Social Wellbeing

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now