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Viewing Life Through a Wellbeing Lens

Read this for a discussion about how the neglect of wellbeing becomes institutionalised, and how to view life through a wellbeing lens.
hand squeesing a smiley ball
© Sebastien Gagnon 2013 - CC BY SA 2.0 – “Keep smiling” on Flickr

You know there’s a need for a proper ‘wellbeing’ conversation when…


  • Your employer announces a ‘wellbeing’ strategy … via the ‘human resources’ department. Strategy documents refer to you – yes you – as ‘human and social capital’.
  • Your government relies mainly on the idea of ‘economic growth’ to demonstrate how well the nation is doing.
  • Your company report is all about profit, your boss insists that the ‘bottom line’ means that the business exists to maximise profit, and neither tells you anything about the real ultimate values and purposes of the business.
  • School league tables tell you all about academic results and nothing about children’s enjoyment of schooling.
  • Your organization’s ‘mental health’ services and procedures are entirely focused on therapeutic services for people suffering mental illness.
  • In your nursing work you want to deal with whole people, but your medical superiors refer to patients with terms like ‘the Appendix on Ward 12C’.
  • Your national ‘Health’ policies and services are actually all about illness and medicine.
  • Your social science degree has been mainly composed of courses and essays on crime, inequality, injustice, violence, poverty, and illness, with minimal attention to happiness, love, positive relationships, or social goods.

Can a wellbeing lens help us develop a sense of purpose?

The importance of wellbeing, like the importance, of values, purpose, performance, and quality, is obvious. What else could we be aiming for? What organization wouldn’t want to be ‘values-driven’ and ‘purposeful’? What kind of management would anyone want other than ‘total quality management’? Are there any planners who don’t want to be ‘people-focused’ or ‘person-centred’?

These irritatingly obvious reminders are needed because people do get surprisingly distracted from their values and goals. If a school says it is going to maximise academic performance, or a business says it is going to maximise profit, these are sure signs that leaders are getting confused about their priorities. Wellbeing promotion is about prioritising – making sure that our choices are coherent with our overall goals and values.

Why do people make decisions that are bad from a wellbeing perspective? As individuals, we probably know that on our deathbeds we will wish we had made better choices and enjoyed our lives more. But at collective levels, what are the analogous distractions and failures of prioritisation that push wellbeing into the background?

Let’s assume that:

  • Most of us already understand that wellbeing matters more than anything else
  • We know a lot about the various factors and domains of wellbeing – our bodies, our minds, our relationships, our interactions with the environment.
  • We therefore already understand a lot about how wellbeing happens, how it is facilitated by multiple interacting factors.
  • We accept our ethical co-responsibility for the wellbeing of other people: we know that lots of people are influenced by our interactions with them, by the work we do, and by the ways we collude in perpetuating cultural practices and social institutions.

So why are wellbeing reminders needed? Why aren’t people already optimising their own wellbeing and that of others? The answer must lie in the power of distractions and temptations. Even people who are well educated about diet, exercise and psychological self-care nonetheless choose habits, diets, and ways of thinking that are bad for their wellbeing. We get distracted by junk food, tanning studios, lightweight TV, and the comfort of armchairs. We acquiesce in long meetings and let our paid employment crowd out other rewarding parts of our lives. We fail to challenge socially unhealthy authoritarian workplaces. We allow the lazy temptations of online games and light entertainment to distract us from more life-enhancing active ways of engaging with the world.

Of course, many of these ‘distractions and temptations’ are actually quite enjoyable. The real costs and benefits depend on how each of these fit with our overall life goals and sense of personal growth. Problems arise when too much comfort and easy fun distracts people from personal growth, or when easy activities have longterm, slow-onset adverse health effects via such routes as immobility, obesity, sleep deprivation, and liver or lung damage.

So wellbeing promoters need to redirect people towards positive purposes and deliberate living. Simple pleasures must be woven into a grander scheme of an overall rewarding and socially responsible life. Worldwide, ‘mindfulness’ and positive psychology movements have been at the forefront of these battles against distraction, but these have tended to emphasise individual self-help. Despite recent efforts to institutionalise mindfulness through schools and workplaces, the emphasis is still largely on individual capabilities and habits rather than on collective mindfulness and sociocultural focus.

If we want to minimise the influence of those temptations and distractions, we need help from other people – friends who are good role models, institutions that have a supportive climate, and societies that are guided by benign cultural norms and laws.

Our three components of the ‘wellbeing lens’ (positivity, empathy, integration) seek to address three common sources of distraction:

  1. remedialism: excessive preoccupation with illbeing and remedies, distracting us from a) personal strengths, social goods, and things that go right with people’s lives; and b) people’s legitimate aspirations to live really good lives, rather than merely to survive and live adequately well; the antidote to remedialism is positivity or aspirational planning.
  2. ‘instrumental’ or ‘interim’ goods (money, job promotions, academic success) can be good for wellbeing, but not if pursued to excess. An associated problem is ‘instrumentalising’ people – the ‘human resources’ problem. We exist to respect other people as fully rounded human beings, not to treat them as resources. The antidote to instrumentalism is empathy, and the recognition that what ultimately matters is the experience of happiness.
  3. ‘More is better’ assumptions: most goods are subject to diminishing returns. Many are also prone to toxic reversals, such as the harmfulness of over indulgence in food, alcohol or salt. In modern medicine, the pursuit of ‘more’ (more pills, more repair, more longevity) has arguably become detrimental to patient wellbeing. Using ever more sophisticated technologies and medicines to prolong life, but without considering the whole person and their quality of life, is actually ‘bad medicine’. In pursuit of any kind of excellence such as sport, arts, or science, the importance of enjoyment and of other life goals can get neglected. In business, the pursuit of productivity or profit can play havoc with wellbeing if work-life harmonizing is neglected. Integrative thinking about wellbeing and life as a whole is an important antidote to the excessive or naive pursuit of any one kind of goal.
© Neil Thin, University of Edinburgh
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