Viewing Life Through a Wellbeing Lens
- 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.
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- 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.
- ‘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.
- ‘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.
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