Wellbeing is a commonly used word these days and we probably all have a view about what it means. The World Health Organisation has said that health is a ‘complete state of physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.’ But the definition has been criticised for being unrealistic and corresponding more to happiness than health.

Believe it or not there is actually an International Journal of Wellbeing and in 2012 it published an article, ‘The challenge of defining wellbeing’. The authors felt that the best definition should focus on three key areas: that there is a set point of wellbeing, that there is a drive towards homeostasis and that the individual exists in a fluctuating state between the challenges they experience and the resources they have to meet those challenges. They showed this as a see-saw, with the fulcrum around wellbeing – where resources and challenges are in perfect balance. Just as challenges can be physical, psychological or social, so the resources also exist in these areas.

In other words, we all face challenges but in many cases we have the resources to fight those challenges – we fall back on our social networks, work longer hours, or rely on our inner strength. It’s when we muster all of those resources but are unable to meet the challenge that our sense of wellbeing suffers; or perhaps when we perceive that our resources are insufficient to meet the challenge.

The links between happiness, health and wellbeing just don’t seem to want to go away. One of the champions of ‘happiness’, Martin Seligman the father of positive psychology, has recently moved away from a focus on happiness towards wellbeing. Find out more about his work here.

Seligman says that wellbeing is made up of five pillars: positive emotion (of which happiness and life satisfaction are all aspects), engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose and accomplishment. Niftily enough the first letters spell PERMA – half way to permanence.

Seligman makes that point that positive emotion is subjective but meaning, relationships and accomplishment have subjective, as well as objective components. This means that wellbeing cannot be purely subjective; it must exist somewhere other than in our own heads. Seligman believes that by focussing on these five pillars we can increase our sense of wellbeing.

The World Wellbeing Project is exploring this further – using people’s social media profiles to identify relationships between the language they use and how they score on the big five personality traits:  extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness. The work is claimed to be ‘shedding new light on how psychosocial processes affect health and happiness’. The model is said to be 92% accurate in predicting gender for instance.

But is the scientific approach to wellbeing ever likely to be successful? Can we really seek to fully understand what drives our sense of wellbeing, to capture it and put it into a pot to be poked and prodded until it gives up its secrets? Is learning how to achieve wellbeing as simple as baking bread – adding a tad more meaning and stirring it round with a helping of engagement?

As a profession, we don’t have a good history with wellbeing, despite the fact that to outside eyes we score pretty highly on accomplishment. Does any of this resonate with your own views? Are there lessons that can be learned here? What does wellbeing mean to you? Because, after all, that’s what’s important…


WHO. Preamble to the Constitution of the World Health Organization as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19-22 June 1946, and entered into force on 7 April 1948.

Dodge, R., Daly, A., Huyton, J., & Sanders, L. (2012). The challenge of defining wellbeing. International, Journal of Wellbeing, 2(3), 222-235. doi:10.5502/ijw.v2i3.4


Seligman, M (2012) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being

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