Wellbeing is a well-established and growing field within psychology, and an increasingly popular area of study for psychology students. However, it’s also challenging to define: What does good wellbeing look like for any person, and what do we need to know to study it?
A team of researchers, led by Dr William Tov of Singapore Management University, attempt to define wellbeing, not only to guide fellow researchers teaching it, but also for the general public. They uncovered eight major findings from the field of subjective wellbeing, and were able to provide guidelines as to how universities can teach those findings in a psychology curriculum.
Read their research: doi.org/10.1177/17456916211046946
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In this episode, we’ll be talking about wellbeing, which is not as easy as it sounds. The topic is quite challenging to define, even for researchers in the field. What is wellbeing? Is it happiness? Is it a state of good physical and mental health? What do we need to know to study it?
Five specialists in the field decided to attempt to define wellbeing, not only to guide fellow researchers teaching it, but also for the general public. The researchers, led by Dr William Tov of Singapore Management University, have collectively published over 600 academic articles and more than a dozen books on the topic, and have been cited a quarter of a million times.
Their research is needed: the science of wellbeing is a well-established and growing field within psychology, and an increasingly popular area of study for psychology students. It’s also a diverse field that includes the study of emotion, personality, cognition, development, social relationships… In fact, virtually every area of psychology. It’s also probably the most searched-for field within psychology for non-students wanting to gain access to psychology content online. Importantly, the public understanding of wellbeing science is critical for efforts by local and national governments to integrate wellbeing indicators into the policy-making process.
Of course, given its popularity, wellbeing science enjoys more than its fair share of attention. In preparing for their study, a preliminary search of published content by the researchers showed that as of June 30, 2021, looking back over 20 years, the terms happiness or subjective wellbeing were mentioned in over 2.9 million publications. The researchers knew that making sense of it would be challenging. So, they established key criteria, focusing on robust research evidence within the field, on topics they considered relevant to people’s lives, and where the research topics provided a deep (instead of a nuanced) understanding of wellbeing. The result is that the five specialists uncovered eight major findings from the field of subjective wellbeing, and were able to provide guidelines as to how universities can teach those findings in a psychology curriculum.
The first of the findings is that wellbeing is more than just feeling happy. It’s tempting to think of happiness when considering wellbeing; although the two are linked, that link is not exclusive. The researchers uncovered that people could experience and evaluate their lives positively in various ways, without referring to happiness. Also, context is critical to a sense of wellbeing – the closer someone is to their ideal, the greater their sense of wellbeing. Therefore, expectations are essential. And to assess a sense of wellbeing, people need to have a sense of pleasant and unpleasant feelings and emotions. While negative experiences often bring down wellbeing, they can sometimes help us to grow. Moreover, the absence of negatives is not the same thing as truly experiencing happiness and meaning in life –so measuring wellbeing has to include both the good and the bad aspects of life.
Also, there is emerging evidence that judgments such as life satisfaction tend to be associated with the overall conditions of one’s life. In contrast, affective wellbeing tends to be associated with reactions to specific daily events.
The second finding is that we can validly measure wellbeing. Central to challenges of wellbeing science is that people cannot accurately report their own level of wellbeing. However, the researchers found that life satisfaction judgments have very high test-retest correlations over short periods. Furthermore, there’s a high degree of correlation across many studies on self-reported wellbeing when compared to how the subjects peers or family report their perceived happiness in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. The researchers conclude that although wellbeing measures are imperfect, they are valid enough to yield consistent and valuable information.
Because annual happiness indices seem to rank wealthy countries higher, it’s a common belief that wealth and happiness are linked. The researchers discovered that income does influence wellbeing, but only to a point. At the societal level, wealthier nations can better provide freedom, transparent and non-corrupt services, and relative peace to their citizens, thereby contributing to their wellbeing. But at the individual level, money helps people obtain the things they need and can help them cope with problems. So, while access to money is vital for a sense of wellbeing, it’s about affording food, shelter, and social experiences, not so much flatscreen TVs…
Another standout finding for the researchers was that high-quality relationships are essential for wellbeing. Research showed that perceived social support is associated with subjective wellbeing in every major world region. Those who report the greatest happiness feel respected by others. Furthermore, while high-quality social relationships can be enduring sources of wellbeing, even interactions with casual acquaintances and strangers can boost our wellbeing in the short term. However, quality is better than quantity – in terms of wellbeing, it is more important for a person to have a few close and supportive relationships than it is to have many superficial relationships.
A common question within psychology on wellbeing is whether it is determined by nature or nurture – to what extent do genes influence wellbeing? The fifth finding is that genes and personality do indeed influence wellbeing. Recent meta-analyses suggest that each person has a baseline level of wellbeing and that daily events affect shifts above and below this baseline. However, this does not mean there is a single ‘happiness gene’ no matter how attractive the notion may be to the media. What is important to note, the researchers say, is that genetic studies of wellbeing are mainly limited to European and North American populations.
The sixth finding is that we have an incredible ability to adapt to circumstances, although it can take time. This impacts self-assessment of wellbeing. Ask someone about their wellbeing directly after, say, they have been fired from a job, and their answer will be different to, say, a year later. People generally return to former levels of wellbeing after adverse events. The same is true after incredibly positive events such as the time of their wedding. The researchers also discovered that positive activities – like helping others – can raise people’s sense of wellbeing, even after adverse events.
A critical finding is that while we may all yearn for a sense of wellbeing, whatever that is, culture and society shape it. There is no global measure of wellbeing. Cultural norms help define wellbeing. It may be different in individualist societies such as those in Germany, Australia and Canada compared to the more collectivist cultures in, for example, Japan, Cambodia, and Taiwan. Self-esteem and self-consistency are more important to a sense of wellbeing in individualist societies. On the other hand, collectivist cultures emphasize that social relationships define a self. One finding that the researchers noted, is that the closer the fit between a person’s personality and their cultural environment, the greater their sense of wellbeing.
The final finding in the researchers’ analysis of wellbeing science is one of the more hoped-for – that wellbeing has multiple benefits. A growing body of evidence shows that subjective wellbeing benefits physical health. Meta-analyses of longitudinal studies suggest that wellbeing predicts long-term cardiovascular health and even longevity. Replicated studies have shown that reported wellbeing in college is also linked to later career success. And longitudinal, experimental, experience-sampling, and cross-cultural evidence suggests that positive affect leads to better, longer-lasting relationships.
The research of Doctors Tov, Wirtz, Kushlev, Biswas-Diener, and the late Dr Ed Diener has helped clarify the science of wellbeing. We now know that wellbeing involves more than happy feelings; we can validly measure it; income may influence it, but only up to a point; high-quality relationships are essential for wellbeing, and genes and personality influence it; that people adapt to circumstances, and their sense of wellbeing changes accordingly; that there’s no global measure for wellbeing – it is defined by culture and society; and that wellbeing brings multiple benefits.
As Prof William Tov says, ‘Our wellbeing is a product of our personality, our environment, and our own actions. Understanding the science of wellbeing is really important for ensuring that efforts to enhance the quality of life for ourselves and others are well-placed.’
All this is incredibly valuable for the science of wellbeing. It not only provides guidelines as to what psychology textbooks and curricula should cover, but also provides a deeper understanding of the topic and helps guide the direction of future study for wellbeing practitioners.
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