What is wellbeing?

Wellbeing has become an important concept in healthcare, policy and even in our everyday lives. We are sold products and policies because we are told they will improve our wellbeing. But what does the term actually mean?

Wellbeing is a notoriously slippery term. When a friend asks you how you are doing, you might reply that you are good. But “good” could mean a whole lot of different things – it might mean you are beaming because your child has started walking, it might mean you are relieved that you managed to finish a demanding bit of work, or simply that you are just okay, not bad. You may not even know exactly what you mean by good yourself – but you know it still works as a response because it is somewhere in the rough area of how you’re feeling.

Wellbeing can have a similarly loose meaning for researchers and policy makers. In the broadest sense, it is simply used to refer to a positive state. It can be applied to individuals or to groups, so that you can talk about individual wellbeing or the wellbeing of a given population. Likewise, researchers will often distinguish between physical or ‘objective’ wellbeing, and personal or ‘subjective’ wellbeing. Physical wellbeing is typically related to health and physical needs, while personal wellbeing attempts to capture how we feel about ourselves. The two may sometimes be in conflict with one another – things that may feel great in terms of our personal wellbeing, such as chocolates or drinking may also contribute to the lowering of our physical wellbeing, especially over time. However, they are often considered closely interlinked as well.

If the term is so broad, and even contradictory, why do we continue to use it? One reason is simply because it has become a part of our vocabulary. The modern usage of the word dates as far back as the 1600s. The word seems to have stuck around because like ‘good’ it can do a lot of work to describe a lot of different things. For researchers, however, there is another important reason why wellbeing remains an important idea. This is because it says something about the ways in which our lives are more than just the sum of their parts.

Imagine if you had a broken leg, and then also came down with the flu. You might notice that together these two problems become more challenging than either would be on its own. Sneezing might cause a jolt of pain in your leg. The energy required to heal your leg and to fight the flu might leave you feeling more wiped out and less able to get around than just having a broken leg. Having multiple things to manage at one may even leave you feeling a bit down and demotivated. Meanwhile the whole situation might be much easier to manage if you have an accommodating job, or supportive family around you. The concept of wellbeing captures something of your overall situation, physically and emotionally, rather than just looking at it in terms of separate concerns.

Similarly, when we look at people who are becoming parents, talking about wellbeing gives us a way to think about how the various physical and emotional experiences of parenthood might relate to one another. Family support, local resources, friendship, your income and housing, access to healthcare, how easy it is to navigate the pavements with a pushchair, and a whole slew of other factors come together to shape the wellbeing of new parents. Importantly, too, the idea of wellbeing helps put the focus on parents themselves. Because it takes account of personal, emotional experiences, it makes us pay attention not only to how physical needs are being met, but to the actual day-to-day experiences of parents. Even parents who may be more financially stable still struggle emotionally, while those who may lack physical resources may thrive, backed up by strong networks of support.

When it comes to austerity, then, the concept of wellbeing suggests that as public services are cut, we need to think of these changes in terms of parents’ own lives. The ways in which things like bus routes, Children’s Centres, or breastfeeding groups matter emerges out of how they relate to our everyday lives. This should serve as a caution to policy makers to really work to understand the actual experiences of parents before making decisions as to the nature of appropriate support.

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