The term ‘wellbeing’ has become a hot topic in the past decade. Wellbeing is mentioned everywhere from TV commercials to corporate values. It is used to sell supplements, medical products, self-help books, ‘super food smoothies’ and even makeup and beauty products. With the vast array of applications, it is no wonder that there is confusion about what wellbeing actually is.
In reality, wellbeing is more than a trendy buzzword. Psychological wellbeing refers to the scientific attributes that allow people to flourish at school, work and life. The World Health Organization (2014) defines wellbeing as “a state in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her own community.” Wellbeing is the ability to develop skills and resources that outweigh the challenges that you may face in life.
What contributes to this state of wellbeing can be quite complex. Most researchers agree that wellbeing is a ‘multi-dimensional construct’, which simply means that it is made up of a number of separate but related ideas. A good example of a ‘multi-dimensional construct’ is the concept of physical fitness. Physical fitness consists of strength, flexibility and endurance. They’re each a separate element, but all are components of physical fitness.
Some of these underlying constructs that contribute to wellbeing include psychological concepts like meaning and purpose in life, resilience, positive emotions, satisfaction with life, mindfulness, relationships, social and emotional skills, workplace engagement, creativity, gratitude, optimism, goal setting and attainment, leadership skills, and many more. In fact, there are hundreds of specific constructs that are being studied by scientists and wellbeing researchers.
Unlike traditional psychology which focuses on what is wrong in the brain and how to fix it, the study of wellbeing (sometimes referred to as Positive Psychology) focuses on discovering how people with very high levels of mental health think, feel and behave. By analyzing these attributes, scientists and researchers have now developed many evidence-based ways of teaching people with low to moderate levels of mental health how to cultivate these skills and improve their wellbeing over time. When practised regularly, these resources serve as a protective buffer against mental illness, stress and burnout. You can think of wellbeing resources as an inoculation, boosting the psychological immune system to assist when critical challenges arise.
Why focus on wellbeing?
Around the world, schools, workplaces, communities and governments are focusing on how they can help their people build these critical psychological skills. The evidence is compelling: low levels of wellbeing have huge implications for individuals and communities. We know that mental illness accounts for between 3% and 16% of total health expenditure across many countries (OECD, 2011). In a report to the World Economic Forum in 2012, Gerald Bloom (a physician and health economist at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex) predicted that the global cost of mental illness would be more than $6 trillion by 2030. It’s a staggering figure that includes loss of labour supply, high rates of unemployment, high incidence of illness, absence from work and study, and decreased productivity (Mental Health and Work: Switzerland, 2014).
Globally, depression is the number 1 cause of illness and disability in age group 10-14, and suicide ranks number 3 among causes of death. Some studies show that half of all people who develop mental disorders have their first symptoms by the age of 14 (Espinoza, 2015).
Martin Seligman is one of the pioneers of Positive Psychology. He suggests that we have much to gain both economically and socially by beginning to think about wellbeing and mental health promotion in conjunction with mental illness prevention and treatment. He argues that if we continue to focus on simply responding to diagnosed mental illness alone, the best we can hope for is to reduce levels of diagnosed mental illness (Seligman, 2011).
Building on this idea, many scholars and practitioners today propose that we focus on developing wellbeing for its own sake (because our families and communities are stronger when people have high levels of wellbeing), rather than simply to reduce and prevent mental illness. There is good reason for this paradigm shift. Research suggests that improved levels of wellbeing are associated with many benefits, including:
- faster recovery from surgery
- lower incidence of cancer
- improved immunity to colds and flu viruses
- reduced incidence of heart attacks
- increased ability to cope with stress
- higher levels of worker satisfaction and productivity
- increased life expectancy
- stronger verbal communication skills
- improved memory
- more openness in social relationships
- fewer illnesses
- fewer marriage breakups
- more creative and flexible thinking
- increased creativity
- higher levels of mental acuity
- better performance at work
- improved ability to make decisions
- greater resilience following trauma
- greater tolerance towards others
In an education setting, improved levels of wellbeing are associated with:
- better academic results
- higher levels of academic engagement and participation
- higher retention rates
- stronger social and emotional skills
- pro-social behaviour
- higher levels of optimism
- improved health-related behaviours
- greater levels of self-control
- fewer symptoms of depression
- less hopelessness
- lower clinical levels of depression and anxiety
- reduction in conduct problems
- lower levels of procrastination
(Seligman, 2011; Heaphy & Dutton, 2008; Dutton & Ragins, 2007; Fredrickson, 2001; Fredrickson, 2008; Durlak et al., 2011; Gray & Hackling, 2009; Noble & McGrath, 2012; Bird, & Markle, 2012; Brunwasser, Gillham& Kim, 2009; Seligman et al., 2009).
So how can we do it?
Anyone can learn to build their wellbeing resources. But, it takes the cultivation of habits and regular practice of evidence-based activities. Just like physical fitness, your mental fitness our mental fitness also requires our constant attention and the cultivation of good practices (Robinson, 2017; 2014; Robinson, Oades & Caputi, 2015; Zolezzi, 2017). Evidence suggests that individuals are able to learn the skills of wellbeing and achieve measurable improvements in their daily functioning and personal and professional performance. So which practices and activities should people practice? Follow the Appli blog to find out…
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