In Search of Being Well
The Importance of definition
Dr Helen Street
I recently participated in a day-long symposium entitled ‘Flourishing Kids and Communities.’ More than sixty professionals concerned with the promotion of youth wellbeing attended, along with several high school students. During the morning sessions one of our tasks was to define the key elements of wellbeing stemming from shared stories and anecdotes. It was interesting to note that, despite the fact that these people had collectively devoted over 1000 years to the study of wellbeing, they often chose to highlight and prioritize different facets of its definition. The differences evident between people were certainly not in contradiction with each other, but they did emphasize the lack of any simple, unified conceptualization of such a familiar and important topic.
We may all talk about wellbeing, we may all aim to achieve it, yet, we often struggle to define it effectively or unilaterally. Of even greater note, and as a source of inspiration for this article, was the voice of a student present at the symposium. The student, during the last two hours of the day, asked ‘what is wellbeing anyway?’
Over the past eighteen months I have written regularly on the subject of wellbeing for Western Teacher. It strikes me loudly and clearly that it is time to discuss the true nature of this state that we are all trying so hard to achieve for ourselves and for our students.
As a clear and simple starting point, we can confidently state that wellbeing is positive and desirable. It is a word that describes a beneficial physical and mental state. In fact, for most people, it defines the optimal state that they can exist in. Wellbeing is all about being well.
Yet, it is both unhealthy and unhelpful to focus a definition of wellbeing too narrowly. Wellbeing is not simply about individuals or about individual expressions of emotion. After all he (or she) who laughs loudest is not necessarily he (or she) who has the greatest level of wellbeing. A full definition of wellbeing needs to include our ability to live well, live healthily and to embrace life with passion and purpose. As such wellbeing is far more than the existence of a happy face.
One of the most widely used modern definitions of wellbeing was succinctly described by Martin Selegman in his 2002 book ‘Authentic Happiness’. In this book Selegman defines wellbeing in terms of a meaningful engagement with life and the experience of feeling and expressing happiness. Since the publication of this book, Selegman has gone on to write about the need for healthy relationships and a sense of accomplishment as additional factors to this definition. Many other significant voices in science and the arts have also embraced the idea of engagement as a central notion of living and being well. 2000 years before the popularity of Selegman, ancient philosophers such as Plato described the joy of living that comes from finding passion and immersion in a task. Throughout the 1970s and 80s the modern philosopher and mythologist, Joseph Campbell, suggested that we are often mistakenly caught in a futile search for ‘the meaning of life’, when true happiness and wellbeing is about finding a ‘connection with life’. He wisely suggested that when something grabs you with passion, you need to grab it right back. Then, and only then, will wellbeing embrace you. Similarly, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 1992 best selling book ‘Flow’ talks about wellbeing as a sense of immersion and engagement with the things we do in life. When we are in flow we are energized by what we do. We become caught in the moment to such a degree that time stands still, and then we find ourselves surprised at just how much time has passed. When we are in flow, we experience wellbeing.
We also need to ensure that we express our definition of wellbeing in terms of our existence as social beings, not simply as individualistic, human beings. After all we may be born human, but we become people because we mix with other people. As such we need to embrace ideas of wellbeing in terms of ‘who’ we do things with as much as in terms of ‘what’ we do. Recent books like Sue Roffey’s edited volume ‘Positive Relationships’ describe these concepts across the many and varied relationships that life brings.
Definitions of wellbeing that emphasize our overall engagement with both our individual and social lives move us beyond more simplistic ideas of ‘feeling happy’ on an individual basis. Not so say that feeling happy is not important, rather that it is limited in capturing a full sense of what it is to live and be well as a social being. The most significant contributing factors to wellbeing are rarely the easiest. For example, being a teacher is often hard work but this doesn’t stop it offering rewarding and meaningful elements to life. Consequently the hard work of teaching can still be a powerful source of wellbeing. To judge wellbeing in terms of ‘laugh out loud’ moments is a bit like judging a cake on the basis of the icing alone.
Ultimately, wellbeing is about our capacity to express ourselves freely and to grow both socially and emotionally as autonomous beings. It is a measure of our ability to embrace ourselves, our community and the world in which we live. It is about our drive and motivation to explore life and our ability to see beauty in the details of our existence.
With these thoughts in mind, I will leave you with the notion that the three greatest contributors to classroom wellbeing come in the form of ‘positive relationships’, ‘engaging content’ and ‘a voice for everyone in the room’.
Dr Helen Street is an applied social psychologist with a passion for wellbeing in education. She presents seminars and workshops for schools. Helen is also chair of The Positive Schools Conferences (www.positiveschools.com.au)