What comes to mind when you think of well-being?
It might seem like an obvious question, but if you asked it of random passers-by on the street, the odds are that each answer would differ, at least somewhat.
The obvious questions are ones we tend to spend little or no time thinking about, because, well, they’re obvious! But sometimes those are the very questions that merit attention, because when placed under a mental spotlight, we may well discover that what we thought was obvious may not be quite so straightforward after all.
Psychology has widely come to regard well-being as one such deceptively complex area, and this is a topic which we will return to again and again in this blog series.
Recently, I attended an event in Dublin which was billed as focusing on the emotional well-being of staff and students in schools. My psychology PhD thesis focused on well-being among adolescents in school settings, so the topic was of particular interest to me.
There were several speakers on the day, all of whom spoke knowledgeably and clearly cared passionately about this important subject. However, I was struck by the particular flavour of much of the content. The need to tackle issues like depression, anxiety, and stress came up again and again, far more than any other points. Is it important to tackle these mental health issues? Absolutely. There is no doubt about that, but this is only part of the picture. Reducing levels of ill-being is worthwhile and necessary, even vital, but it does not necessarily follow that this corresponds with enhancing well-being. Reducing a negative is not the same thing as enhancing a positive. We are talking here about related, but also distinct constructs. It is that distinction that is sometimes lost when well-being is discussed publicly, whether in the media or in open meetings/symposiums.
This is the potential risk we run when we decide that some questions are so obvious that the answers are self-evident. If we decide that enhancing well-being is about reducing symptoms and levels of ill-being – even if we never consciously frame it as such – then we are adopting a very narrow sense of the term. Reducing or removing ill-being does not imply more well-being, it is simply reducing or removing ill-being. And that is a wonderful thing to achieve. But it’s not the whole picture.
While attending that event in Dublin, I found myself reminded of a Ted Talk given by US-based psychologist Shawn Achor. In this entertaining and informative (not always an easy combination to achieve!) talk, Achor recounts speaking to a New England boarding school official about taking part in a planned wellness week. He tells his audience how the official enthusiastically outlined that the event would host talks on adolescent depression, bullying, eating disorders, and illicit drug use. Achor’s response: “I’d be happy to speak at your school, but that’s not a wellness week, that’s a sickness week. You’ve outlined all the negative things that can happen, but not talked about the positive”. He then adds a seemingly simple point, but one that strikes to the heart of the matter: “The absence of disease is not health”.
The absence of disease is not health. That is exactly it. Far too often, the public conversation on well-being seems to be primarily focused on tackling negatives, removing disease. Again, that is important, but it is about removing ill-being, not promoting well-being. The former may well be a necessary pre-requisite for the latter, but the latter demands more.
Consider it another way. Let’s think for a moment of mental health and well-being as an 11-point scale, with -5 representing serious ill-being and +5 representing an optimal state of well-being. Part of what Achor is getting at in his talk is that the necessary and important work of tackling ill-being can be effective in bringing people back from the negative numbers, but the absence of disease represents 0 – the neutral point – on the scale. This view has it that while such work is important and laudable, to move from 0 towards +5 requires active effort to cultivate well-being, as opposed to working exclusively to relieve symptoms of ill-being, which may bring us back to 0, but most likely no further.
This idea has gained increasing traction in recent years, but is still not necessarily the default position, either in academic circles or in the wider public conversation. For example, it was noteworthy to me that at the Dublin event I referred to earlier, far more speaking time was devoted to tackling ill-being than to enhancing well-being, despite the very title of the event explicitly referring to well-being.
I’m also aware of the irony that here I am writing the first in what will be a regular series of posts on well-being, and while urging recognition of the distinction between it and ill-being, I have devoted far more space and elaboration to the latter than the former.
Consider this the first of a few introductory posts in which we set the scene for what will be our primary focus. I promise that next week in writing about well-being, I will actually write about well-being!
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.
What comes to mind when you think of well-being?