What is well-being?

Well-being. You may have come across this term in deep Instagram graphics, the news (with headlines about New Zealand implementing a well-being budget last year and the subsequent uptick in think pieces on the subject), or on any of my social media because I keep banging on about it. It’s an inconspicuous little word, but key to solving the major social and environmental crises we’re facing today.

In conversations, I’ve noticed that many people confuse well-being with commercialised ‘wellness’, like bubble baths, face masks, and spa treatments — unsurprisingly so, as our market-based society tends to try and turn everything into the next hot commodity!

But genuine well-being goes much deeper. It spans the personal, social, political and ecological, and understands all scales of our lives as an integrated system. Our personal well-being depends on the well-being of the community in which we live and work, while the well-being of our community depends on the well-being of society as a whole, which in turn depends on the health of the natural world.

In striving for well-being, we need to ponder the big questions: What makes life worth living? What is a good, fulfilling life within planetary boundaries? And how can we put this vision at the heart of economic and social policy?

Where we’re going wrong

In the wealthy countries of the Global North, like much of Europe, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, our collective idea of a good life currently looks something like this: buying a nice car, buying a nice house, taking vacations, acquiring status and fun through consumerism, commuting to a job we don’t necessarily enjoy every day to finance this lifestyle, and supporting our children who go on to perpetuate the same cycle.

Although it’s only a small percentage of the world population living this way (and most damage is caused by the world’s ultra rich and capitalism’s logic of endless growth), these high per person consumption habits spell disaster for the planet. The amount of resource depletion and pollution required to uphold them is astronomical, and is burning through natural limits at a frightening speed. As we’re living through the sixth mass extinction, rethinking the way we live and what we really want out of life is crucial. Right now, our idea of a good life — the practices and values we share, the goals we pursue, the stuff we buy, and the jobs in which we work — contributes to an economy that is not only unsustainable, but also ignores and even actively decreases well-being.

One way in which this decrease in well-being manifests is the loneliness epidemic plaguing us. Due to a mix of economic factors, technological change and the prevailing ideologies of extreme individualism, competition and self-interest, our societies suffer from a loss of contact, intimacy, trust, and solidarity.

Then there’s the rampant injustice and inequality. Our overconsumption relies on a high degree of resource demands whose impacts are felt across the world, most acutely so by people in the Global South. And inequality is a well-being issue, too. Economic and social disparities, insecurities and stresses, as well as discrimination, have been found to greatly take away from a society’s overall well-being. In 2009, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett published a book about the strong correlation between inequality and ‘eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, and excessive consumption’; and only last year, the UN’s special rapporteur on health stated that addressing inequality would be more effective in combatting mental illness in the long term than an emphasis on medication and therapy. The data is clear. Societies can never flourish if they are unequal, and individuals cannot thrive if their lives are built on the exploitation of others.

The importance of systemic solutions

But we can’t just point the finger at each other for adhering to this way of life. After all, we humans are social creatures, and always act within a broader context. Producers spend a lot of money on creating demand and goods which we do not need. Being exposed to certain consumption patterns, brands and advertising from a young age has a powerful effect on our psyche. And between working at least 40 hours a week, household duties and caring for our families, most of us don’t have enough time and energy, or access to all the information needed to evaluate our consumption. That is not to say that we shouldn’t strive to make more ethical and ecologically reasonable choices, if we can. But having the opportunity to do so is a privilege more often than not, and blaming consumers for participating in the dominant culture and buying what is being marketed to us is misguided. We have to recognise that the way our societies are structured limits our options and determines our ability to flourish as individuals and as a collective.

This is why, on our quest for well-being, we must seek to change the wider structures that set the parameters for our lives: governments, laws, institutions, economics. This includes creating infrastructure to enable modes of living that are in tune with human and ecological needs. It means discouraging unnecessarily wasteful behaviour and the use of polluting luxury goods. And it’s important for prices to reflect better, more sustainable and equitable values, like train travel being cheaper than flying.

The biggest obstacle to sustainability, justice and well-being is our capitalist economy. Under capitalism, most institutions are ruled by profit, wealth concentrates in the hands of 1% of the population, and the health of our societies is measured by GDP growth. Yet year after year, economic growth destroys more of the natural world on which we depend, and doesn’t actually translate to higher living standards or greater happiness for citizens. It’s time to imagine a new economy whose success is measured by the level of social and ecological well-being it delivers, not the growth of abstract numbers; an economy that allows people and the planet to flourish, and meets the needs of all while being ecologically sustainable.

A cultural revolution towards well-being

To achieve this, finding new ways of measuring prosperity and progress is paramount. So well-being is about cultural change, too. It means moving away from the ideologies of materialism and competition currently ruling our lives, to elevating the virtues of kindness, community, solidarity, and activities that genuinely fill our lives with meaning.

According to research and experience, as humans, our well-being centres on a few key areas: connection to each other, connection to nature, connection to meaningful work, and connection to ourselves. Think about what makes you feel the most alive. Chances are your recipe for fulfilment involves relationships, play, learning, enjoying the little things, creativity, art, movement, immersing yourself in the natural world, and using your talents to make life better for others. Now imagine living in a society that is tailored to these needs. Where life-giving, caring, soul-nourishing, collaborative, community-building and regenerative activities are valued and structurally supported over life-destroying behaviour that happens to create value in an exploitative economy which only benefits a wealthy few. That’s what a society based on well-being looks like.

Many of us feel powerless to influence change on a big scale, but there are a lot of local and international activist groups and networks already working towards these goals that we can join. Look for them where you live. And education is a huge part of the work, so spark conversations with your friends, family, neighbours and colleagues! We can’t start reaching for a better life unless we first imagine it together.

The key takeaway from this post is that well-being is holistic. It’s not just about staying on top of our personal wellness. It also means transforming structures, institutions, and ideologies that keep us trapped in a toxic culture. Achieving genuine well-being as individuals and as a society requires us to develop a fair and sustainable vision of a good life, and build the economic system and infrastructure to support it.

Further reading

Degrowth: The solution that must not be named

Building a wellbeing economy

Understanding the wellbeing economy

Buen vivir: South America’s rethinking of the future we want