Wellbeing is big business. Americans spend billions of dollars per year on wellbeing-related products, services, and experiences. The Global Wellness Institute estimates the value of the global wellbeing economy to be close to $5 trillion. And it is projected to keep growing. The worldwide growth of this industry is a result of human progress and flourishing. More spas, fitness centers, green smoothies, yoga classes, meditation retreats, mindfulness apps, self-help books, and workplace wellness programs means there are fewer people struggling to meet their basic survival needs.
However, the way our society currently conceptualizes wellbeing and seeks to maximize it may ultimately be a barrier to human progress and flourishing. People tend to view wellbeing as more inward-focused than outward-focused, more about feelings than action, and more about today than the future. To have positive wellbeing is to feel good about one’s own life right now.
I propose that wellbeing can’t be fully captured by how one feels about their own life at any single point in time. And it is not as simple as the current presence of pleasant psychological states and absence of unpleasant ones. A more holistic conception of wellbeing would include a broader appreciation of human potential and functioning that involves the actions people take to positively impact the world outside of the self, even when such actions cause some personal distress. A more holistic conception of wellbeing would also include future-oriented goal striving that often involves enduring negative psychological and physical states right now to achieve a meaningful goal at a later date.
The Popular View of Wellbeing
The Cambridge Dictionary defines wellbeing as “the state of being happy and healthy.” The American Psychological Association defines wellbeing as “a state of happiness and contentment, with low levels of distress, overall good physical and mental health and outlook, or good quality of life.” These two definitions indicate that wellbeing implicates both mental and physical health. Some scholars, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations expand the concept of wellbeing to include social and economic health.
These conceptualizations of wellbeing are essentially self-oriented. They concern the extent to which people feel like their various personal needs are being met. Are they happy, in good physical condition, content with their social life, and able to meet their financial obligations? Even the idea of social wellbeing, which on the surface seems like an expansion beyond the self, is self-focused because it concerns how much individuals are satisfied with their own level of belongingness, rather than what they are doing to help others feel socially connected or valued.
In addition, these conceptualizations of wellbeing are very present-focused. They concern how people feel right now. They don’t consider current emotional states in the context of long-term aspirations or plans. Moreover, wellbeing is often viewed as more about feelings than about behaviors. It relies more on introspection than action.
For example, two individuals may feel similarly sad and lonely right now, indicating they are both experiencing emotional and social wellbeing deficits. However, what if one of them is actively taking steps to improve her life and help others. She decided to start attending fitness classes, volunteering at a food bank, and looking for a church to join. And what if the other individual had no plans to take such actions. She decided that this is just how life is and the best she can do is to accept this reality or seek out hedonistic experiences that temporarily bring her pleasure or reduce pain.
One individual is looking outward, toward the future, and planning actions that will improve her situation and the lives of others. Her efforts may take time to bear fruit. In fact, they might even temporarily cause greater discomfort. For example, starting an exercise program when one isn’t in good shape is unpleasant and it can take weeks or months to begin to see progress on fitness goals. Looking for a place to volunteer or a church to join can be anxiety-provoking. It isn’t easy to put oneself out there, especially for someone who feels emotionally and socially vulnerable. Indeed, one of the major challenges of combating loneliness is that lonely people have a heightened sensitivity to social rejection because they want to avoid additional suffering. However, further withdrawing from social life to avoid social risks prolongs loneliness. Defeating loneliness requires a willingness to experience social pain in the process of forming new or repairing old relationships.
This example of these two distressed individuals reveals how the popular view of wellbeing is not only inadequate—it can also be very misleading. If asked, these two individuals would probably respond similarly to questions about their current mental states. Both are sad and lonely. But one is acting with agency, planning ways to improve her situation and some of these plans include activities that will benefit others. And she is taking emotional and social risks. The other is surrendering to her despair, seeking only hedonistic escape. She is avoiding the emotional and social risks that could help her build a better life and positively contribute to the lives of others.
Similarly, relying on popular conceptions of wellbeing would suggest that an individual who currently feels happy but is not planning for the future and not engaged in behaviors that help build stronger and more successful communities has more positive wellbeing than an individual who is currently under a great deal of stress but is pursuing a very challenging long-term goal and engaged in behaviors that help the broader community thrive.
Some might argue that the popular conceptualization of wellbeing is sufficient, even if they appreciate the importance of more outward, future-focused, and action-oriented goals and activities. Why do we need to change the concept of wellbeing to recognize and promote these types of activities?
Why We Need a More Outward, Future, and Action-Oriented Conceptualization of Wellbeing
I believe we need a more outward, future, and action-oriented conceptualization of wellbeing because it would better capture human potential and optimal functioning. It can help us better understand and promote the key ingredients to human progress and flourishing across dimensions we intuitively recognize as important and yet are omitted by our current conceptualization of wellbeing. Shouldn’t our view of wellbeing fully reflect what makes individuals, families, communities, and societies thrive?
Wellbeing should of course be partially self-focused. It is true at some level that we need to take care of ourselves before we can be most helpful to others. A person who is suffering from severe physical or mental distress is not in a great position to improve the world around them. However, the popular view of wellbeing is highly individualistic despite the fact that humans are socially interdependent. Not to mention, sometimes the best way to reduce one’s own distress is to serve others. For example, volunteering decreases depression and has many other mental and physical health benefits.
Critically, a more holistic view of wellbeing would encourage us to see human action in a new light. Many of the endeavors that help individuals best utilize their talents and reach their full potential aren’t talked about in discussions around wellbeing. Consider entrepreneurship, for example. Entrepreneurs play a vital role in promoting human progress and flourishing. They create businesses that provide jobs and jobs allow people to meaningfully contribute to their families and communities. Businesses also provide the spaces for much of our social lives. Restaurants, coffee shops, bars, gyms, live music venues, shopping malls, farmers markets, and many other places of business are where much of community life happens. Even many of the non-business spaces people gather such as churches, museums, and parks often rely on or greatly benefit from the charitable contributions that are more available when there is a thriving business community. And, of course, businesses play an important role in driving the innovations that improve our lives.
Entrepreneurs want to make money. A business isn’t going to last very long if it isn’t profitable and entrepreneurs, like the rest of us, have bills to pay and want to achieve financial success. But making money isn’t the only, or often even the primary, driver of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs see an unmet need in their community or broader society. Many feel a calling to use their ideas and talents in ways that can only be accomplished by launching their own business. Some entrepreneurs are motivated by an inability to find work that pays enough to support their families. Starting a small business, often as a side hustle, is their path to upward mobility. Others use entrepreneurial projects as a way to have more control over their work schedule so they can spend more time with their families.
Entrepreneurial activities are not mentioned in discussions of wellbeing. And yet they are often the types of outward, future, and action-oriented activities that showcase people’s self-determination, inspiration, creativity, resilience, and passion to positively impact the world. Being an entrepreneur also often causes considerable stress and uncertainty. Success is not guaranteed and typically requires a great deal of personal sacrifice. Using the popular conceptualization of wellbeing that emphasizes current inward-looking emotional states, many of the entrepreneurs who are on a journey that will ultimately improve their own lives and the lives of others might be characterized as having poor wellbeing.
A more outward, future, and action-oriented view of wellbeing would include a range of activities, such as entrepreneurship, that reflect people’s efforts to go out in the world and serve, create, build, or innovate. The artist striving to bring beauty to the world, the scientist seeking to cure a disease that causes great suffering, the teacher working to inspire young people to cultivate a passion for learning, the soldier serving out of a sense of duty to the nation, the parent prioritizing good child rearing over personal hobbies, and the philanthropist endeavoring to help solve the big challenges of our time are all engaged in activities that make their lives richer and improve the world.
Though the popular view of wellbeing tends to be narrow and self-centered, there are scholars who have worked to broaden our thinking about wellbeing. For instance, psychologist Carol Ryff has made important contributions to the academic study of wellbeing over the past several decades by offering a multidimensional conceptualization and measurement of wellbeing. Specifically, Ryff argues that wellbeing consists of the following six dimensions: self-acceptance, positive relationships with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth. Ryff’s work pushes the discussion of wellbeing in the right direction. Though many of the items in her wellbeing questionnaire are consistent with the popular view of wellbeing, some of the items are more outward, future, and action-oriented. For example, the positive relationships dimension includes statements such as “I enjoy personal and mutual conversations with family members or friends,” which focuses on the self (I enjoy), but also includes statements such as “People would describe me as a giving person, willing to share my time with others,” which focuses more on behavioral characteristics oriented toward serving others. Statements such as “I have the sense that I have developed a lot as a person over time” (personal growth), “In general, I feel like I am in charge of the situation in which I live” (environmental mastery), and “I enjoy making plans for the future and working to make them a reality” (purpose in life) encourage a more holistic approach to studying wellbeing, even if many of the statements emphasize feelings more than actions. This type of academic research on wellbeing is important and we need more of it but we also need to advance the broader cultural conversation.
Understandably, most people aren’t interested in scholarly debates about multidimensional theoretical frameworks and the best way to quantify and empirically examine potential dimensions of wellbeing. But we don’t need to think about wellbeing in complex academic terms in order to promote a more holistic view of it. In my opinion, what is most important is to convince people that they should start thinking about wellbeing as being more about doing good than feeling good. In addition to asking people how they feel about their lives, we should ask them what they are doing with their lives.
Agency in Action
Moving toward a more outward, future, and action-oriented conceptualization of wellbeing would place human agency at the center of how we think about the good life. Critically, this would emphasize the social nature of agency. Agency is about taking ownership of one’s own life. In this way, it is self-focused. To be agentic is to recognize one’s own capacity for self-determination. This necessarily involves high levels of self-reflection and self-regulation. To act with agency, one has to think about the person he or she wants to be and take responsibility for moving toward making that aspirational self-concept a reality. Self-improvement requires self-evaluation. However, it is when people adopt an agentic mindset that they are most likely to act in ways that positively impact others. Agency begins with self-reflective cognition but it then pushes people out of their own heads and into the world. When individuals lack a sense of agency, they are more passive because they view their lives as being determined by variables outside of their control. They may want the world to be a better place for themselves and others but don’t believe they can make a difference. When individuals have a sense of agency, they are more active because they believe they can make a difference in their own lives and the lives of others.
My current thoughts concerning wellbeing have been largely shaped by my work in existential psychology. For two decades, I have been conducting research on the human need for meaning in life. When I first started this work, I viewed meaning as largely a philosophical and contemplative endeavor. Afterall, humans are able to ask existential questions about meaning because of our advanced intellectual capacities. It was after years of conducting research and studying related scholarly work that I came to better understand that meaning is found more in socially agentic action than it is in introspection about the nature of the human condition. When people are asked what gives their lives meaning, the most frequent response is family and other close relationships. In addition, individuals are most likely to feel meaningful when they are engaged in the types of activities that make them feel like they are making important contributions to the lives of those they care about. For example, parents report higher levels of meaning when they are taking care of their children than when they are engaged in non-parenting activities. And when people are focused on the goal of living a meaningful life, they are more likely to engage in prosocial behavior such as volunteering and charitable giving. Based on these and similar research findings, I have argued that the field of existential psychology needs to become more focused on the agentic and outward-oriented nature of meaning and the vital role it plays in human flourishing.
Similarly, I believe that we need a more holistic view of wellbeing. Ironically, accomplishing this conceptual change could go a long way in improving wellbeing as popularly defined. When people act with agency, when they focus more on doing good than feeling good, they may face uncertainty, self-doubt, stress, and even pain today, but they are much more likely to achieve personal fulfillment in the long run, and they are much more likely to have the types of aspirations and be engaged in the types of activities that lead to broader societal progress and flourishing.