What does wellbeing mean to you? Is it about physical health, mental health? Is it a feeling? A measurable state? Whilst we might all hold an aspiration for high levels of wellbeing, we may not all have the same thing in mind when we talk about it. So, when we ask someone how they are, or how they feel, what kind of response are we expecting? Do we really want to hear the detail of their trials and triumphs, their pains or their gains, or are we just hoping for a quick one-word response, preferably ‘fine’?

I attended a national conference for ‘Health and Well Being at Work’ earlier this year, and discovered an extraordinary spectrum of exhibitors stands, ranging from ergonomic seating, through dietary additives, occupational health recruitment to resilience training and noise protection devices. No wonder we are confused about what wellbeing really means.

Understanding what we mean by wellbeing is important though. The World Health Organisation defines good mental health as “A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

Common language for wellbeing

Wellbeing is an increasingly commonly used term, but there is a spectrum of meanings and even disparity in the spelling of the term (with or without a hyphen, one word or two). Philosophers have been arguing about the definition of wellbeing for centuries and economists have been debating it for decades, whilst psychologists and sociologists are relatively new to the debate. But if it’s a subjective concept and we all want to be well, does it really matter if we don’t all have the same understanding of the term? Well yes, it probably does. It seems that the language we use and our level of literacy around the concept may actually influence both our experience of, and our levels of wellbeing. This literacy effect plays out through both our self-understanding of our intrinsic experience and our social experience of the concept through education, community, and workplace interactions. The definition of wellbeing is also of course important from a scientific evidence-based perspective when assessing the efficacy of interventions intended to increase wellbeing. Differentiating wellbeing concepts is far from straight forward though. Oades and Mossman (2017) review a range of wellbeing terminologies in positive psychology literature and use six dimensions to consider in differentiating the concepts

  1. Analysis at individual, group, organisation or society level?
  2. Physical, mental, social domain?
  3. Subjective or objective perspective?
  4. Are positive attributes required?
  5. Is wellbeing multifaceted/multidimensional?
  6. How is it different from health?

Emotional literacy

Our level of literacy about our emotions influences our experience and our ability to control them through the mechanism Daniel Goleman termed, our Emotional Intelligence and the more granular our ability to distinguish and label emotions, the greater influence over them we have and the more successful life outcomes we are likely to have. Lisa Feldman Barrett (2017) proposes that emotions are not pre-programmed into our brains but are psychologically constructed based on our history, physiology, and environment. If our experience of wellbeing is constructed in a similar way, then our level of wellbeing literacy has the potential to influence our level of wellbeing.

Strengths literacy

A similar effect has also been reported in our ability to be able to recognise, distinguish and label our strengths. By being able to recognise and selectively apply the things are naturally good at, we feel better about ourselves and are more successful. This particularly counts in the workplace if it leads to higher engagement and productivity.

Mental health literacy

The terminology around mental health and mental illness is another area where there is a lack of clarity and where the two concepts are often addressed as synonymous. However, Corey Keyes makes a vital distinction between the two concepts suggesting that we can have good mental health even if we have a mental illness and vice versa, and not only that these concepts should be conceptualised on separate continua, but that they can be managed and addressed by different means.

Beyond Talking

Building wellbeing literacy is not just a case of defining terms or talking about it though. Literacy is developed through multiple communication channels including reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing and creating, in multiple contexts. In order to increase the levels of wellbeing in our families, schools, organisations and societies we need to communicate about wellbeing through all these channels in a consistent, detailed and meaningful way, over and over. Through literacy we control how we use language, so wellbeing literacy is how we control the use of wellbeing language. Since the language we use influences how we think and act, it may impact our lives significantly.
So, the next time you ask someone how they are, listen carefully, give them the opportunity to express their response honestly and in detail, it might just improve their wellbeing, or even your own.

Barrett, L. F. (2017). How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. London: Macmillan.
Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. London: Bloomsbury
Keyes, C. L. M. (2005b). Mental illness and/or mental health? Investigating axioms of the complete state model of health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73, 539 –548.
Oades, L., & Mossman, L. (2017). The Science of Wellbeing and Positive Psychology. In M. Slade, L. Oades, & A. Jarden (Eds.), Wellbeing, Recovery and Mental Health (pp. 7-23). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

About the author: Ali Birch has a 30+ year career history in technology and business change, IAPD certificate in coaching, an MBA and an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology.

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