What Is Well-Being?

Posted by on December 26, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 0 comments

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What does it mean to be “well”? More specifically, what particular aspects of being human constitute a state of wellness? If you used a Google image search for your answer, you would be led to believe that “well-being” has something to do with meditating in a forest, or standing in a field with arms raised to the sky, or holding hands, or singing, and these are all aspects of well-being, but popular conceptions can be superficial, especially in an area where we are told we can attain “well-being” by consuming or buying products from vitamin companies. Well-being is much more complex than that, and could be said to be like layers of an onion. Beyond a state of simply existing, or having the basics in life met, there are many other aspects of life that are required to truly call it a state of being well. I think it really depends upon what a person holds dear, what they revere and respect, what they love and need in life to give themselves a sense of purpose, and to what degree these aspects of life are met.

In previous blogs I have suggested that there is a base or foundational state of being, where equal to or above that can be considered well-being; Food, water, shelter, all the usual suspects come into play here, and that state is not up for argument. These are essentials for survival, and to varying degrees, if absent will cause the demise of the civilization and it’s people within. When a society, for instance that of the ancient Mayans, finds that, for reasons of climactic shifts or plague years, and population and food pressures, their access to these aspects of life are hampered, the society inevitably fails. However the mere access to these essentials does not ensure the survival of any civilization, it just makes their survival possible.

On top of the essentials for existence, in order to be called “well-being”, we have a need for emotional and psychological satisfaction, in the form of interpersonal relationships, information and knowledge. These are the more ethereal aspects of humanity which must be addressed in order to move beyond mere existence and into the realm of “flourishing”. For people to truly flourish, and not stagnate in a self-repeating cycle of “getting-by”, we have a need to go beyond just existing. It seems on a scale of well-being, the more stable a society is in terms of social security, the less it worries about aspects of life of a “spiritual” nature. For those who have grown up without ever having to worry about survival, the more tolerant and inclusive the society becomes.

Studies like The World Values Survey have shown that the less people have to worry about the basics of survival, the better their state of well-being, the better their access to education and information, and also the more secular their society becomes. This highlights the the aspects of culture that encourage survival versus self-expression, and shows that that self-expression and diversity have become some of the aspects of life that are important to the well-being of the whole. From the study:

“Self-expression values give high priority to environmental protection, tolerance of diversity and rising demands for participation in decision making in economic and political life. These values also reflect mass polarization over tolerance of outgroups, including foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality. The shift from survival values to self-expression values also includes a shift in child-rearing values, from emphasis on hard work toward emphasis on imagination and tolerance as important values to teach a child. And it goes with a rising sense of subjective well-being that is conducive to an atmosphere of tolerance, trust and political moderation. Finally, societies that rank high on self-expression values also tend to rank high on interpersonal trust.

“This produces a culture of trust and tolerance, in which people place a relatively high value on individual freedom and self-expression, and have activist political orientations. These are precisely the attributes that the political culture literature defines as crucial to democracy.”

And while democracy is not a guarantee of well-being, it is a good start, for in a true democracy, those who stand to gain the most are given a voice on a per-person basis, and therefore their needs and wants are more likely to be met. In theory anyway.

On the flip-side, many say that their sense of being well comes from their faith and religious beliefs. Religions operate on the promise of well-being, and in some they deliver this, even if the premise for this depends upon you dying first to reach this state of happiness. The promise of an afterlife seems to, for many, fill the void that those in more fortunate situations occupy with knowledge and psychological well-being. The religions offer faith up as a virtue, a thing to strive towards, and in a self-perpetuating twist, the more faithful a person, the more likely it is, in their minds, that they will attain the well-being promised by religions after they die. It is almost as if religion is a surrogate for being well, with the strong promises of improvement, not in this life, but forever after. If you believe it, it’s certainly a tempting proposition, especially if your life is difficult and you see no way to escape from it. In a situation where basic human rights are met, the less likelihood there is that a person will turn to religion for solace and security.

But well-being is not as cut-and-dry as this may all make it seem. Again, I point to Sam Harris, this time in an article he wrote for Huffington Post titled “Toward a Science of Morality”, a precis article of his book “The Moral Landscape”, in which he identifies that, in theory at least, the idea of well-being for one group may not be shared by another group:

“I wonder if there is anyone on earth who would be tempted to attack the philosophical underpinnings of medicine with questions like: “What about all the people who don’t share your goal of avoiding disease and early death? Who is to say that living a long life free of pain and debilitating illness is ‘healthy’? What makes you think that you could convince a person suffering from fatal gangrene that he is not as healthy you are?” And yet, these are precisely the kinds of objections I face when I speak about morality in terms of human and animal well-being. Is it possible to voice such doubts in human speech? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we should take them seriously.”

I think it’s safe to assume that  the best example of a person “being well” is one that is free of the conditions he outlines above, but it cannot be taken as a given. Theoretically there is a possibility of a society where being beaten and tortured is seen as virtuous, as good for you, or good for your soul, or good for your your constitution. In fact, to a certain degree these societies exist around us right now, and are up in arms because “we” in the west judge their activities as wrong, while “they” scream cultural insensitivity. But our understanding of suffering and well-being has come a long way since the invention of these cultural practices, and as the world shrinks, so too does the tolerance for activities that were once seen as cultural rights.

Harris equates the idea of a scientifically based objective level of morality with the idea of doing whatever it takes to give the most people the best well-being. This is all assuming that there is a state of “normalcy” among people that is healthy to begin with. Given the fact that our bodies begin to die at a very young age, and the fact that we are still alive and conscious is simply that the battle between the rate of death and the rate of repair is tilted in favour of continuance of our lives for most of our existence, is a state of normalcy actually a state of prolonged illness? And to what level of illness do we still call a person “well”?

I, and most people reading this, are fortunate enough to have been born into a society where tolerance and human rights are comparatively quite progressive. I say “comparatively” because some aspects of this are being eroded by conservative governments and lobby groups, but even still we have it pretty well. The majority of people do not have the luxuries that we afford ourselves, and would probably think this whole conversation about well-being was a waste of time. However, it is the people in the less fortunate areas of earth who stand to gain the most from the idea of a universally agreed base level of well-being.

Based against the physicality of life, the state of your body, the level of subjective wellness in an individual, their quality of life and the way they are able to act and interact within a society, we can start to see how it might be possible to identify a base-level of well-being, and make moves to work toward this as a world culture. We have a long way to go, both with our basic understanding of humanity, the body, the brain, etcetera, but we are in a position now to start asking these questions. To do so, we need to be open, honest, without preconceptions, prejudices and bias, and look at the facts as they are presented to us. It may be the one most crucial aspect of our continued survival on this planet, because if we can crack this egg, we can see what else needs to be done to keep us alive, and well.

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