Inner Adventure Guide

Liz Barile-Page is your Inner Adventure Guide
The concept eudaimonia is an ancient Aristotelian concept. It is often translated as happiness, but in the context of his theories on ethics, it is better understood as the highest good or a life worth living.

Keyes and Annas (2009) have used the term flourishing to signify living within an optimal range of human experience, functioning well, and feeling good. This is a descriptive interpretation of the good life, eudaimonia. The concept eudaimonia is an ancient Aristotelian concept. It is often translated as happiness, but in the context of his theories on ethics, it is better understood as the highest good or a life worth living. Eudemonic approaches focus on meaning and self-realization and are often contrasted with hedonic well-being, which focuses on the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Various studies indicate that eudemonic and hedonic well-being are weakly correlated and perhaps should be treated as two distinct aspects of well-being (Ryan and Deci, 2001). Kohut’s (2010) concept of high-level wellness is similar to flourishing and eudaimonia. He differentiates between the standard abstract definition of well-being and the various elements and processes that make well-being possible. These are to be found in the conditions of an individual’s life and his/her consciousness. Mueller (2003) states that well-being is a complex construct and tough to define. He identifies its core features as health, resilience, access to knowledge, sense of identity and autonomy, right of access and control over one’s environment, and a sense of belonging and security. Health is not well-being itself but a resource for everyday life and is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources as well as physical capacities (World Health Organization, 1984). This resource or asset model of health has been used as a well-being concept by various health psychology and psychology of exercise and health researchers. This is consistent with eudaimonic and high-level wellness concepts and is particularly relevant for psychology and its outreach into health-related research and interventions. An older population who have sustained disabling health conditions can still perceive their lives as high quality and have high well-being, should they have the necessary resources to optimize their physical and social functioning. This highlights the dynamic process-oriented nature of well-being and quality of life. Heidrich and Ryff (2003) concur that well-being is multidimensional and includes various elements that make life worth living and enable individuals to thrive amidst adversity. A review by Dodge, Daly, Huyton, and Sanders (2012) confirms the multidimensional nature of well-being positing it as an 8-factor structure including spiritual well-being, the effects of church, identity well-being, self-acceptance and personal growth, inner peace, moral well-being, and finally total well-being. So well-being is a complex and subjective construct and there is debate over its conceptual boundaries and structure. This does not lend itself to easy definition and it may be more prudent to discuss theoretical frameworks of well-being, rather than defining it.

A variety of abstract concepts have been invoked in attempts to define well-being, among them good life, happiness, utility, quality of life, and flourishing. Each of these concepts has been used to signify the highest good, well-being. In everyday language, well-being and the feeling good factor can be construed as synonymous. This is an intuitive and tautologous and has come under criticism by various scholars (Danner et al., 2001). Diener, Suh, Lucas, and Smith (1999) argue that many well-being researchers may see well-being as the experience of emotions such as joy, contentment, and delight. Emotions do play a crucial role in most people’s conscious experiences of their well-being. People’s answers to questions about well-being are often in terms of how happy they are with their lives. However, emotions are transient states and people can be content with their lives overall, despite experiencing negative emotions at that time. Other people may think in terms of satisfaction. Life satisfaction and various domain satisfactions are important aspects of most people’s overall evaluation of their well-being.

Components of Well-being

Physiological (concerned with the body and its state of health functions, sleep, and rest). Surprisingly, this is where many other theories often ‘stop’ despite the fact that health is more often than not only noticed when it’s gone. If well-being is a state of health, and health is the absence of disease or illness, it would seem reasonable to suggest that the first stage in defining well-being involves the identification of the body’s normal functioning and its various requirements to maintain that functioning. This suggests that not only must we identify what constitutes the normal function of the human body but also that research into well-being must extend its interest into abnormalities in function and the difficulties experienced by those people having illnesses. An understanding of well-being also requires an account of the factors and events which can cause these various states of well or ill health. This would suggest the need for a general theory of causation.

This is necessary in order to distinguish between the conditions required to maintain health and those required to intervene in its loss. For example, we know that it is possible to treat a headache by means of a painkiller, but it would be far more beneficial to discover the cause of the headache so that it may be prevented from recurring. Such a strategy involves knowledge of the dependencies between the various states and functions of the body and the wide range of internal and external environmental factors that can affect these. This has clear connections with concepts such as vulnerability, resilience and coping and the concern of psychology and sociology with how adverse conditions can be ameliorated. A thorough understanding of the variety of states of health and illness would require a vast amount of knowledge regarding both the body’s normal functions and the abnormalities. This invites a close collaboration between well-being research and the biomedical sciences. An understanding of the body’s normal functions might be provided by means of physiology, but a more complete picture would also require knowledge of the psychological states associated with bodily functions. Coming from the other direction, psychological research into mental states and their effect on behaviour or quality of life can often be fully understood only upon specification of its underlying physiological mechanisms. For example, an understanding of common mental distress states and how they may be alleviated bring us to the question of what such states are doing to the body and how changes in these states might be reversed.

Factors Influencing Well-being

The ‘determinants’ are the factors that influence the level of health and well-being of the individual or population. Some of these factors can be changed and some are out of our control. The ‘socioeconomic and physical environment’ is one of the most influential determinants. Marmot and Wilkinson have collected extensive evidence on the powerful relationship between the wealth of a society and the health of its inhabitants. People who are poorer, less educated, and more environmentally disadvantaged suffer substantially higher rates of disease (both physical and mental) than those who are more advantaged. This is a worldwide trend. Marmot has shown that with each worsening ‘step’ of employment grade, mortality rates increase. High rates of poverty are linked to poor living conditions such as overcrowding, poor sanitation, pollution, and noise, which increase the risk of disease and harmful health conditions. A more recent example of this pattern is that of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Those socio-economically disadvantaged may find themselves in a situation of ‘social exclusion’ increasing the risk of marginalization and its consequences on mental health. Poor living or work conditions and environments increase exposure to stressful environments and jobs can cause excessive workload or under-stimulating activity. This can lead to negative states of well-being, job dissatisfaction, and psychological burnout, as well as diverse harmful effects on mental health. The physical environment also includes health and health-related services, of which availability and quality influence health and well-being.

The ‘social and community network’ is another influential determinant. Social networks are the ‘web’ of an individual’s relationships with other people ranging from immediate family members to remote acquaintances. Community networks are similar, but the term ‘community’ refers to groups and social institutions rather than individuals and families. Both networks provide a medium in which information and resources are exchanged, and norms and values are developed and reinforced. Support is a key function of the networks and is especially important during hardships such as unemployment, illness, and disability. Emotional and psychological support provide feelings of being cared for, esteemed, and valued, reinforcing a sense of self-esteem and well-being. Material support reduces the impact of adverse events, and the resources exchanged may protect individuals against the onset of mental or physical health conditions. Positive and close relationships provide a sense of belonging and self-worth, enhancing quality of life and well-being. They act as a buffer against adverse events and help individuals to achieve their goals. Isolation from social network leads to correlation with mental health conditions, and the lack of social networks is a strong predictive mortality.

Measuring Well-being

It proves difficult to measure aspects of well-being. Part of the difficulty lies in the subjective and abstract nature of well-being constructs. Constructive definitions of well-being are tautological and identifying components such as self-acceptance or autonomy necessitates a great deal of conceptual analysis. This work aims to develop a conceptual framework for well-being and to place well-being constructs within a wider nomological network in order to facilitate construct operationalisation. A further difficulty arises from the multi-dimensionality of well-being. Many well-being theorists identify a number of conceptually distinct aspects of well-being. Measures of global well-being do not allow for identification of the relative importance of different aspects of well-being to different individuals nor do they allow for identification of the effects of a manipulation that impacts on a specific aspect of well-being. Measures therefore need to be developed for specific aspects of well-being and where possible for each identified component of a well-being construct. Global well-being measures are nonetheless important; identification of the relative importance of each aspect of well-being would be assessed by comparing component specific measures with criterion measures of global well-being. Multi-dimensionality also suggests that well-being measures may be hierarchical in nature with global well-being measures at the apex of a measurement system with specific aspects of well-being as lower order factors. In order to measure well-being correctly it is also important to take into account the self-relevance of well-being constructs. Measures developed for a specific construct need to be seen as measures of relevance to the well-being of the person taking the test. Measures of happiness for example are often normatively based and may therefore lack relevance to individuals who have adopted non-normative goals. Measures of objective well-being may also lack relevance to individuals who do not feel their life situation is amenable to change.

The main aim of any theory is to help us understand our lives better. Much scientific research is judged on how well it contributes to increasing our understanding of the world or our ability to control it. It is important too, therefore, in the case of the psychological study of well-being, to test out the implications of well-being theories and to develop measures of the constructs they identify. Measures of well-being are used in many different contexts – for instance to identify who is ‘at risk’ (e.g. for depression or suicide), to evaluate the success of a therapeutic intervention, or to gauge the well-being of a nation. Measures thus constitute an important medium through which theory and science can impact on peoples’ lives. Measures of constructs can be both reflective and formative. Reflective measures are those which are evaluated against other measures making similar or contrasting claims (or against criterion measures) and formative measures are those which are used to manipulate variables (they need to be measures that can be increased or decreased). Given however that well-being is variously defined in hedonic or eudaimonic terms it is likely that many measures in this area are likely to be reflective.

Promoting Well-being

When the first aspect of well-being, life satisfaction, is significantly targeted, there is a claim to importance of well-being. Institutions and individuals are assumed to seek increased life satisfaction as an end in itself. The importance of the second blazon of well-being, smiley BP, is even more obvious. Reflecting on the ultimate goals of action, no one would choose just to be in high spirits, and to experience the awareness of circumstances without wanting to change them, if the only reason were a higher level of spatio-temporal awareness and increased cognitive complexity! Rather, everyone wants to feel that the constraints and enablements offered by circumstances are well within their coping resources, and to feel they have the self-regulative efficacy to craft a life that is more to their liking. Thus the second blazon of well-being implies an ongoing effort to increase the ratio of positive to negative affect, by enhancing mood regulation and attempting to solve the problems of daily living so as to minimise distress. This very often will be done in the hope of reaching the third level of well-being, optimal functioning. A person or an institution will act on the implicit assumption that it is better to be healthy than ill, have autonomy rather than be enslaved or ignorant, and function competently within an enabling environment. Thus they will invest time, effort and other resources into activities which are aimed at producing changes and a movement from one level of well-being to a higher one. Another important implication of the second and third blazons of well-being, is that these are states which it is generally agreed are intrinsic goods for humans, and it is coherent to say that a person wants these, for their own sakes and not for the sake of something else. Eudemonic conceptions of well-being seem particularly plausible and appropriate at the second and third levels, where it is easy to argue that it is part of human nature to desire to be in a state characterized by the presence of functionings of a certain sort. This is not to claim that humans are guaranteed a right to these states, and it may not always be rational to act as if these states are attainable or preservable, but it is unlikely that the value of well-being at these levels can be questioned.

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