The wellbeing dilemma – how can we improve it if we can’t define it? 

Here in New Zealand there’s a strange wind blowing. I’m speaking metaphorically and literally – we’ve experienced devastating real weather events recently in the form of a brutal cyclone that caught a lot of New Zealand off-guard. This wind I refer to is the sense of unease that seems to have settled over us, likely a layering of the recent cyclone and difficult economic conditions, and previously the pandemic – the uncertainty, fear and assault on humanity that many of us had not experienced before. 

It has made us focus even more keenly on the concept of wellbeing, which during Covid came to mean a very specific thing that was related to dealing with the various ways that the pandemic impinged on our lives. It restricted movement, interaction, entertainment and social connection. For some it introduced the uncomfortable reality of mandates and rules about how to be in the world, causing an inspection of our identity, values and beliefs. But now, as we adapt to the new normal, should we revisit our definition of wellbeing to understand better how to achieve the elusive status of ‘positive wellbeing’?

A quick search of both Google and PubMed produces a large body of work around wellbeing, including our country’s efforts to ensure wellbeing measures are included alongside the usual measures of GDP and life expectancy, introducing measures of natural, human, social and financial capitals alongside the economic capitals. I found a useful resource called What Works Wellbeing, which is a UK site, but which collates a wealth of research and data from across the globe, including New Zealand’s Living Standards Framework. The site includes a useful summary of the varying domains of wellbeing:

  1. Personal (subjective) wellbeing
  2. Health
  3. Our relationships 
  4. What we do
  5. Where we live
  6. Personal finance
  7. Education and skills 
  8. The natural environment
  9. The economy
  10. Governance

In New Zealand we also have indigenous views of wellbeing, such as  Te Whare Tapa Wha – Māori dimensions of wellbeing developed by Sir Mason Durie in 1984 to provide a Māori perspective on health, and a valuable framework for demonstrating wellbeing conceptually. 

Digging into wellbeing gave me these three take-outs to apply to our work

It’s hard to define wellbeing, and debate rages about which models and frameworks adequately encompass it. 

Simons and Baldwin (2021) state “There is no consensus around a single definition of well-being, but there is general agreement that at minimum, well-being includes the presence of positive emotions and moods (e.g., contentment, happiness), the absence of negative emotions (e.g., depression, anxiety), satisfaction with life, fulfillment and positive functioning. In simple terms, well-being can be described as judging life positively and feeling good”

Wellbeing is multi-faceted and interconnected. 

Even when using simple, lay-friendly models like those above, we can see that there are multiple domains associated with wellbeing; and poor wellbeing in one domain can significantly impact another. You will likely all have examples that show how the determinants of wellbeing can be seemingly distant from the outward manifestations. I have a friend who tried to ignore several challenging ailments, only to discover an ongoing emotional issue with a business partner was the root cause, and only when this was addressed did the other symptoms dissipate. Another well understood concept is how loneliness or social isolation is associated with poorer wellbeing.

Wellbeing is more than health.

Perhaps because of a skew towards mental wellbeing as the focus during Covid, it can appear that the health sector has taken on the mantle of wellbeing. Increasingly, employers and health organisations are supporting improved wellbeing, and the natural starting-points tend towards physical and mental health. However, as demonstrated above, wellbeing is a broad concept, and each individual is likely to have a different profile when taking a more holistic view; indeed determinants of wellbeing are likely to be in flux all the time, demonstrating the need to monitor these, and work with an individual to establish what is meaningful for them. 

How does wellbeing fit into your context? Do you have a clear sense of the value of understanding and supporting wellbeing?

We understand that work to improve wellbeing needs to recognise the key points above, and approaches must accommodate the complex and nuanced ways that wellbeing is experienced; and the equally sophisticated factors that need to be considered when looking to improve personal wellbeing. 

With all the inherent challenges trying to define wellbeing, we are convinced it is worth the effort to advance knowledge and experience in this space. I’ll leave you with this thought for today – what contributes the most to your personal wellbeing today? I’d love to hear your views. 

In the next blog I’ll explore the new direction we’re taking with wellbeing at the heart of our efforts. 

We’re working on something exciting that will change the way we support people’s health and wellbeing. If you’re interested, please follow me on LinkedIn or get in touch at