Wellbeing for human beings is a very slippery concept. Until recently it was seen as a psychological concept unlike physical well being which is generally described as good health. Yet, wellbeing is an overarching concept but rarely seen as such. It is still rare for professionals in the health professions to see wellbeing as anything more than a sense of being happy or content physically or psychologically and place the responsibility for wellbeing within the individual. Recently though, clearer thinkers have begun to consider the possibility that wellbeing may be more broadly set in the context of the environment. In this short piece I want to explore the nature of wellbeing in the wider context of the environment, economics, security of existence and a sense of belonging.
The world health organisation defines health as “as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes 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.” But how achievable is it for some of us and what does “mental health” really look like?
What are “normal stresses of life?” Is “working productively and fruitfully” possible for everyone? Can everyone make a contribution to their community? What do we mean by community? These are simplistic statements that draw on the rules of medicine and western philosophy for their genesis.
For many people one or more of these statements can’t be achieved. Does this mean that they can’t be mentally well? I don’t think so! There is far more to mental wellness that the WHO definition would suggest. Does mental wellness stop with our thoughts and our physicality or is there something more?
I don’t propose to answer that question – at least not my own version of it but to begin asking out loud those questions that I find unanswered in my daily work. I am a psychologist, psychotherapist and a philosopher. Unlike most of my colleagues I don’t “treat” people, I ask them questions. I ask questions like, if a miracle happened over night and your life was more the way you want it to be, what would be different? What has been better since I last saw you? What have other people noticed about you that has changed?
It is not important for me to hear the answer, though I listen very carefully as what I hear will form the basis for my next question; no, it is for them to notice what is making them feel better and pay attention to the value of the good things in their life. The answers to those questions that I hear are rarely related to the WHO definition above but to relationships with others, family, friends, partners, colleagues and even pets!
But the most common answer is about their relationship with themselves. As people get better they begin to like themselves more, they notice more good things about themselves, they notice the good things about their relationships with others. As their self esteem and confidence improves, they become more involved and engaged with those around them and begin to enjoy contact with others for its own sake and without fear of letting themselves down.
Their re-engagement with the world around them brings rewards and pleasures that encourages spending more time interacting with others but more often than not on their own terms rather than the terms or needs of others. They develop a virtuous circle. While it may be good to work, contribute and cope are these really the stuff of good mental health or is it something related to connections with people, communities and being part of something much bigger?
Is it sufficient to work, cope and contribute or is there something far more powerful that we do just by being? Does our very existence play a part in a bigger picture of which we know little or nothing? Do we contribute to our own communities, be they family, friends, work, church, communities, virtual and real, just by being us? And whatever we bring to those people and communities we connect with enhances and enriches the lives of others without us even being aware that we are doing it! Well being is about being connected.
Communities are what make us uniquely human, coming together with common purpose, no matter how small that purpose might be, being part of a community gives us an opportunity to explore ourselves and at the same time we can give to the community so others can explore themselves.
So what is the big purpose? What could the answer to my miracle question be for us, all other living creatures and the planet? What would that answer be I wonder? If, instead of considering just our own and our immediate family and friends needs for a moment, what would we want for every living thing on this planet? Just reflect for a moment on what you would like, send that thought out. Perhaps, while you are reading this and there is someone next to you turn to them and say one thing that would be different for you in a better world, a more compassionate caring world. What would the world be like? What would be different? And then would everyone’s wellbeing be a little better?
Those answers, were they surprising, or similar to your own? Even if that person said something different is it something new or something you yourself have thought about in the past?
Coming together, including others, helping strangers, finding ways to support a sustainable future for every living creature on our world, building communities that care, create security and opportunities to grow and develop, take risks and explore who and what we are; that is the future and that is where wellbeing springs from.