What is wellbeing?

What is wellbeing?

The word wellbeing is commonly found in public health, arts, political, economic and social policy areas. What does it mean? It is important to have a unifying definition for public health worker and policy makers and the same for specialists in mental health practice and policy.

Wellbeing is defined in many different ways with contrasting emphases given by philosophers, scientists, economists or health practitioners. Wellbeing includes feelings of pleasure, achievement, meaning to everyday life, and engagement in relationships, work, leisure and exercise (Seligman et al., 2004). Pleasure or hedonic wellbeing is important but limited in a number of ways including that it is transitory and does not always lead to fulfilment. Pleasure, engagement and meaning are important. Wellbeing is more than the absence of illness. However, those with mental illness have lower levels of wellbeing and this may explain self-medication by higher levels of alcohol and drug use. Furthermore, wellbeing is important to nurture as part of recovery. Increased levels of wellbeing in the general population can buffer adversity and promote resilience. Wellbeing includes emotional regulation, contentment, and leads to resilience which is a sustained ability to cope with the demands of life and to overcome challenges and adversity. The CDC website (http://www.cdc.gov/hrqol/wellbeing.htm#three) suggests the following components: 

  • Physical wellbeing.
  • Economic wellbeing
  • Social wellbeing
  • Development and activity
  • Emotional wellbeing
  • Psychological wellbeing
  • Life satisfaction
  • Domain specific satisfaction
  • Engaging activities and work.

Ways of measuring wellbeing

Various measures have been used as a proxy for wellbeing; these include measures of life satisfaction, positive and negative affect, satisfaction with relationships, meaning in life, autonomy and happiness (http://www.cdc.gov/hrqol/wellbeing.htm#three). The Warwick Edinburgh Wellbeing scale (Tennant et al., 2007) http://www.hqlo.com/content/5/1/63) uses a number of these concepts and includes 14 questions on optimism, feeling useful, interested, relaxed, interested, clear thinking, with spare energy, feeling good about oneself and close to other people, feeling confident, loved and interested in things, feeling cheerful and able to make decisions. Elements of positive emotional and psychological states, alongside feelings of self-efficacy and being able to deal with life’s challenges are also implicated. There are many more definitions and ways of conceptualising wellbeing, so don’t be hesitant to ensure your conversations are full of a consistent perspective. The new public health policies emerging in the UK and elsewhere are focussed on improving wellbeing, not just the alleviation of disease or symptoms, so look out for local actions in which you can become involved. Join our public mental health network by contacting Claire Churchill at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. 


Seligman, M. E., Parks, A. C. & Steen, T. (2004). A balanced psychology and a full life. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 359, 1379-81.

Tennant, R., Hiller, L., Fishwick, R., Platt, S., Joseph, S., Weich, S., Parkinson, J., Secker, J. & Stewart-Brown, S. (2007). The Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (WEMWBS): development and UK validation. Health Qual Life Outcomes 5, 63.

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