Well-Being Philosophy

Well-Being is the universal life goal that we all share.

Of course, on an individual level, we all have specific life goals. But on another level, all humans share universal goals. Imagine being able to easily assess peoples’ progress toward those universal goals—either at a single point, or through time. Imagine being able to offer benefit or educational programs directed specifically toward peoples’ unmet goals. This article outlines a simple structure for understanding universal human goals, and for organizing the knowledge that supports them. At the end of the article is a free assessment that provides the foundation for this comprehensive, integrated approach to universal human goals.

But what are universal human goals? Traditionally, that question has only been addressed philosophically. But now it’s being addressed scientifically—which makes it more useful for practitioners.  According to the latest scientific thinking, the content of universal human goals might be summed up by a single word: well-being.

While research into well-being has been conducted at the individual level, most has been directed at the aggregate level. During the 20th century, the prevailing view was that well-being automatically resulted from economic prosperity. Nationally, measurement focused on GDP. Individually, it focused on income and net worth. However, the emerging 21st century view is that other dimensions of well-being can be scientifically and quantitatively measured, too.  For individuals, this is an opportunity to assess and improve their well-being on multiple dimensions—not just financial prosperity.

This multi-dimensional trend was pioneered 20 years ago by the United Nations’ Human Development Index. It uses prosperity as just one of three measures of national progress (www.hdr.undp.org).  More recently, numerous projects have emerged to consider the essential elements of human well-being, and how to measure them. The Canadian Index of Well-Being (www.ciw.ca), and French President Sarkozy’s call for a measure of well-being to replace GDP, are significant examples. Jon Gertner’s New York Times article describes the latest developments in measuring aggregate well-being (www.nytimes.com/2010/05/16/magazine/16GDP-t.html).

But are lessons learned from large scale approaches applicable to individuals? The Gallup Organization thinks so. In 2008, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index™ began tracking national well-being by polling individuals about their daily lives (www.well-beingindex.com). After analyzing the data, Gallup has introduced an online assessment for individuals (www.wbfinder.com). Initial access is via a code in the companion book by Rath & Harter (2010), Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. Whether or not individuals find it useful for life planning, the assessment is a big step forward in research-based tools for measuring individual well-being.

The Lexicology of Well-Being

Why has the word “well-being” become the most common way to describe what all humans want? One explanation is found in the work of early psychology researcher Gordon Allport. He identified fundamental personality traits by using what he called the lexical hypothesis. Adapting Allport’s lexical hypothesis from human traits to human states, suggests this interpretation:

The states that are most important in people’s lives will eventually become encoded in their language; the more important a state, the more likely it is to become expressed as a single word.

That is, humans code their experience into language—both to understand it, and to share it with others. So for efficiency, the most important experiences will eventually become simplified from phrases into single words. When we study words—lexicology—we’re actually looking at clues to our shared human experience.

What clues to shared experience does “well-being” offer? It’s the word that encompasses three fundamental, yet distinct human goals: prosperity, health and happiness (www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/well-being).  These three dimensions of well-being are related, and yet separate. Prosperity is economic well-being; health is well-being in the physical body; and happiness is well-being as pleasure and satisfaction. While these dimensions are related, one can’t replace another. No substitutions allowed— to have complete well-being, humans need all three!

The Ontology of Well-Being

Why these three dimensions? How did they arise in the human experience? A clue to the structure of well-being comes from ontology, or the study of the nature of “being.” We each discovered the nature of being at the very beginning of our human existence. But it’s embedded so deeply in our nervous system, that we forget how we discovered it.

Try this simple experiment right now. First tap your finger on a nearby surface, and then tap your finger on your cheek. How do you know which is the surface, and which is you? When you tap the surface, you only feel it in one place— your finger. But when you tap your cheek, you feel it in two places at the same time— your finger, and your cheek, too. It’s called the double touch. At the beginning of life, that’s how we learned that we’re a physical self, in a physical world.

As we interacted with the physical world, it became differentiated. We noticed it was soft and hard, smooth and rough. (One thing became ten thousand things.) The physical self became differentiated, too. It had sensations like hunger and fullness, cold and warmth. Finally, we became aware of another dimension of being— our thoughts and feelings. But while the first two dimensions where physical, this was non-physical.

To make sense of “being,” we created a map with three dimensions: a physical world, a physical self, and a non-physical self. This three-dimensional ontology precisely matches the lexicology of well-being. In our physical world, we all want prosperity; in our physical self, we all want health; and in our non-physical self, we all want happiness. That’s how “well-being” encompasses all three dimensions of universal human goals.

The Epistemology of Well-Being

As it turns out, the lexicology and ontology of well-being are the simple parts. It’s the epistemology—identifying what we know, and how we know it—that’s more complex. To learn about well-being, we study each dimension separately, within different fields of knowledge. But that means each field’s knowledge of well-being is one-dimensional. In economics, well-being just means prosperity in the physical world. In medicine it just means health, or well-being of the physical body. In psychology, well-being just refers to happiness—our direct experience, and our evaluation of our experience.

It’s confusing, though, because researchers from these fields use the same term—well-being—to describe these different states. Apparently, well-being was just too big to fit into only one discipline! It’s a bit like the story of three blind wanderers who encounter an elephant. They don’t know what an elephant is, but they’re eager to learn about it. Since they can’t see it, they have no way to know what the whole thing is like. So they split up, and each one takes a part to explore:

• The first one encounters the side of the elephant. They slide their hands back and forth across the elephant’s hide. They stretch their arms out as far as possible, but don’t find anything else. They conclude that an elephant is like a wall.

• The second one encounters the elephant’s leg. They put their arms around it, but it won’t budge. It seems to be planted in the ground. They conclude that an elephant is like a tree.

• The third one encounters the elephant’s trunk. It coils around their arm, and they can feel how long and flexible it is. They reach out, but don’t encounter anything else. They conclude that an elephant is like a snake.

That’s what the study of well-being has been like. With the best of intentions, economics sees it one way, medicine sees it another way, and psychology sees it a third way. Each discipline knows a lot about its own dimension, but not much about the others. It has been the same way for financial planners, physicians, psychologists and other practitioners. Each has personal knowledge of the other dimensions, but their professional knowledge has been limited by the underlying discipline that they’ve drawn upon.

But humans don’t work that way. Deep down, we know we don’t want just one part of well-being—we want the whole thing! The good news is that inter-disciplinary approaches can draw upon all these fields. They can put the whole thing together.

Comprehensive planning addresses all three dimensions of well-being. Without needing to be an expert in each area, we can still draw knowledge from them. Each dimension is represented, more or less, by two fields of knowledge: happiness is Psycho-Social, health is Bio-Medical, and prosperity is Geo-Financial.

The Psycho-Social dimension is made up of psychology and sociology. That’s because real happiness comes from within, and from our relationships with others. Admittedly, the field of psychology has accumulated more knowledge about un-happiness than about happiness. When we hear “psychology,” we may think of mental illness and psychotherapy. But visionary psychologists are now researching how happiness really works, and how we can build it into our lives. Socially, social psychology has studied interaction, sociologists have mapped our connections in society, and social workers have surveyed structural challenges of modern life.

As practitioners, we can use knowledge from these fields to help people design lives filled with more happiness. Research suggests there are at least three paths: simple fun and enjoyment, positive challenge and engagement, and a sense of purpose and meaning. The social contributors to happiness include significant relationships, circles of social support, and larger social networks for information and opportunity.

The Bio-Medical dimension is made up of biology and medicine. The field of medicine studies not only the treatment of disease, but also its prevention. Medical technologies can identify our personal health risks far in advance, so we can make specific behavioral changes. After all, the part of health we have the most influence over is our personal biology. Health isn’t about the absence of disease, but building up our biological vitality.

As practitioners, we can draw upon these fields to help people build health in their physical bodies. They can obtain bio-metric and health risk data, to identify behaviors and preventive approaches that put them on a healthier trajectory. Chronic conditions become more common at midlife, and people will make more conscious treatment choices by identifying their medical philosophy in advance. That also helps ensure they’ll have access to the medical practitioners and treatments that align with their philosophy.

The Geo-Financial dimension—prosperity—is based on geography and finance. Prosperity is financial—but why is it also geographical? Because the relative value of our finances are affected by location. (If we live in Manhattan, we couldn’t retire on a million dollars. But in Manhattan, Kansas, we might live like royalty!) Geography impacts our actual cost of living, but also our lifestyle expectations. It influences our ability to earn an income. Finally, prosperity in the physical world is manifested in the residence we live in, and the community we’re part of—not just in our account balances.

As practitioners, we can draw on the latest developments in these fields to help people make better decisions for managing their affairs in the physical world. Studies show that more people are successful when they use “autopilot” financial arrangements to build or preserve financial security. They’re more successful when they get financial education, or professional advice.  Research shows that the right residence and community—especially as people age—make a significant difference in their overall well-being.

The Well-Being Profile: A Life Planning Assessment

The Well-Being Profile provides individuals with an inter-disciplinary approach for assessing their own state of well-being. Unlike most assessments, it doesn’t simply ask them to rate how satisfied they are in various dimensions of life. Instead, it asks them to consider specific topics drawn from the relevant fields of research, providing a structure for life evaluation. More than just a checklist, the topics are drawn from each field in a way that provides an integrated, holistic, comprehensive picture of their well-being. While most assessments over-emphasize one dimension and under-emphasize others, the Well-Being Profile considers all dimensions equally—allowing the individual and practitioner to determine if one requires more or less emphasis.

The profile also employs a unique method of self-assessment, based on both subjective and objective perspectives. The subjective perspective acknowledges and incorporates individuals’ personal beliefs and values, including religion and spirituality. After they have an opportunity to express their subjective experience, individuals then adopt the objective perspective of an outside expert. This prompts them to step outside themselves, and view their situation more clearly than they normally might. It also provides a method for incorporating quantitative measurements and professional assessments. Recent experimental research on “perspective taking” in business negotiations shows that individuals who use it are more likely to gain new insights, and uncover key solutions to problems.

Lastly, many questionnaires operate like a “black box” that assesses the individual without sharing exactly how the scores are derived. The Well-Being Profile uses an “open” worksheet approach, so the individual is respectfully and fully engaged in self-evaluation. They can see and understand exactly how they score their own dimensions and perspectives.

Before taking the assessment, individuals tend to emphasize just a few life areas. They may focus on dimensions where they’re doing well, but overlook ones that may need attention. Or they may focus on a problem, but then overlook resources from other areas. After taking the assessment, individuals commonly report they see their lives in a more integrated way. They’re more likely to recognize and accept that some areas need improvement, and that others offer previously unrecognized resources. At that point, the practitioner introduces planning processes and solutions that help the client work toward achieving goals in the identified life dimensions. The individual can easily re-take the profile, to check and monitor their progress over time.

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