Although the concept has existed for centuries, well-being has only recently become a contested term at the forefront of public debates concerning governmental program development, organizational culture in the workplace, and global prosperity and progress. Well-being’s complexity, in this context, stems from its association with favorable physical, social, emotional, and financial conditions simultaneously at individual and societal levels. A steady increase in relative frequency of well-being over the past few decades may be attributed to the influence of the field of positive psychology and related efforts to inquire beyond measures of material welfare such as GDP in order to examine other factors that may significantly affect the health and happiness of populations.
Well-being first entered English in mid 16c as a translation of the Italian term benessere. The word also derives from Spanish bienestar and post-classical Latin bene esse, both of which are documented from mid 13c. As modification of the gerund of ‘to be’ coupled with generalized adverb ‘well’ implies, well-being differs from mere being as a matter of quality or degree. Earliest examples cited in OED highlight a disparity between well-being and being: “I will not nowe speake of the profit that the worlde hath by women beeside the bearinge of children, for it is well inoughe declared howe necessarye they be, not onlye to oure beeinge, but also to oure well beeinge” (Castiglione, Courtyer, 1561); and “Some are so necessary that the whole can haue no being without them: some are very necessary partes to the well being of an whole, and yet not so necessary but that it may haue a being without them” (Lever’s Arte of Reason, 1573). The distinction between that which is essential for life and that which is not essential but improves the life of a person or community explains the tendency to treat well-being and quality of life synonymously.
The OED Third Edition (December 2014) identifies three senses of well-being: 1. ‘With reference to a person or community: the state of being healthy, happy, or prosperous; physical, psychological, or moral welfare’; 2. ‘With reference to a thing: good or safe condition, ability to flourish or prosper’; and 3. ‘In plural: Individual instances of personal welfare.’ Well-being only rarely appears in the plural form suggested in sense 3, and, although the word does apply to things as outlined in sense 2, the present significance and complexity of the term in public discourse primarily relate to sense 1. In contemporary contexts, well-being typically implies favorable conditions, though this is not always the case, as is attested by the recent practice of distinguishing between high well-being and low well-being.
Well-being has sparked heated debates because, as the OED entry reveals, the word conveys a range of associations which open up the term to interpretations that represent distinct interests. While common collocations such as subjective and personal for well-being describe an individual’s cognitive and affective evaluation of his or her own quality of life, other frequently occurring collocations, such as collective, societal, cultural, organizational, relational, and communal well-being, refer to the overall satisfaction and engagement of a particular group or society as a whole. Such uses indicate that well-being has come to embody a tension between an individual’s own pursuit of happiness and governmental or institutional attempts to develop policies that promote the material, social, and emotional welfare of entire communities. In On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill emphasized individuality as one element of well-being: “Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.” The complexity of the term, together with an unwillingness to impose one vision of the good life on all members of a society, helps to explain why nations have generally concentrated on improving the economic welfare of citizens but mostly left more subjective aspects of well-being to individuals themselves.
Some of the most frequent collocations consisting of nouns which follow well-being—well-being index, indicators, measures, outcomes, and survey—attest to the recent emergence of initiatives which aim to quantify and compare well-being across populations. Since the late 1960s, economists and sociologists have studied non-material factors alongside income and GDP in order to arrive at a more comprehensive picture of quality of life in communities around the globe. Yet since no consensus exists regarding the precise definition of well-being, the methods used to measure what researchers now generally call subjective well-being (SWB) and objective well-being (OWB) vary considerably. The Global Well-Being Index developed by Gallup-Healthways offers global comparisons based on five criteria: “Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals. Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life. Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security. Community: liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community. Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily.” Due to the wide range of factors that may influence well-being, not to mention cultural and individual differences in life priorities, researchers involved in such analysis face a major challenge in identifying key well-being indicators and assigning suitable weights to each category.
With Britain and France appearing to lead the way, national governments around the world show considerable interest in well-being because of its potential to inform policy-making across economic, social, moral, environmental, and public health domains. The development of programs that promote overall well-being demonstrates that governments are concerned not only with improving the economy and the financial welfare of citizens, but also with increasing the odds that their citizens will live happy, fulfilled lives. Skeptics dismiss such well-being policies as creations of a ‘nanny state’ and question the extent to which a government should interfere with personal choice in their efforts to make people happier and healthier.
In the workplace, the focus of HR (human resources) has also shifted in recent years from learning and development to well-being, with employers now investing more in their employees’ health and happiness. Well-being agendas have been created and implemented in light of the claim made in positive psychology that humans can learn how to become happier and more fulfilled. Such agendas are designed to remedy cases of employee stress, absenteeism, and turnover, all of which became increasingly prevalent during the 1980s and 1990s as a result of technological innovations and global economic recession. The turn to well-being to solve these problems within corporate culture in this context appears to reflect a desire to maximize productivity while preventing burnout. Inevitably, critics assert that such corporate action to increase job satisfaction and engagement blur necessary boundaries between the professional and personal lives of employees.
Although well-being connotes good physical and psychological health, the word presumes a broader, preventative model of health, i.e. conditions that enable a person to thrive, rather than merely a state of freedom from illness or pathology. Well-being researchers have accordingly also studied the impact that neoliberal policies, such as Thatcherism in Britain in the 1980s, have had on health, social inequality, and subjective well-being. National well-being agendas represent a possible shift in objectives from unchecked economic growth towards stability and signify a potential broadening of the sense of welfare. According to Raymond Williams, in his keyword analysis of welfare (1976/1983), the extended sense of welfare ‘as an object of organized care or provision’ replaced older words like charity, which had by early 20c “acquired unacceptable associations”. In early 21c, well-being circumvents such negative overtones of welfare, which are especially evident in collocations such as welfare dependency, welfare schemes, welfare queens, and welfare fraud. A major challenge associated with the concept well-being in present manifestations is that the word’s range of possible meanings and tendency to become laden with modifiers can convey the impression that well-being itself is an empty concept.