What is ‘Wellbeing’?

The ‘Wellbeing’ Key Line of Enquiry (KLOE) group have been set the task to answer the following key question:

What are the factors that affect the wellbeing of Birmingham’s citizens and how do we implement strategies to increase this, particularly where wellbeing is currently lowest?

However, to understand what affects our wellbeing we must first understand what is meant by ‘wellbeing’.

Two definitions have been put together by the group and we would welcome your feedback on them.

Definition One

“It is generally accepted that wellbeing comprises two key aspects:

a) Positive thoughts and feelings.  This is the subjective or ‘hedonic’ aspect of wellbeing.  This has been popularized as ‘happiness’ (Layard, 2006), drawing on the ideas of positive psychology (Seligman, 1991) – but actually needs to encompass other aspects of subjective experience such as sense of belonging and having meaning and purpose in life.

b)  Flourishing and active engagement in life.  This is the objective or ‘eudaemonic’ aspect of wellbeing.   It is predicated on the capacity to exercise agency and choice, and has been described as “a dynamic state in which the individual is able to develop their potential, work productively and creatively, build strong and positive relationships with others, and contribute to their community” (Foresight Programme, 2008 p.10).

Although the idea of wellbeing has been applied at the individual level, it has also been used at the level of social groups such as families or communities to describe the degree to which these may or may not be flourishing and be experienced positively. Wellbeing is achieved through a combination of personal and social factors – and is not reducible to either.  It is suggested that the over-arching protective factors are:

  • Enhancing people’s ability to be in control of their lives
  • Increasing resilience and community assets
  • Facilitating participation and promoting inclusion (MMHDU, 2010).

Research shows that wellbeing is not the ‘opposite’ of mental disorder – some people with ongoing ‘symptoms’ manage to achieve high levels of wellbeing while others do not (Weich et al, 2011). Although they are related concepts, wellbeing is not the same as ‘Quality of Life’ which primarily focuses on the circumstances in which people live, rather than how they respond to those circumstances. The only validated tool for measuring individuals’ experience of wellbeing is the Warwick Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (WEMWBS) – attached.”


  • Foresight Programme (2008) Mental Capital and Wellbeing: Final Project Report.  London: Government Office for Science
  • Layard, R (2006)  Happiness: lessons from a new science.  London: Penguin.
  • NMHDU (2010) Mental well-being checklist.  National Mental Health Development Unit.  http://www.nmhdu.org
  • Seligman, M. (1991). Learned Optimism. New York: Pocket Books
  • Weich S et al (2011) Mental well-being and mental illness: findings from the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey for England 2007 British Journal of Psychiatry 2011, 199:23-28.

Definition Two

“Wellbeing can be defined in terms of the some or all of the subjective experience of mental, social and spiritual health. Wellbeing facilitates physical health, although it can be experienced by people in poor physical health. Features of wellbeing go beyond the absence of emotional problems or mental illness or physical disorder and include:

  • satisfaction with one’s life,
  • a sense of purpose and fulfilment,
  • the capacity to exercise agency and choice,
  • a sense of belonging, connectedness with others
  • and the ability to deploy psychological resilience when things go wrong.

Wellbeing is facilitated by the health promoting effects of:

  1. what we do (work, volunteering, creativity, recreation, exercise),
  2. where we live (dwelling, environment, local neighbourhood),
  3. who we relate to (family, friends, colleagues, service providers, civic leaders, higher powers)
  4. and how we both give and receive care, support and love.

Wellbeing invokes the rights and responsibilities of active citizenship, respect for ourselves and others, stewardship of the physical environment, hope, opportunity and beauty – even in the least likely places. Achievement of wellbeing in individuals leads to social and mental capital in the communities made up of those individuals, and this is the glue that enables communities to recognise and value their own assets and consequently flourish.

Wellbeing is synonymous with quality of life, but different from standard of living (which is based primarily on income). Although wellbeing is mainly personal and relational, it is in part predicated on the political pursuits of equality and social justice and, in turn, their relationship with wealth distribution and economic, environmental and social sustainability.

Wellbeing can be described (as opposed to defined) both subjectively (how one feels) and objectively (what one does) and can also be related to populational parameters such as broad-brush assays of what the people making up those populations say matters to them.”

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1 Comment

  1. Looks to just about describe it as a comprehensive terms of reference for a group, got to admit I struggle with all the medical definitions but I get why you need them. However in simpler terms isn’t wellbeing just
    “Are you happy with your life? When you think of your future is it with contentment or are you worried? What do you need to make you more confident in your future happiness?
    Maybe that’s just me being very simplistic


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