Well-being: Thinking beyond happiness

27 February 2020

So? Where is the well-being in this?

This is a question I have heard often, as in my role, I often engage in conversations where our well-being focus is questioned and critiqued. I value these discussions, as they challenge me to think critically about how we move forward as an organisation.

As human beings, we can easily think in dichotomies. It is this or that? Happy or sad? Well-being or stress? Positive or negative? Well-being or work? Our minds seem to like simple categorical ways to divide up information about the world. This is interesting, considering how complex and nuanced most things are – especially human beings.

While leading well-being at St Andrew’s College, I have found that over-simplifying or thinking in dichotomies doesn’t work. We’ve had to wrestle with the granularity of ideas and conflicting perspectives so we can maintain an holistic and balanced perspective. It is about accepting a wonderfully messy process! 

students concentrating on class work

In this blog post, I thought I would address some of the common tensions and misunderstandings we navigate in regards to well-being:

Hedonic vs Eudaimonic Well-being

This is a big one.

Individuals differ in how they define and advocate for well-being. This can make progressing a well-being focus in an organisation complex, and is why developing a shared vocabulary and understanding is essential.

At one end of the spectrum, staff and students might associate well-being with a hedonic philosophy. This is when well-being is seen as feeling 'happy'. Well-being is equated with happiness/pleasure/comfort or ease. Hedonic wellbeing is based on the notion that we experience well-being when we avoid suffering and negative emotion. 

In their insightful book, Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff highlight the negative consequences of a narrow and hedonic perception of well-being which tries to keep children 'happy'. Children are less resilient when they are parented and educated in an environment that sees them as fragile and tries to keep them 'safe' from negative emotions.

Smily students

Alternatively, an eudaimonic view of well-being is much broader and more complex than the notion of 'happiness'. Conceived by the Greek philosophers (like Plato and Aristotle), eudaimonia is about:

  • the cultivation of personal strengths;

  • contribution to the greater good;

  • and the experience of meaning and purpose in life.

Central to Aristotelian ethics, eudaimonia consists of the words "eu" ("good") and "daimōn" ("spirit") and is essentially about striving to be a good and fulfilled person. When we see well-being as eudaimonia we balance a focus on self with a care for others. We also appreciate that a diversity of emotional experiences is essential to growing and creating meaning in life. Emotions are seen as no more than a physical signal for what we need to do next, they are fleeting and are not an end unto themselves.

Preparatory student listening intently

With eudaimonia, the purpose of life is not to be 'happy'. It is entirely possible to be fulfilled and- at the same time- stressed, overwhelmed, under pressure and suffering physically and mentally. Eudaimonia encompasses a psychological nuance that the word 'happiness' doesn't capture. In life, we can trust that some of our most worthwhile projects will be at odds with happiness; parenting, relationships, internal assessments and professional goals will present us with challenges that can quite frankly exhaust us yet fulfil us at the same time. 

Another idea that people often question is the tension between:

Well-being vs High Performance?

This is topical, as both are key pillars in our new strategic direction, Framing our Future.

How can we be a school that values high performance AND well-being at the same time? What do we value most? If we are striving for high performance, then surely the cost will be staff and student well-being? Doesn’t high performance equate with stress and pressure?

Girls rowing quad

People want to know: is it well-being OR is it high performance?

With an understanding of eudaimonia we can see how it can be both. Performing to a high level can lead to well-being. We know that human beings flourish when they are challenged and experience a sense of accomplishment and progress in their lives. We like to grow. If we are performing to our potential, feel engaged, and are striving towards our goals, then important human needs will be met. This does not mean there will not be struggle, suffering, disappointment and stress along the way. With wisdom, we know that adversity, while not being easy, can cultivate meaning and facilitate growth.

Cricket players celebrating after taking a wicket

An important point is that what well-being looks like to each individual is as diverse and complex as you can imagine. No two of us are the same. This is the part we can easily over-simplify and make assumptions about too.

How do you define and role model well-being to the young people in your life?

I believe that we need role models who educate our young people to understand well-being in a deep, nuanced and integrated way. Narrow conceptions of well-being can drive unrealistic expectations with an over focus on self. Absolutely, positive emotions matter for our well-being but so do relationships, purpose and contribution and engagement.

PERMA-V – our framework for well-being, was introduced to provide our community with clarity on how to view well-being holistically. You can read about it here.

Do you think embracing complexity and appreciating multiple perspectives could help you understand well-being in a more holistic and healthy way?

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