In a nutshell, well-being can be described as the positive impact to oneself upon doing good unto others. This definition may make well-being seem like a very simple and straightforward concept, and indeed it is! You don't need to be an academic or intellectual to comprehend and appreciate this concept, and I'm also certain that you've felt its effects many times before, just that you weren't as cognisant of it than you would be after reading this article.
So if well-being is that easy to understand, why bother reading on? Well, while you don't need to understand every little detail to appreciate well-being, having a clearer understanding of it enables us distinguish it from other similar concepts and thus enables us to intentionally administer outreach programmes and actions toward more tangible and defined goals. My intention here is to flesh out the concept of well-being clearly for you to easily recognise it in day-to-day decisions as well as when you might be faced with a life-changing crossroad.
Before going further, I should first share that my knowledge in this field comes from my working experience as a Dean's Fellow at Yale-NUS College for two years between 2016-2018. In my role I served as a mentor, advisor, and supervisor of undergraduate students. This multi-faceted form of student support ranged widely from cooking comfort food for students to listening and counselling students struggling with mental health to crisis intervention for students with suicide ideation. I also held the position of wellness coordinator at the Dean of Student's office and attended and presented at multiple international conferences on the concept of well-being.
Our first step in understanding well-being is to recognise the differences between these three similar terms that are often muddled up and used interchangeably. I will not be going in-depth into health and wellness, but just enough to have an understanding of what each term entails.
The widely known definition of health was made by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1948, as follows:
"A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."
This definition has not been without significant controversy or confusion. In particular, the term 'complete' suggests that health is impossible to attain. Furthermore, we realise that the term 'well-being' is used within the definition of health, which definitely doesn't help as we are trying to separate these terms! However, it is not my intention to challenge this definition but to use it as a framework for understanding the multiple facets of health. We recognise that health comprises of at least three components, the physical, mental and social. Below I've outlined some activities that could possibly contribute to each of them.
- Maintaining a well-balanced diet
- Exercising regularly
- Visiting a doctor to treat ailments
- Practicing mindfulness techniques
- Seeking therapy regularly
- Spending time relaxing
(eg. walking amidst nature)
- Placing yourself in meaningful communities
- Having regular interactions with others
- Finding a balance between being alone and with others
Here we notice a trend, that health is not something to be attained but rather something to maintain. This is exactly the 'healthy lifestyle' that we hear so often about.
Moving on to wellness, let me similarly present the WHO definition from 2006:
"Wellness is the optimal state of health of individuals and groups.
There are two focal concerns: the realisation of the fullest potential of an individual physically, psychologically, socially, spiritually and economically, and the fulfilment of one's role expectations in the family, community, place of worship, workplace and other settings."
Here it would be helpful to refer to the wellness wheel model as shown below:
We realise from the WHO definition and the illustration of the wellness wheel that it is sort of an all-encompassing concept, where an individual strives to maintain a balance between each of the dimensions of wellness. By not over or under-emphasising any one area, an individual is said to be maintaining a well-rounded and harmonious life. This will be as far as I will go in elaborating on the concept of wellness, and now we move on to crux of our discussion!
Again let me present a possible definition of well-being:
"Working definition, similar to Eudaimonia; a sustainable quality of purpose that underlies our sense of self, motivation to persist, trust in agency, and responsibility to act for the common good."
No worries, I will touch on Eudaimonia very soon, but here we pick out some key phrases such as 'purpose that underlies our sense of self', 'trust in agency' and 'act for the common good'. Contrasting to what have discussed earlier about health and wellness, we notice a significant shift in direction with this definition of well-being. Where health is focused on my physical, mental and social health, and wellness is focused on maintaining a balance between each of the dimensions in my life, well-being shifts the attention away from oneself toward others. This is exactly it! Well-being for yourself is derived from actions that impact others positively.
In order to delve deeper, I would like to present the three main facets of well-being as follows:
Ethics & Virtue
Ethics & Virtue
The term Eudaimonia used in the definition by Gallup above is derived from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle states that the highest good each individual aims for is happiness (eudaimonia), sometimes translated as human flourishing or well-being. Happiness (eudaimonia) is defined as living well and doing well, activity of soul in accordance with virtue… in a complete life.*
*Adapted from presentation by Glen L. Sherman, Ph.D at NASPA 2018 Strategies conferences.
Here we see that each person strives toward well-being, which involves acting virtuously. Let us now look at the definitions of ethics and virtue below, along with some examples of ethics I came up with.
Moral principles that govern a person's behaviour or the conducting of an activity
Conformity of one's life and conduct to moral and ethical principles
Now the thing that stands out for almost all of these ethics above is that they can mostly only be exercised when done unto other people. Sure you can be genuine, caring and kind to yourself and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, if we were to focus these ethics merely on ourselves, we find that we lose the key essence of how we commonly understand each of them. When we think of acts of compassion, kindness, and respect, our first instinct is to imagine it done by one person unto another. Hence, well-being revolves around the idea of living a virtuous life by doing good unto others in accordance with your ethical values.
Inter-dependence refers to the notion that each person's well-being is both directly and indirectly dependent on the people they interact with. As already explained above, we can only conceptualise well-being in consideration of a group of people. Taking this one step further, we are never in full control of our own well-being, but are each affected to varying extents on the actions, thoughts, and behaviours of those we interact with. That is to say that when we choose to act virtuously in accordance with our ethics unto others, the extent and nature of our resultant well-being is dependent on how others respond to and receive our actions.
For example, if I were to offer my seat on the train to an elderly man, he might respond graciously and say "thank you very much", or in a more unlikely scenario he might say "I'm fit enough to stand, I don't need your pity!". With the former response, I would have felt good with my well-being having increased from me contributing to the elderly man's comfort, which in turn improves his health and wellness (I'm oversimplifying, but just bear with me). With the latter response, the impact on me would be very different, and how I am affected to the elderly man's response would differ from how you may be affected in the same situation. Perhaps I may feel guilty from offending the him, or I may feel angry that my good intentions were misinterpreted, or I may be unaffected by his response and just carry on enjoying my seat on the train. All of these outcomes from the same action are very possible, and the fact is that once I carried out the action of giving up my seat to the man, the resultant outcome is already beyond my control and in the hands of others. It is important to acknowledge this fact, that we are relational beings and we cannot divorce ourselves from being affected by others - to force ourselves to do so would be unnatural. This is a simple illustration of the concept of inter-dependence, which can be expanded to a much more macro scale to larger groups of people and even to online communities.
The final facet of well-being, inter-culturalism, looks at culture not only on a macro scale such as in 'Indian culture' or 'Western culture' but also acknowledges that each individual is cultured differently drawing from a vast number of factors. These factors include but are not limited to one's upbringing, environmental factors, personality traits, and lived experiences. What this means is that while an individual does belong to identifiable social groups, they are also each unique and distinct from others. Hence to put it simply, inter-culturalism in the context of well-being means that we are all different, and what affects my well-being (and health and wellness) will differ from yours, and we have to be sensitive to these differences as we carry out our actions.
Let us go back to our example of the elderly man on the train. If we imagine a scenario where his response was the latter, reprimanding me for disrespecting his ability to stand, there might have been a whole slew of factors that resulted in him reacting this way. Perhaps it wasn't actually the case that he was perfectly comfortable standing on the train, but rather his sense of autonomy overrode his need for physical comfort, stemming from heavy verbal abuse during his teenage years for being overly reliant on his overbearing parents. Now I'm no psychologist, and I'm completely making this up, but you get the idea. And the fact is that at that moment on the train I had absolutely no way of knowing this about the man, and I would not have been able to predict him taking offence from my otherwise kind gesture. Again we have to appreciate and acknowledge the fact that not everything is within our control.
However, that not everything is within our control is no excuse for us to neglect efforts to sympathise and empathise with others. We have discussed both inter-dependence and inter-culturalism as facets of well-being, and these two concepts lend themselves to very high probabilities of conflict.
Potential for Conflict
Due to inter-culturalism we are essentially different from each other, and due to inter-dependence we are inevitably affected by one another whether we like it or not. We all know that differences have the potential to lead to conflict, and our role here is to find ways to navigate these differences such that conflict is either avoided or addressed in a healthy manner. This is where skills such as empathy and sympathy come into play.
To empathise with someone is to feel what someone else is feeling. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do. How can we possibly feel what someone else is feeling when we do not share their lived experiences? I encourage you not to throw around the word empathy too carelessly without first understanding the magnitude of what it entails. However, it is not impossible to empathise with others, and we can successfully do so to varying extents. We do not necessarily have to feel exactly what someone in mental distress is feeling, but we can try, in all humility, to share a portion of their pain and suffering. This small fragment of empathy will surprise you with how much of a difference it makes when considering your next actions or words in supporting someone else.
To sympathise, on the other hand, is a much more accessible and manageable thing to do as you navigate any potential for conflict. Essentially it is to say that 'I know we have differences, and I know that I cannot necessarily feel what you are feeling, but I can understand where you are coming from because of what you have been through that I do not share with you'. When we start to understand where others are coming from, we also stop assuming the worst of intentions in them and become more forgiving toward their shortcomings.
Putting it all together
If you've followed me up till this point, you would have realised how much depth there can be to an otherwise seemingly simple concept. Well-being, along with health and wellness, are essential aspects of our lives that we have to simultaneously and consciously maintain to nourish the human soul. To exercise positive well-being is to conduct actions, thoughts, and words unto others to build others up in accordance with one's ethics and virtues, while being sensitive to the potential for conflict between inter-dependence and inter-culturalism.
Even without an intellectual understanding of these details we can still appreciate and act on the concept of well-being. People do so all the time (for example, donating to a beggar on the street, or doing a friend a favour) and I'm sure that you have too before reading this article. However, as we begin to intellectually understand well-being, we become more intentional in our every thought and action, especially ones that impact the people around us. It also is incredibly validating if you are someone who often finds yourself giving more than receiving. I'm not saying that we should be giving for the purpose of 'increasing' our well-being, but recognising that when we give to others, in turn we also receive through nourishing ourselves with well-being.
As we understand and practise well-being further, we realise that sacrifice is a big part of it. Often in order to build someone up we give up some things ourselves be it time, money, emotional capital, or to oversimplify things, our own health and wellness. At the same time, we must also be careful to maintain our own health and wellness and not solely focus on well-being to our own detriment. I would like to suggest a re-conceptualisation of self-care, whereby it is maintaining a balance of health, wellness, and well-being. With these three concepts in mind, we realise that self-care involves not only looking inward to ourselves but also outward to others.
I like to summarise well-being into these few statements:
- It is good to do good unto others
- It is good to feel good doing good unto others
- It is ultimately good for you to do good unto others, despite sacrifices you may have to make
Music for Well-being
Now that we have a clearer understanding of what well-being means, we are in a better position to recognise the intentionality behind 'Music for Well-being' initiatives. Here's the surprise - the 'well-being' component is actually attributed more to the musicians than the various groups being reached out to! After all, it is the musicians who are mainly doing the actions, the 'giving' of joy through music, to those around them.
Now let's put things into perspective - this is not a bad or selfish thing to do so long as we keep ourselves in check and not hold ourselves in such high esteem and pride as 'saviours' or 'good Samaritans'. The reality is that we cannot do anything to directly increase another person's well-being, it has to come from each individual themselves. We can encourage others to act accordingly, thus improving their well-being indirectly, but that is about the extent of it. This differs from health and wellness whereby there are often many 'services' we can provide to others to directly improve these aspects.
Hence, in conducting 'Music for Well-being' initiatives or any other outreach activity, we are contributing to other's health and wellness, and to our own well-being. From my experiences there has been so much to learn and grow from conducting these initiatives, and I encourage you to join me or even start up your own activities, big or small!
By Neil Chan