The concept of “wellbeing” is nearly ubiquitous in society today — it’s a hot topic of discussion in the media, inspiration for the mass proliferation of self-help materials, and a guiding principle for HR practices at many institutions. Yet, in spite of significant advancement in wellbeing studies over the past thirty years, the exact definition of what wellbeing is and how we should measure it remains elusive.
A new John Templeton Foundation-commissioned research paper, co-authored by Dr. Anna Alexandrova and Dr. Mark Fabian, both of the University of Cambridge, presents an up-to-date exploration of the latest results from the science of wellbeing. The authors examined over 1000 studies spanning five decades, giving an unprecedentedly thorough view of the state of the field. The paper takes an interdisciplinary perspective, presenting key achievements across wellbeing research in philosophy, economics, and psychology, and ultimately considering potential integrations among the three. Alexandrova and Fabian begin by describing the current state of research:
“[Wellbeing] is a capacious umbrella term that gets filled in differently in different disciplines and even in different projects within the same discipline. Such vagueness and diversity is to be expected and no existing attempts to standardize its usage have so far succeeded. In the broadest sense, wellbeing denotes how well a person is doing, all things considered… In any case, defining wellbeing requires making a value judgment about what is ‘good for’ somebody, and variations in discipline or context can alter what counts as good.”
The research review is divided into two parts. Part I describes ongoing debates, questions, and schools of belief across the founding disciplines of wellbeing research. Notable examples from philosophical scholarship include theories like hedonism, desire fulfillment, and Aristotle’s framework — which primarily help to characterize our understanding of the value judgments involved in defining wellbeing. With respect to psychology, the authors discuss positive activity intervention (PAI) techniques used for improving subjective wellbeing, such as gratitude and experimental disclosure.
Part II turns to discussion of the current and emerging trends in the field of wellbeing research, including the impact on public policy, measurement tools, and integration of theories among the multiple schools of thought. Of the recent push for a more integrative approach to wellbeing research, Alexandrova and Fabian remark,
“Philosophers have always been somewhat aggrieved by psychologists’ reluctance to engage with the evaluative dimensions of well-being. Wellbeing, they argue, is what is ‘good for’ somebody. This cannot be defined without making value judgments as to what the ‘good’ is. But equally, no normative theory can possibly succeed without fitting human psychology and human sociality. It took pioneers like Dan Haybron and Valerie Tiberius to get the interdisciplinary ball rolling.”