Family wellbeing

Posted on: 15/02/2022

Family wellbeing

This article is one of a series of amended extracts from Understanding Wellbeing (2011), edited by the late Anneyce Knight and the late Allan McNaught. There will continue to be developments in the field of wellbeing study, and the book and this material were published in pre-Covid times. Nevertheless, we felt it was worth publishing in this format, as a small contribution to the field.

Other articles in this series consider:

A definitional framework for wellbeing

Individual wellbeing

Community wellbeing

Societal wellbeing

Paraphrasing Diener (2005), family wellbeing refers to all of the various types of evaluations, both positive and negative, that a family makes of their lives. It includes reflective cognitive evaluations, such as life satisfaction and work satisfaction, interest and engagement, the quality of interpersonal and intergenerational relationships, family access to economic and other resources, and the overall circumstances in which they live (Diener, 2005, p. 2).

Individual and family wellbeing are strongly related; most individuals live within the context of a family (however defined), and the quality of personal relationships and the access to physical and other resources are generally a feature of personal and family wellbeing. These resources are many and varied – child care, caring for the disabled, pooling resources for day-to-day living, providing or facilitating economic opportunities for family members – and these are all part of the resources that promote wellbeing.

Concern with family functioning and family wellbeing has been an enduring feature of social policy, but what does this actually mean? Wollny et al. (2010) have undertaken an extensive review of the literature. They argue that the available literature approaches the understanding and measurement of family wellbeing through the prism of varying frameworks based on:

  • ecological systems theory.
  • resource theory.
  • family systems theory.

Ecological systems theory

Ecology is the study of the representation of living organisms and the interactions among and between organisms and their environments. In human ecological systems theory the wellbeing of humans is embedded within the wellbeing of their biological, physical and social environments, in other words: ‘the wellbeing of individuals and families cannot be considered apart from the wellbeing of the whole ecosystem’ (Rettig and Leichtentritt, 1999, p. 309). When applied to families, it is argued that their wellbeing and environments are linked through interactions and interdependent relationships. For example, an ecological perspective is now standard in the context of family interventions and programmes (Barnes et al., 2005).

Voydanoff (2007) also identifies six categories of family, work and community characteristics derived from an analysis of empirical research:

  • structure.
  • social organisation.
  • norms and collective efficacy.
  • support (the provision or receipt of instrumental or emotional social support).
  • orientations (the salience, commitment, involvement, aspirations).
  • quality (subjective evaluation of multidimensional domains).

Together, the ecological levels and categories serve as a framework for examining links between family, work and community.

Resource theory

Resource theory provides researchers with a way of conceptualising the interpersonal ‘resource exchanges’ in family relationships. To do this it identifies six interdependent classes of resource:

  • love.
  • services.
  • goods.
  • money.
  • information.
  • status.

Resource theory thus defines family wellbeing as a multidimensional concept. It uses the six classes of resource to guide the definition of the content of family life, from which follows the development of measures and interpretation of findings. It also links together the concept of ‘personal needs’ being met through ‘resources’ that in turn produce ‘life satisfactions’. Further arguments for the theory’s relevance to family wellbeing research are its recognition of the importance of both economic and social-psychological human needs and that it explicitly acknowledges the interaction between these domains.

Family systems theory

These theories view a family as an organised hierarchy of subsystems, including individuals, subsets of individuals and the overall combination of family members (Bonomi et al., 2005, p. 1128). Psychological or psychosocial family systems theory approaches to understanding the wellbeing of whole families emphasise the organisational complexity of families, their interdependent relationships, interactive patterns and dynamics. In these approaches, whether a family system is ‘well’ or not is determined by the elements of its internal functioning. The approaches documented in psychological literature on family functioning can be broadly divided according to their focus:

  • on the family as an entity – its adjustment and preservation.
  • on child development, viewing the family in terms of its contributions to child welfare.
  • on the family as a system with internal dynamics that produce developmental and welfare outcomes for its members.

The functioning frameworks that have been described by researchers include elements that are internal to the family as well as family functioning elements that play out externally. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2002) has developed a family wellbeing model that suggests that family wellbeing is built upon the ‘personal resources’ of family members and is produced through interactions between ‘Family Structures, Family Transitions and Family Functioning’, through transactions with individual and societal wellbeing.


Australian National Bureau of Statistics (2002) Discussion paper: social capital and social wellbeing. Canberra: Australian National Bureau of Statistics

Barnes, J., Belsky, J., Broomfield, K.A., Dave, S., Frost, M. and Melhuish, E. (2005) ‘Disadvantaged but different: variation among deprived communities in relation to child and family wellbeing. The National Evaluation of Sure Start Research Team’. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46(9): 952–62.

Bonomi, A.E., Boudreau, D.M., Fishman, P.A., Meenan, R.T. and Revicki, D.A. (2005) ‘Is a family equal to the sum of its parts? Estimating family-level well-being for cost-effectiveness analysis’. Quality of Life Research, 14: 1127–33.

Diener, E. (2005) Guidelines for National Indicators of Subjective Well-Being and Ill-Being. Chicago: University of Illinois

Rettig, K.D. and Leichtentritt, R.D. (1999) ‘A general theory for perceptual indicators of family life quality’. Social Indicators Research, 47: 307–42.

Voydanoff, P. (2007) Work, Family, and Community: exploring interconnections. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wollny, I., Apps, J. and Henricson, C. (2010) Can Government Measure Family Wellbeing? A literature review. London: Family & Parenting Institute