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Wellbeing 5

Societal 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

Family wellbeing

Community wellbeing

The promotion of wellbeing at a societal level is one of the great political, social and economic challenges of our time. Many governments and inter-governmental organisations are now focused on its measurement and enhancement. ‘GDP has increasingly become used as a measure of societal wellbeing and changes in the structure of the economy and our society have made it an increasingly poor one’ (Stiglitz, 2002). He recommends including other factors, such as sustainability and education. Others have also long recognised that GDP is an inadequate measure to assess societal wellbeing, and there have been numerous suggestions of what else to count to make it a more reliable yardstick. De Leon and Boris (2010) recommended the inclusion of the following estimates in GDP:

  1. unpaid and paid care work;
  2. levels of child poverty and deprivation;
  3. impact of discrimination against social minorities;
  4. impact of gender disparities.

Societal wellbeing has been defined as:

“A positive, social and mental state; it is not just the absence of pain, discomfort and incapacity. It arises not only from the action of individuals, but from a host of collective goods and relationships with other people. It requires that basic needs are met, that individuals have a sense of purpose, and that they feel able to achieve important personal goals and participate in society. It is enhanced by conditions that include supportive personal relationships, involvement in empowered communities, good health, financial security, rewarding employment and a healthy and attractive environment.” (Skilton, 2009, p. 9)

Skilton disaggregates wellbeing into the following components:

  • involvement in empowered communities;
  • supportive personal relationships;
  • good health;
  • financial security;
  • rewarding employment; and a
  • healthy and attractive environment.

Skilton identifies nine UK wellbeing indices, from a range of sources, as well as 19 datasets that measure aspects of wellbeing, ranging from the Health Survey for England through the British Crime Survey to the British Social Attitudes Survey. We can get a better feel of this document’s approach by looking at one area, ‘Involvement in empowered communities’, that it defines as follows:

An empowered community can primarily be based on the level of self-sufficiency, which may then lead to a greater sense of control over life. Self-sufficiency allows people to lead independent lives without the need to require any outside aid, support, or interaction, for survival. This includes having access to key services. (Skilton, 2009, p. 9)

The report then analyses the perceived difficulty of people in the community in accessing key services between 1997/8 and 2006/7. These key services were defined as ‘corner shop/supermarket, post office, doctor/hospital’. The report showed that non-car owners experience significant and constant disadvantage compared with car owners. Throughout the report, there are similar attempts to determine how societal wellbeing should and could be measured.

An example of national accounts of wellbeing for the UK was published by the New Economics Foundation (2009). Their ‘Framework for National Accounts of Wellbeing’ is based on capturing the following:

  • Understanding subjective wellbeing as a multifaceted, dynamic combination of different factors has important implications for the way in which it is measured. This requires indicators which look beyond single-item questions and capture more than simply life satisfaction.
  • Personal and social dimensions. Measurement of the social dimension of wellbeing (in terms of individuals’ subjective reports about how they feel they relate to others).
  • Feelings, functioning and psychological resources. Measurement of how well people are doing, in terms of their functioning and the realisation of their potential. Psychological resources, such as resilience, should also be included in any national accounts framework and reflect growing recognition of ‘mental capital’ as a key component of wellbeing.

Application of the New Economics Foundation’s National Accounts of Wellbeing reveals:

  • Countries with high levels of personal wellbeing do not necessarily have high levels of social wellbeing, and vice versa. Denmark and Ukraine display unusual stability in coming at the very top and very bottom, respectively, of rankings based on both personal and social wellbeing scores.
  • Scandinavian countries are the top performers on overall wellbeing, while Central and Eastern European countries have the lowest wellbeing.
  • Despite its relative economic success at the time the survey data were collected, this summary measure nevertheless reveals the UK’s distinctly middling performance on wellbeing overall.
  • Levels of wellbeing inequality vary considerably between nations.
  • Within the UK, clear differences emerged in the character of people’s wellbeing between population groups. The Wellbeing Profiles of the youngest and oldest age groups in the UK reveal some striking differences in their wellbeing composition and levels, with particular disparity for the trust and belonging component, with a very low score for the youngest age group and a high score for the oldest.

This approach to societal wellbeing sees it very much as the result of gradualism and working within the status quo. Other approaches raise more fundamental questions about the balance of resources and the aims and outcomes of social and economic policies. Stiglitz has remarked that:

While we all speak passionately about the importance of democratic principles, we also recognize that our democracies are imperfect, and that some groups’ voices are heard more loudly than others. In the arena of international economic policy, the voices of commercial and financial interests are heard far more loudly than those of labour and consumer interests. As just noted, they have tried to convince others, with remarkable success, that there is no conflict of interests – which means that there are no trade-offs. The consequences speak for themselves: the growing dissatisfaction with the reform policies is partly a consequence of the fact that so many have actually been made worse off. In Mexico, for instance, the incomes of the poorest 30 per cent of the population have actually declined over the past 16 years. All of the income gains (reflected in increases in average GDP per capita) have occurred among the richest 30 per cent, and especially among the richest 10 per cent. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, no country in Latin America for which data on income distribution are available can boast a decline in income inequality during the

1990s. (Stiglitz, 2002, p. 25)

Measuring social capital

In trying to develop ways of measuring social capital and its contribution to societal wellbeing, the Australian National Bureau of Statistics did not define the latter, but saw the purpose of their endeavours as the creation of ‘a more just and resilient societal system’ (Australian National Bureau of Statistics, 2002, p. 8).

Speaking at ‘Wellbeing for all? Achieving wellbeing in an unequal world’ (2010), the well-known epidemiologist Professor Richard Wilkinson said that in developed nations the degree of inequality – the size of the difference between the incomes of the rich and the poor – correlates with prevalence of a wide range of social and health problems. This includes life expectancy, which is not related to average incomes, but to income differences. He argued that greater social equality is the most important factor in ensuring people’s wellbeing. Societies with a bigger gap between the rich and the poor are bad for everyone in them, including the well-off. While greater equality yields the greatest benefits for the poor, the benefits extend to the majority of the population.

The Human Development Index

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI) is another possible measure of societal wellbeing. The first Human Development Report introduced a new way of measuring development by combining indicators of life expectancy, educational attainment and income into a composite human development index, the HDI.

Gross National Happiness

The concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) was developed in an attempt to define an indicator that measures quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms than Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The term was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. He used the phrase to signal his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. At first offered as a casual, offhand remark, the concept was taken seriously and the Centre for Bhutan Studies, under the leadership of Karma Uru, developed a sophisticated survey instrument to measure the population’s general level of wellbeing. The Canadian health epidemiologist Michael Pennock had a major role in the design of the instrument, and he uses (what he calls) a ‘de-Bhutanized’ version of the survey in his work in Victoria, British Columbia.

Further reading

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Human Development Index are available here. The UNDP is concerned with sustainable development and the HDI was created as a way of measuring the range of human and societal capabilities. The annual Human Development Report is one of the cardinal documents on international human development, and is notable for its ranking of societies through the use of the HDI.

New Economics Foundation (NEF)

The NEF is an independent think-and-do tank that aims to improve quality of life by promoting innovative solutions that challenge mainstream thinking on economic, environmental and social issues.

Gross National Happiness (GNH). Information about GNH is available at the Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies and the GNH Centre Bhutan. The GNH Centre has sponsored the development of policy screening tools that can be used to examine the potential impacts of projects or programmes on GNH.


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

De Leon, E. and Boris, E. (2010) The State of Society: measuring economic success and human well-being. Washington, DC: Urban Institute

New Economics Foundation (NEF) (2009) National Accounts of Well-being: bringing real wealth onto the balance sheet. London: NEF

Skilton, L. (2009) Working Paper: Measuring Societal Wellbeing in the UK. Office for National Statistics.

Stiglitz, J.E. (2002) ‘Employment, social justice and societal well-being’. International Labour Review, 141(1–2): 9–29

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Wellbeing 4

Community 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

Family wellbeing

Societal wellbeing

There is no accepted, universally used definition of ‘community wellbeing’ or a definitive set of community wellbeing indicators in use. However, community wellbeing can be defined as a concept meant to recognise the social, cultural and psychological needs of people, their family, institutions and communities. This definition clearly extends beyond subjective wellbeing and implies consideration of health, poverty, transportation and economic activity, environmental and ecological factors. Kusel (1996) reflected on concerns as to how a community might heal itself to meet the needs of its residents. This ability is conceptualised as ‘community capacity’ composed of the following components:

  • physical capital.
  • human capital.
  • social capital.

Community capacity was identified as an important factor influencing community wellbeing, while Doak and Kusel (1996) define wellbeing as a function of both socio-economic skills and community capacity. Their work shows that communities with a high socio-economic status do not necessarily have a high community capacity.

Communities can be defined in many ways, and individuals and families can belong to many overlapping and distinctive communities at the same time. Identification with communities is a source of social, psychological, spiritual/moral and physical wellbeing to individuals and families. The wellbeing of particular communities could be adversely affected by external sources and events that can undermine their economic viability, physical security or psychological wellbeing to an extent that the community concerned will find it difficult to experience a high level of wellbeing or, in extremes, to survive.

‘Community’ has been found to be an influential factor in the success of an intervention, even for interventions purely on the family level, such as parenting classes. These community influences are thought to come about via:

  • institutional resources (the quality, quantity and diversity of the learning, recreational, social, educational and health resources of a community).
  • relationships and community ties.
  • norms and collective efficacy.


Doak, S. and Kusel, J. (1996) ‘Well-being in forest dependent communities, Part II: A social assessment focus’, in Sierra-Nevada Ecosystem Project: Final Report to Congress, Vol. II, Assessments and scientific basis for management options. Centers for Water and Wildland Resources, University of California.

Kusel, J. (1996) ‘Well-being in forest-dependent communities. Part I: a new approach’ (pp. 361–73), in Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project. Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project final report to Congress: status of the Sierra Nevada. Centers for Water and Wildland Resources, University of California.

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Wellbeing 3

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

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Wellbeing 2

Individual 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

Family wellbeing

Community wellbeing

Societal wellbeing

Individual wellbeing has been the focus of much of the theorising and research on wellbeing. Diener (2005), particularly, has researched and written extensively on all aspects of wellbeing. He has defined subjective wellbeing as

“…all of the various types of evaluations, both positive and negative, that people make of their lives. It includes reflective cognitive evaluations, such as life satisfaction and work satisfaction, interest and engagement, and affective reactions to life events, such as joy and sadness. Thus, subjective wellbeing is an umbrella term for the different valuations people make regarding their lives, the events happening to them, their bodies and minds, and the circumstances in which they live.” (Diener, p. 2)

Individual wellbeing, by its nature, is a multidimensional concept and there has been a multitude of definitions as to what it might mean. Within the literature there is a variation between those who are predisposed to the measurement of attitudes or attributes, and those who link these subjective feelings with certain defined social situations. Robinson (2010), for example, identified the following five categories of wellbeing as essential to everyone:

  • career wellbeing: how you occupy your time – or simply liking what you do every day.
  • social wellbeing: having strong relationships and love in your life.
  • financial wellbeing: effectively managing your economic life.
  • physical wellbeing: having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis.
  • community wellbeing: the sense of engagement you have with the area where you live.

It is notable that Robinson’s taxonomy does not explicitly mention the family, although this can, by inference, be included in ‘social wellbeing’, while ‘community wellbeing’ is perceived purely in terms of relationships. These varying concepts of wellbeing have been augmented by studies of happiness; and happiness has been posited as the ultimate form of individual wellbeing.

In Figure 1.1 (see Wellbeing 1: Defining Wellbeing), individual wellbeing is shown to be influenced by a combination of physical, psychological, spiritual/moral and social factors. Most instruments that attempt to measure individual wellbeing or quality of life try to capture the impact of these factors on the individual’s subjective experience (internal world). The framework also suggests that individual wellbeing is conditioned by the nature of the context in which the individual is situated and can only be understood within that context.


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

Robinson, J. (2010) ‘The business case for wellbeing: having high levels of wellbeing is good for people – and their employers’. Podcast-Gallup Management Journal, 9 June 2010

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Wellbeing 1

Defining 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:

Individual wellbeing

Family wellbeing

Community wellbeing

Societal wellbeing

The word ‘wellbeing’ has slipped into our day-to-day discussions, including in pop psychology, in a range of social policy domains and in various fields of academic research. There are competing and contradictory definitions in the literature and some works about wellbeing discuss it extensively, though without actually defining it, or claiming that a definition is impossible. Even when the term is used it is sometimes not clear if it is something profound or just a linguistic flourish.

Taken together, the extracts seek to explore wellbeing as a free-standing, multilevelled and complex social construct. They argue that ‘health’ is but one component of wellbeing and, while the customary coupling extends ‘health’ to encompass the emotional and the psychological (and maybe even ‘holistic’), it pre-empts our understanding and debates about ‘wellbeing’. Wellbeing is a complex, confusing and contested field that would benefit from a framework within which to locate more specific definitions, and to tease out interconnections and cross-cutting issues. The prime objective of this article is to give readers a steer by providing a definitional topography for the concept of wellbeing. By providing such a framework, the article seeks to make a contribution towards the thinking and discourse about wellbeing.

The concept of wellbeing

Concern with wellbeing has generated a considerable body of literature and research on its many facets and meanings. There is an increasing acceptance that so-called ‘objective’ measures of social and economic progress are insufficient to analyse and describe human wellbeing, whether at an individual, family, community or societal level. Wellbeing is a feel-good concept that has occupied our ‘assumptive world’, i.e., what we assume and believe to be true about the world and ourselves based on our experiences. It is a concept that is freely used in modern policy discourse and has become an integral objective in many policy domains, usually without explicit definition. No one seriously opposes this development, although some commentators are amused at the onward march of ‘happiness science’. The volume of literature, the elasticity of the concept, and its steady incorporation into the national political and social policy agenda, suggest that the concern and the issues demand serious attention by those concerned with human health and social welfare.

Wellbeing as a concept is frequently coupled with ‘health’, as in the term ‘health and wellbeing’. It will be argued that wellbeing is a broader construct that has a certain moral and philosophical energy: it facilitates reflection on the human condition and provides the backdrop to public policy making and research aimed at the promotion of wellbeing as a desirable state. Therefore, wellbeing is conceptualised as an ideal state of being or existence that we and policy makers strive for, as a contemporary variant of the good life.

Most contemporary discussions of wellbeing start from the WHO definition that health is ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (WHO, 1946). This early coupling has led to a tradition of health being regarded as the province of biomedicine and objectivity, while wellbeing was associated with emotional and psychological states, or subjective wellbeing, and the growth of a specific body of literature concerned with measuring wellbeing as a psychological construct. The individualisation and internalisation of wellbeing is also expressed in the recent development of positive psychology or ‘happiness science’. Interestingly, within the construction of wellbeing as a psychological, subjective phenomenon, some objective elements are usually cited, relating to familial, community and social factors, the built environment and the individual’s command over or access to resources. That being said, subjective wellbeing is important in that it tries to encapsulate a notion of how people cope, thrive and survive, individually and collectively.

Quality of life

However, wellbeing can be assessed as both an objective and subjective construct. Because of the complexity of the concept, wellbeing measurement must recognise its multifactorial nature and the need for a range of tools and disciplines, as well as social and policy changes, to be involved in its promotion, measurement and expression. Clearly, some of these instruments will be less validated than others, but this should not detract from the overall integrity of the concept and the approach. For example, an assessment of how well or happy people feel, as individuals or as societies, has been demonstrated by the psychological wellbeing literature. Diener and Seligman (2004) have argued that social policy formulation should take subjective wellbeing into account and should also attempt to monitor it on a longitudinal basis to inform policy. Subjective wellbeing has also been taken up by economists and transformed into the ‘Quality of Life’ concept. Quality of life usually refers to the degree to which a person’s life is desirable versus undesirable, often with an emphasis on external components such as environmental factors and income. In contrast to subjective wellbeing, which is based on inner/psychological experiences, quality of life is often expressed as more ‘objective’ and describes the circumstances of a person’s life rather than his or her reaction to those circumstances.

Clearly, the quality of life concept brings another dimension to our consideration of wellbeing and illustrates the obvious shortcoming of subjective wellbeing. By so doing, it makes the point that it might be more realistic to view wellbeing as a field of study that encompasses a range of specialist areas of research and practice aimed at understanding and promoting a positive state of existence in specific domains and for specific populations or socio-economic and political entities. We are only able to make sense of the varied literature and competing definitions by taking a broader approach that contextualises and incorporates operational definitions, such as happiness, quality of life, and objective and subjective wellbeing. Because of this complexity, the search for a generally accepted definition of wellbeing is fruitless, frustrating and ultimately impossible.

These concepts have also been extended to the societal level, with the King of Bhutan suggesting the development of a Gross Happiness Index (GHI) to replace Gross National Product (GNP) as an index of national wellbeing. Former President Sarkozy of France was the first developed-country politician to formally adopt this approach, with the commissioning of a group led by the economist Joseph Stiglitz to develop happiness measures for France. Also, according to Stratton (2010), ‘The UK government [was] poised to start measuring people’s psychological and environmental wellbeing, bidding to be among the first countries to officially monitor happiness.’ Concepts and definitions of wellbeing can therefore be perceived to be wrapped around the whole structure of humanity and its social and ecological existence.

A definitional framework

Figure 1.1 shows what McNaught terms a definitional framework for the concept of wellbeing. This provides an overall framework for understanding the concept of wellbeing as well as a framework for more specific definitions discussed in the rest of this series of articles.

 Figure 1.1 A structured framework for defining wellbeing (Dr Allan McNaught, October 2010)

The importance of this framework is that it extends the definition and concept of wellbeing to a range of different dimensions beyond individual subjectivity, and it removes the conventional linking with ‘health’ to include the family, community and society as a whole. It also repositions and broadens the factors identified with individual wellbeing. At this level, wellbeing is a macro concept or an area of study concerned with the objective and subjective assessment of how human beings survive, thrive and function.

This model presents wellbeing as a dynamic process that gives people a sense of how their lives are going, through the interaction between their circumstances, activities and psychological resources, and includes their interpersonal interactions with significant social formations (the family and their community) within society. It is important that individuals, families and communities are not conceptualised as passive actors to whom others deliver wellbeing as a product. Wellbeing is also a result of their own actions and their own social and political preferences and interventions to change their circumstances and to influence the governance of their society to support what they perceive to be ‘good’.

As a result of this dynamism, high levels of wellbeing and consciousness about what wellbeing might mean give the motivation and capacity to respond to difficult circumstances, to innovate, challenge and constructively engage with other people and the world around us. As well as representing a highly effective way of bringing about good outcomes in many different areas our lives, there is also a strong case for regarding wellbeing as an ultimate goal of human endeavour.


This article has attempted to provide a definitional framework and an overview of the concept of wellbeing. It has demonstrated that the concept is multilevelled and may be described and measured subjectively and objectively. The achievement of wellbeing, in these terms, is not just a matter of behavioural change or the promotion of ‘positive psychology’. Its complexity and its multidimensional nature mean that the pursuit of public policy change and political action is a concomitant of any strategy to change objective reality or circumstances that are assessed as harmful to individual, family, community or societal wellbeing.


World Health Organization (WHO) (1946) Constitution. Geneva: WHO.

Diener, E. and Seligman, E. (2004) ‘Beyond Money: towards an economy of wellbeing?’ Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5(1): 1–31.

Stratton, A. (2010) Happiness Index to Gauge Britain’s National Mood. London: The Guardian, 15 November 2010.

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Writing essays

Writing essays is something that you will have to do on a regular basis in order to demonstrate your understanding of a topic in a well-structured written format. There is no single correct way to approach essay writing; you need to find what approach suits you best. The following extract from A Handbook for Student Nurses offers some tips to support or develop your approach.

Understanding the question

The basis of any essay should always begin from an understanding of what you are trying to achieve. It is therefore important to make sure that you know exactly what is required of you before you begin to research or to draft your essay. If you have been given a specific question, you need to begin by ‘unpicking’ the information it contains. This can be done by carefully examining the words of the question, looking for: the content words that indicate the subject matter with which the essay should deal; limiting words that specify the particular aspect or aspects of the subject on which the essay should focus; and the instruction words which tell you how to approach the topic.

Essay questions usually contain one or more of the following keywords that indicate what you are being asked to do:

  • Account for: give reasons for, explain how something came about, clarify
  • Analyse: examine in detail, consider the various parts of the whole and describe the interrelationship between them
  • Assess: decide the importance/value of something and give reasons
  • Comment on: explain the importance of
  • Compare: examine the objects in question with a view to demonstrating their similarities
  • Contrast: examine the objects in question for the purpose of demonstrating differences, or examine two or more opposing ideas or arguments to highlight their differences
  • Define: state precisely the meaning of something using examples — a simple statement is often not enough; it needs to be explored in detail
  • Discuss: explain and give different views about something — this can include your own views as long as they are based on sound evidence (i.e. they are referenced)
  • Evaluate: examine the evidence and decide the value of something; make a judgement about it, based on sound evidence
  • Examine: look at very carefully
  • Explain: make very clear why something is the way it is, or why it happens
  • Give an account of: describe in detail how something happened
  • Illustrate: make something very clear, using evidence and examples
  • Outline: give a short description of the main points
  • Justify: support a particular idea, using evidence, and show why particular conclusions were made — include counter-arguments
  • Show: make clear; demonstrate evidence for
  • Summarise: outline the main points briefly.

Essay planning

Once you have decided what is required, researched the topic and read through your notes, you should then make an essay plan. Time spent on essay planning is rarely time wasted as it provides an opportunity to identify the main themes, sections or areas and how all the various pieces of information fit together. An essay plan is also useful to take to a tutorial so that you can discuss with your tutor your ideas about completing the assignment. The plan should be written in a way that works for you personally, for example as a mind map, linear notes or a set of boxes, etc.

Structure of an essay

The structure of the essay is important because it demonstrates that you are able to order your thoughts in a systematic, logical way and provides a sense of direction through the essay. The accepted basic framework for any essay is:

  • introduction
  • main text/body
  • conclusion.

The introduction

The purpose of the introduction should be to set the context and direction of the essay. It should therefore:

  • be clear that it is an introduction
  • if required, set the question topic against a wider background (set the context)
  • identify and/or define any key terms
  • briefly summarise the overall theme of the essay, indicating the main points to be made and, possibly, the order in which they are to be presented — that is, explain what the essay is going to do.

Main text/body

The main body of the text is where the main ideas or arguments are developed. Depending on the length of the essay, it will contain several sections, each divided into paragraphs. The paragraphs should be logically linked as you develop the themes or ideas. In the main body you should:

  • present key points clearly
  • present ideas or arguments backed up by evidence from your reading
  • accurately cite quotations and references to other works
  • label any diagrams, figures or tables correctly.


The conclusion should follow logically from, and be based on, what you have presented in the main body of your essay as it brings together the main ideas explored. This can be achieved by:

  • briefly summarising the main ideas and arguments
  • linking back to the title/topic, showing how you have answered the question or drawn a relevant conclusion
  • making clear why conclusions reached are important or significant
  • not including any new ideas.


Referencing is the standardised method of acknowledging sources of information. When writing an essay, report or dissertation, it is usual to make reference (i.e. to identify the place where the original citation can be found) to the sources that you have used, referred to, or taken quotes from. These references might be from, for example, journals, newspaper articles, books or book chapters, government reports or internet publications. When you refer to someone else’s work or directly quote from it, you must acknowledge all the contributors and refer to all the authors/editors, both in the text and in a reference list or bibliography at the end of your work. Citing accurate references in academic work is important for the following reasons:

  • to give credit to other authors’ concepts and ideas
  • to provide evidence of the extent of your reading
  • to allow a reader to locate the cited references easily
  • to avoid being accused of plagiarism.


There are many systems for the citation of references. The most commonly used systems in the UK are the Harvard system and the Vancouver system. You should follow the system that will be identified in your course handbook or assessment guidelines.