Is Wellbeing, Happiness?

photo by me

Put simply, wellbeing is a metric used to measure the quality of our lives (socially, economically, emotionally) and how happy and healthy we are mentally and physically. Yet, being healthy and wealthy are only valuable to wellbeing if they contribute to our happiness. Wellbeing can be best described by the “doing well – feeling good” and “doing good – feeling well” paradigm.

What does it mean to do well and feel good?

Doing well refers to the economic aspect of wellbeing but it need not be limited to it. Things like a “standard of living”, material possessions, education, environmental quality, and physical health fall under this aspect of welfare. I know some of you might agree or disagree with the idea of measuring our wellbeing on superficial things, but these factors are relevant to consider to understand the dynamics of wellbeing.

Feeling good pertains to your personal satisfaction with your life. Do you find your life has a purpose? Does your life bring you joy? Are you following your aspirations? Are your fears getting in the way of you achieving “the good life”?

What does it mean to do good and feel well?

To do good is very different from feeling good. Doing good is infiltrated with a moral or religious dimension. When you are doing good morally or religiously you are tuned to a higher power than you; it’s not just about how you feel anymore but about the greater good. Being selfless, doing volunteer work and standing for an important cause are examples of doing good.

Feeling well, on the other hand, pertains to the health aspect of wellbeing. Are we really “well” if we are not in a certain state of health? Mental and physical health are of concern here. Feeling well also has a completely different dimension that is non-health-related at all. It has to do with our place in the world, our interactions and relationships with others and how this reflects on us.

Relationships are very important to wellbeing and can affect our overall life satisfaction, according to many psychological research findings. If you feel like you belong in your community and social groups, and have strong familial links, those could potentially contribute to your overall state of wellbeing.

Yet it must be noted that the scope of relational wellbeing transcends our common understandings of daily relationships between friends and family. Relational concerns include one’s relationship with the State; is your government providing you with economic, social and health support? Other concerns include receiving support in old age and feeling secure in one’s society. In many cultures, being respected in society is an existential element of wellbeing.

But isn’t wellbeing essentially, happiness? 

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” – Aristotle

Being happy is considered the human’s ultimate goal. That said, life satisfaction (i.e. wellbeing) is closely linked to happiness. To be clear, happiness and wellbeing are not the same things, but they are interrelated and each of them pours into the other. Wellbeing represents our overall physical and mental health which could last for a significant period of time whereas happiness is a temporary state, which could last for a few minutes to a day.

Since wellbeing is supposedly a wholesome state and is not affected by temporary situations in contrast to happiness, I figured it would make sense to introduce happiness from the Stoic perspective; the Stoics explained true or ultimate happiness like we would today describe a state of wellbeing.

To understand happiness in the Stoic Philosophy, it is useful to understand tranquility – which is not far from happiness – according to the Stoics.

Tranquility: “a psychological state in which we experience few negative emotions, such as anxiety, grief, and fear, but an abundance of positive emotions, especially joy.”

Thus, Joy = abundance of positive emotions, the result of being tranquil/experiencing a few negative emotions.

But how do we experience a few negative emotions?

In the Stoic Philosophy, to be happy and experience an abundance of positive emotions and few negative emotions, we must not tie happiness to a condition or a future accomplishment. To be happy, we must be content with what we already have or we will never be happy with what we have or achieve in the future. Thus, happiness is an internal state and should not depend on external circumstances. So kinda like wellbeing but not? Stoics don’t view happiness as a temporary state, but wellbeing heavily depends on external circumstances…?

Although wellbeing is dictated by both internal and external circumstances – such as physical health and socioeconomic status – reaching the state of happiness the Stoic way can lead to a better wellbeing. Here are a few citings from one of my favorite books, “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” 

“The easiest way to gain happiness is to want the things you already have.” 

“The first step in transforming a society into one in which people live a good life is to teach people how to make their happiness depend as little as possible on their external circumstances.”

“As little as possible” is interesting to me. How much is it okay to depend on external resources for happiness?  We’ve heard about the Little Book of Hygge – the Danish way of living a happy life. The book suggests improving our lives by soft pillows, hot chocolate, and warm lighting.  So how much of these seemingly mediocre things amount to our greater happiness?

My perspective

I admit that there are many additional things in my life that add to my happiness, many of which are material possessions i.e. external resources. IMO, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to barely depend on external resources for happiness, although I really strive for the purely intrinsic happiness. I feel happy in my comfort zone i.e in my home, in an aesthetically pleasing room, doing what I love. I care for my education and I love to travel, which are purely extrinsic things. My surroundings, environment, and relationships have the power to contribute to my happiness and vice versa. So it’s safe to say I cannot completely rid myself of external means. That’s not to say I don’t focus on my inner self and happiness, which is extremely important. I never want to get too attached to the external privileges, and that’s the most important thing. This essentially means that I care about my overall wellbeing – which includes happiness but is not limited to it. And I believe that happiness and wellbeing can be used interchangeably as a “good” wellbeing suggests a happier life.

I would also add that resolving all the background noise in your life is key to happiness. When you are in constant chatter with yourself, and easily aggravated by external events that trigger unhealed wounds from past experiences, it is extremely difficult to reach a good state of wellbeing. Letting go is one of the greatest things you can do to restore your inner tranquility and reside in a state of happiness. Other things that underpin your happiness include your fear, regrets, and preconceived notions about the world which make it harder for you to assimilate to new circumstances, uncontrollable by you and don’t necessarily match your perspective about life.

Needless to say, there is no objective reality dictating our wellbeing or happiness, it’s all very subjective to us, our societies, and cultures. You can strive for happiness or overall wellbeing, but both are things you can consider to positively enhance the state of your life, both internally and externally.