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The importance of wellbeing The importance of wellbeing

International best practice: the importance of wellbeing

Positive psychology has increasingly become part of the zeitgeist, with research over the last decade demonstrating that people with a sense of wellbeing have better social relationships, better health, more creativity, are more flexible and open to new ideas, more productive, better able to cope with difficult times, and are more likely to help others.

Governments have progressively turned their attention to measuring the wellbeing of their citizens as a barometer of their nation’s health, as opposed to merely focussing on its economic status as an indicator.

Since our inception in 1989, Ingeus has inherently utilised the key concepts now attributed to positive psychology to inform and shape our service delivery: namely, building on individuals’ personal strengths, resilience, connecting to others, positivity, and contributing to something bigger than self. Indeed, one of our earliest client workshops focussed on “Positivity in Action”.

Over the years we have consistently demonstrated the power of assisting our clients and our staff[1] to recognise and build on their unique strengths in order to reach their goals and grow in confidence. Individualised personal development, goal setting and focussed job searches are best achieved when people are engaged, are being challenged and learning, have a sense of purpose and, most importantly, have someone who believes in them. Nurturing these elements in the advisor and client relationship is therefore fundamental to a successful partnership, as well as demonstrably advantageous in the journey to re-entering the workforce.

Whilst positive psychology was borne out of moving from a disease model paradigm to a focus on wellness, there is still some misconception that positive psychology advocates a “Pollyanna” approach to life. This is definitively not the case. Negative emotions, of course, still have a necessary and valid place in the spectrum of human experience. However, positive psychology seeks to harness scientific methodology to capture how emotionally healthy individuals, families and communities thrive, with a view to replicating those methods to enable others to make their lives more fulfilling and meaningful.

The science of positive psychology

Dr Martin Seligman, widely regarded as the founding father of positive psychology, has specialised in research in this field for over 10 years. He took the research methods of Psychology and applied them to measuring life-satisfaction, being able to reliably and validly assess individual trait strengths, and then developing measures of optimism and resilience (“grit”). It is essential to have standard definitions and measures of life satisfaction, so that one can then evaluate what factors contribute to happiness, and assess what behaviours build life satisfaction.

Seligman and others’ research has demonstrated that people who use their personal strengths to contribute to something bigger than themselves experience a more meaningful life and a greater sense of wellbeing. Additionally, they are more engaged and have a greater sense of purpose; in other words, they are flourishing. Seligman believes that people flourish when they experience positive emotions and relationships, and experience accomplishment through the achievement of personal goals.[2]

Barbara Frederickson, another renowned expert in the field, has shown using her ‘Broaden and Build’ research that people who experience positive emotions are more open to possibilities, are more creative, more trusting, have better relationships, and perform better.[3] Frederickson’s “3-to-1 positivity ratio” finding is frequently quoted and defines positivity as a balance whereby each negative emotional experience should be counteracted by three of a range of uplifting emotions, such as appreciation, hope, confidence or gratitude. [4] Frederickson also found that building positivity helps people to build resilience so that they are better able to cope with difficult times.

In recent times, there has been a plethora of research undertaken by experts united in their consensus as to the value of measuring wellbeing, and advocacy for it to inform public policy. Clearly, a sense of wellbeing that results in resilience, increased positivity, and a feeling of being valued is beneficial to all, regardless of whether they are a job seeker looking to re-enter the workforce or an individual wishing to enhance their life satisfaction. These benefits are also highly advantageous for employers, due to the direct correlation that has been found between employee engagement and productivity[5], as well as increased sales, accuracy on tasks and a myriad of health and quality of life improvements.[6]

Measuring wellbeing – a new global drive

Pertinently, the importance of measuring the multifaceted nature of wellbeing has grown to such a degree that governments are now seeking advice from experts including positive psychologists on national wellbeing measures, again highlighting its emerging relevance in policy design. This is borne from the realisation that whilst gross domestic product (GDP) has grown drastically in the developed world over the past 50 years, rates of depression and anxiety have risen exponentially, and life satisfaction has remained static. [7]

In July 2011, the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) released the results of a five month debate on the question ‘What matters to you?’ The debate was commissioned by Prime Minister David Cameron in November 2010, and was run to help inform a wide ranging project leading to a new national wellbeing indicator – a “happiness index”. ‘Measuring national wellbeing’[8], a “national statistician’s reflection on the national debate on measuring national wellbeing”, states that this is “influenced by a broad range of factors including economic performance, the state of the environment, sustainability, equality, quality of life, as well as individual wellbeing”. Dr Martin Seligman has been involved in the initiative and was asked to speak at the UK House of Commons last month in order to further inform the Government’s proposed household survey of 200,000 people per year to measure wellbeing.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy engaged esteemed economists, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean Paul Fitoussi in 2008 to create ‘The Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress’ (CMEPSP) with an aim to identifying the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress. One of the Commission’s conclusions was that non-monetary dimensions of wellbeing must be measured, again signifying a departure from the sole focus on economic status and a move to a broader measure of national wealth that would quantify wellbeing alongside economic strength. [9]

Furthering the case for the importance of wellbeing, The Better Life Index was launched by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development[10] (OECD) as part of its ‘Better Life Initiative’ in May 2011. The Index covers 34 member countries, bringing together most of the world’s developed economies and a number of emerging economies; and 11 topics, from the more traditionally measured housing, income, jobs, community, governance and education to the more innovative environment, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. The OECD’s conclusions submit that whilst the GDP has remained the main measure of economic and social progress since the Second World War, a review of this measure is necessary as GDP “has failed to capture many of the factors that influence people’s lives, such as security, leisure, income distribution and a clean environment”.[11]

In May 2011, The Economist[12] ran an online debate on the case for measuring happiness as an economic trend. The introduction to the debate made reference to the American independence declaration, to its statement that the pursuit of happiness, along with life and liberty, was an inalienable right, and to the fact that until recently this had not been an explicit political goal. The case put forward by the debate was that the economy of the 21st century needed new measures of economic and social progress. A significant 83% of participants concurred with the motion.

A new measure of wellbeing?

Evidently, there is a multi-disciplinary, growing movement in developed nations towards the benefits of measuring national wellbeing. Discussions around the perceived limitations of GDP as a true measure of wealth and progress abound, and so do new measurement theories – the Human Development Index (HDI), the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), the Happy Planet Index (HPI), Gross National Happiness (GNH) to name but a few. The most interesting aspect of these discussions is their common denominator, namely a greater focus on people, and on each individual’s quality of life – people’s wellbeing in the broadest sense of the word. With governments, organisations, experts and employers in accord, the importance of enabling and empowering people to flourish is firmly on the agenda.

 

[1] http://www.bestcompanies.co.uk/survey_list.aspx

[2] Martin. E.P. Seligman Flourish- a Visionary new Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing, New York: Free Press: 2011.

[3] Barbara L. Frederickson, Positivity, New York: Random House, Inc: 2009

[4] Fredrickson, B. L. & Losada, M. (2005), Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing.

[5] Jarden, A. (2011). An interview with Daniel Kahneman, International Journal of Wellbeing, 1(1), 186-188. doi:10.5502/ijw.v1i1.22

[6] http://www.businessinsider.com/happy-workers-2011-6

[7] Forgeard, M. J. C., Jayawickreme, E., Kern, M. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Doing the right thing: Measuring wellbeing for public policy. International Journal of Wellbeing, 1(1), 79-106. doi:10.5502/ijw.v1i1.15

[8] http://www.statistics.gov.uk/articles/nojournal/ns-report-eng.pdf

[9] Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, French Government. http://www.stiglitz-sen-fitoussi.fr/en/index.htm. Accessed 12 August 2011.

[10] The Organisation of Economic Development. www.oecd.org. Accessed 12 August 2011.

[11] Organisation of Economic Development Better Life Index. http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/wpsystem/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/YourBetterLifeIndex_ExecutiveSummary21.pdf Accessed 12 August 2011.

[12] The Economist. www.economist.com. Accessed12 August 2011.

Positive psychology remains as integral to our approach today as when we started out 22 years ago. That is, our passion for enabling and empowering people to reach their full potential, to assist them into independence, to believe in them, to support them, to encourage them, to treat them with respect as individuals with their own unique strengths. Ultimately, to help people flourish. Thérèse Rein ”