In the past week, I have been informed on social media that the science of well-being is only for white people from the middle and upper class, that there is an agenda to force unhappy workers to be happy within harsh workplaces, and the Templeton Foundation and Koch Foundation control the questions scientists are tackling.
Someone on Twitter asked me, "does flow matter for the poor?" My immediate answer was: Yes. Just like rich people, poor people can be in flow (or "in the zone") when playing baseball, dancing, running, painting, drawing, writing, singing, or talking. They are humans. Poor people can also experience a sense of meaning in life, trust, love, and be courageous, creative, compassionate, and humorous just like anyone else can.
These conversations inspired me to write about scientific findings from the science of well-being that everyone should know about. Although I have been in this field for nearly two decades, clearly, this information is not getting disseminated to a sufficient number of people. Here are three important facts that are worth adding to your knowledge base.
1. Well-being is not a single thing.
Several dimensions of well-being can be separated by what they influence and what influences them. When someone's sense of meaning in life is threatened they become vulnerable to stressful events, more than those whose sense of meaning is left intact. Yet, when someone experiences a drop in positive emotions, this has minimal influence on their vulnerability to stressful events. Earning over $80,000 has no discernible impact on one's emotional life or stress, but there is a consistent link between greater income and a greater satisfaction with life.
The implication of these findings is that if you want to understand well-being, do not settle on a single dimension—positive emotions, negative emotions, a sense of purpose in life, etc. If you want to understand whether a change in the workplace leads to greater well-being, move beyond simple assessments. For instance, the spillover of stress from work-to-family has consequences that are distinct from the spillover of stress from home-to-work. Use the proper metrics to understand and intervene where needed most.
As for how to parse up well-being, there are more questions than answers. Most researchers are wed to the idea that the amount of pleasure and pain that you experience is divorced from a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Unfortunately, the research literature simply fails to support this seductive idea (see studies one, two, and three for examples). Other ideas such as Gallup's suggestion of social, physical, career, financial, and community well-being are seductive and potentially valuable but await evidence.
To understand someone's well-being, you must capture the multi-faceted nature of this desirable state; the same goes for trying to understand or improve couples, families, organizations, communities, or nations. Narrow definitions or measures of well-being may lead to erroneous conclusions.
2. Well-being is influenced by culture.
In certain cultures, well-being operates differently. For instance, pride is more relevant to conceptions of well-being in Maasai society than the Amish or Inuit. And if you want to ask someone about their quality of life, you need to consider their frame of reference. People can focus on internal standards of success ("I am doing better than I anticipated") or the standards of others ("My boss thinks I should be better than I am"). A number of studies have shown that people from Japan and other East Asian cultures are strongly focused on fitting in and saving face, and this influences how they derive a sense of self, evaluate their performance, and judge the quality of life; they tend to rely on the standards of others instead of their own. Americans, who are heavily invested in their self-worth, focus more on standing out and tend to rely on internal standards to determine their success and well-being. What this means is that when you ask someone about the intimacy in their relationships, someone from Japan is more likely to be telling you about what their close friends or romantic partners think about them whereas Americans are more likely to offer their own interpretation. What do you really want to know? Information about a culture offers you insight into how to properly frame questions.
There are plenty of other intriguing cultural findings. Compared to Japanese adults, self-esteem is a greater predictor of the life satisfaction of Americans. One reason is that residential mobility, where people move around a lot and alter their social networks, is higher in the United States compared to Japan. Self-esteem is more relevant to Americans and now we know one of the reasons for this. If we seek to improve people's life satisfaction in American and Japan, it is helpful to know that we might have to target different mechanisms. Where else in the world are we assuming that the mechanisms to target are the same, when in fact, they differ?
Researchers have also found that people fare better when their personality matches the dominant culture. Religious people experience greater well-being in religious nations. Introverts are happier in more introverted cultures. People who see their goals as opportunities for gain or advancement, otherwise known as promotion-focused, fare better in promotion-focused compared with prevention-focused cultures (where their goals are about not making errors or failing). This could explain the cultural push to aid introverts in America—where being fun-loving, gregarious, assertive, and active are the qualities that are rewarded in schools and the workplace, and characteristic of heroes and heroines in popular books and movies.
We need to separate human universals from the culturally specific. A person's sense of self and quality of life are often tied to the culture that influences them.
3. Experiencing well-being is beneficial.
This seems obvious. It is not. For most people, their life ambition is to be happy or experience some other dimension of well-being. For most researchers and clinicians interested in improving people's lives, their primary goal is to enhance well-being. However, much has been discovered about switching well-being from the end game to a predictor of what is most valuable in life.
In a meta-analysis of 21 prospective studies of healthy adults, people with greater well-being lived longer; in a meta-analysis of 19 prospective studies of adults with spinal cord injuries, chronic heart failure, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases, people with greater well-being lived longer.
As for the workforce, feeling emotionally restored during leisure time predicts greater job-related performance, and conversely, a sense of burnout and unhealthy emotions predict greater absenteeism over time. Finally, in a sample of 11,700 employees, a sense of well-being predicted lower healthcare costs, less absenteeism, less presenteeism, greater supervisor performance ratings, and less turnover over the course of one year.
Well-being is not an abstract, academic concept devoid of real-world value. People who endorse greater well-being are healthier, productive and creative workers, and better citizens.
There is no single storyline to capture the science of well-being. A heterogeneous set of researchers from around the world have been exploring a heterogeneous range of topics for decades. The result of this work cannot be described succinctly or criticized with a broad brush. The science of well-being has relevance to a diverse range of topics and life domains beyond psychology. When this work is integrated into the mainstream, more discoveries will arrive and greater inroads will be made into improving human welfare.
Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His new book is The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success and fulfillment. If you're interested in arranging a speaking engagement or workshop, visit toddkashdan.com