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How Can We Develop a More Global Vision of Wellbeing?

New research seeks a more inclusive understanding of flourishing.

Pink lotus flower on water
Source: Pikrepo

Seeking Wellbeing

It is a truism that wellbeing matters to everyone. After all, who among us does not want to be and feel well (however we define these goals)? Indeed, wellbeing has become an increasingly prominent topic of study across diverse fields of scholarship and practice, from psychology to economics. If anything, it has become even more salient in recent months, as the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the urgency of understanding and caring for our mental and physical health.

But what do we mean by wellbeing? Despite nearly a century of scientific research on the topic, and millennia of philosophising before that, there is no universally accepted model, theory, or definition of this key term.

That said, there are some prominent and influential ideas. For instance, much of the research in this area focuses on "subjective wellbeing" (SWB), which broadly pertains to feeling good1. This is generally theorised as comprising two dimensions: cognitive (feeling good about life) and affective (feeling good in life). The former is captured by constructs such as "life satisfaction," which reflects a person’s assessment of their life in general (i.e., all elements together, over a reasonable span of time). By contrast, the latter concerns how people feel emotionally right now (or relatively recently) and is usually conceptualised in terms of a ratio of positive to negative affect.

Most scholars recognise that SWB isn’t all there is to wellbeing. The complementary concept of "eudaimonic" wellbeing has also been proposed, for instance, influenced by Aristotelian notions of character development, which includes considerations such as meaning in life2. Nevertheless, considerable progress has been made by focusing on SWB.

A prominent measure of life satisfaction, for example, is Cantril’s Self-Anchoring Striving Scale3, which asks people to envisage a 10-rung ladder—where the base and top represent the worst and best possible life imaginable—and to indicate where they stand. This item is included in the influential Gallup World Poll, whose data is also the basis for the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, which ranks countries on life satisfaction4. In turn, these surveys have fed into political and cultural debates around the importance of wellbeing and how to promote it.

Redressing Western-Centricity

As valuable as such research is, however, it has its issues. One notable critique is the charge of being Western-centric. Even though such analyses are global in their scope, their concepts and measurement tools were mostly formed in Western contexts, particularly the United States. More pertinently, they have been influenced by these contexts.

For instance, it has been argued that the West places a relatively high premium on high arousal forms of positive affect, whereas other cultures, such as those in the East, assign more value to low arousal forms like peace and tranquillity5. Similarly, the West is commonly characterised as being relatively individualistic, which has also coloured its views on wellbeing.

Such issues are not unique to wellbeing research, of course, and apply to psychology and other such fields more broadly. This point was vividly made by Henrich and colleagues, who argued that much of the research in psychology is done by and on people who are "WEIRD" (from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic contexts)6. At issue is that most of the world’s population is not similarly "WEIRD," which raises questions around the validity and universality of such research.

To that end, researchers are increasingly appreciative of the need for greater cross-cultural research and understanding across all fields of enquiry. This means going beyond conducting research globally using measures developed in Western contexts and moving towards exploring variation in how phenomena like wellbeing are actually experienced and conceptualized cross-culturally.

A New Global Wellbeing Initiative

To that end, a new Global Wellbeing Initiative (GWI) has just been launched by Gallup in collaboration with the Wellbeing for Planet Earth Foundation (a Japan-based non-profit organization that supports research, practice, and policy advances towards a global view of wellbeing). Its overarching aim is to foster a more inclusive, comprehensive, and global understanding of wellbeing by incorporating cross-cultural perspectives into our understanding of this vital topic.

The GWI was initiated at a summit at Kyoto in August 2019, where the focus was on developing new items for inclusion in the Gallup World Poll reflecting Eastern perspectives of wellbeing, as outlined in a white paper published in June 2020 in the International Journal of Wellbeing7. Initially nine items were formulated and prioritised as follows: (1) low arousal emotions; (2) balance and harmony; (3) relationship to group; (4) meaning in life; (5) relationship to nature; (6) mastery; (7) relationship with government; (8) leisure; and (9) resilience.

Following the summit, the first four items were selected for inclusion in the Poll. Then followed a rigorous developmental process, including testing the item wording in the field through cognitive interviews, together with internal discussions among the collaboration partners. Eventually, the phrasing was agreed upon, and the items included in this year's Poll, which began gathering data in early 2020 (using telephone interviews, rather than the usual process of face-to-face interviews, in light of the COVID-19 crisis).

Analysis of this 2020 wave of data is anticipated to be completed in 2021 and will be shared at a global launch of the GWI planned for September on World Peace Day. Then, across 2021 and 2022, additional items will be developed and included in the Poll for these years, with the aim of formulating a comprehensive set of globally relevant questions to be rolled out in 2023. However, even these milestones are just the beginning of the vision of this collaboration. While the items added to the Poll this year pertain specifically to Eastern perspectives on wellbeing, the broader aim of the GWI is to explore global perspectives more generally.

As such, the plan is to expand the horizons of the partnership to include all corners of the globe, spanning all cultures, and to identify and develop new items accordingly. In this way will we be truly able to gain a clearer picture of the nature of wellbeing, as experienced and conceptualised by people the world over in their rich diversity.


[1] Diener, E. (2009). Assessing Well-being: The Collected Works of Ed Diener. Vol. 331. New York, NY: Springer

[2] Ryff, C. D. (1989). ‘Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 57(6): 1069–1081.

[3] Cantril, H. (1965). The Pattern of Human Concerns. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

[4] Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., Sachs, J. D., & De Neve, J. E. (2020). The 8th World Happiness Report.

[5] Joshanloo, M. (2014) Eastern conceptualizations of happiness: Fundamental differences with Western views. Journal of Happiness Studies, 15(2), 475-493.

[6] Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). Most people are not WEIRD. Nature, 466(7302), 29-29.

[7] Lambert, L., Lomas, T., van de Weijer, M. P., Passmore, H. A., Joshanloo, M., Harter, J., Ishikawa, Y., et al. (2020). Towards a greater global understanding of wellbeing: A proposal for a more inclusive measure.” International Journal of Wellbeing. 10(2): 1–18.

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