The Four Layers of Well-Being

The concept of well-being consists of four nested layers

Posted Jan 11, 2013

Well-being is arguably one of the most central concepts in psychology. A glance around the Psychology Today blogosphere reveals numerous blogs on seeking happiness, health, and wellness and avoiding anxiety, stress or disease. But what, really, is well-being? As Emmy van Deurzen points out in her excellent book, Psychotherapy and the Quest for Happiness, this turns out to be a very central and a very complicated question.

To get a sense of how potentially important the concept of well-being is, consider Sam Harris’ book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. In it he argues that the foundational moral value is the well-being of conscious creatures. Furthermore, he argues that we can have a fairly good (if a bit rough) sense of what well-being is, and to illustrate the point, he gives two examples which are at the extreme ends of the well-being continuum, which he labels the “Bad Life” and the “Good Life”. The example he uses for the bad life is of an impoverished young widow in a war torn country; she lost her family and is running for her life, terrified of being raped, tortured or killed. In contrast, the good life is of a woman who is in a loving marriage, is accomplished, and has access to all the professional, relational and financial resources she needs and feels fulfilled and appreciated in the work she is doing. Harris goes on to argue that the fundamental moral value is to move people toward the good life, and the central point of his book is that we can use science to decide where people are on the continuum and what tends to move people in the positive as opposed to negative direction. The actual thrust of his book is on a philosophical point, which is that if you grant him these premises, then the traditional distinction between fact and value evaporates and that we can then frame science as the key to maximizing human value.

Harris’ book is interesting, although I think he over states the case he wants to make. But one point is remarkably absent from his book. He does not go into any detail about what he means exactly by well-being or the good life. The psychology of well-being/happiness/positive psychology only shows up at the very end of the book and he proceeds to criticize the research, explaining the concept is so convoluted it is hard to know exactly how to define it. Interestingly, Harris does not seem to recognize that such ambiguity spells serious difficulty for his entire argument.

I have been studying the concept of well-being for some time now and Harris is right that there are many different psychological conceptions and no real agreement about what the term means. Using my broad, unified view, I realized that we are not talking about one concept, but actually the interplay of four separable domains of variables. Here is a map of the domains in the shape of a target. It mapped as such because each of the inner domains, described below, is contextually dependent on the outer domains.

The four layers of well-being.

The first domain (purple in the center) is the one most people think of when they first think of well-being, and that is the subjective state of satisfaction and happiness. This is the first person, conscious view and refers to the predominance of positive over negative feeling states and the reflective judgments one makes of being satisfied (or not) with one’s life and its various elements. We can call this the subjective core of well-being. It is necessary, but not sufficient.

A year or so ago, my students and I conducted evaluations on eight people who were institutionalized for mental illness and part of our evaluation involved questions of subjective well-being. Three of the eight people scored the highest possible score on the measures we gave. Why? In psychological jargon, they had poor ego functioning, and simply responded to the demand characteristics of the situation. But this fact raises the obvious need for the second domain, which is the psychological health and functioning of an individual. Regardless of whether they report being happy in that moment, clearly we would want to be hesitant about applying the term “well-being” to individuals who are grossly impulsive, psychotic, drugged, or demonstrate marked dysfunction in other areas. Likewise, we are much more likely to find the term applicable to people who demonstrate psychological virtues like courage, resilience, maturity, reflectiveness, and are able to effectively adapt, regardless of whether or not they are "happy" in the trite sense of the word. Thus, psychological health and functioning is a related to well-being, and is conceptually separate from happiness.

Now think of global warming, the stagnant economy, or the nature of tragic events like Newtown. Psychological functioning always exists in and is somewhat dependent upon the environment, and the stressors and affordances in that context. This is the third domain of well-being.

Now let’s imagine someone who describes themselves as happy, is a charming and successful business man, and is someone who is well-respected and wealthy. Now imagine that, like the character Martin Vanger in the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the man is a sadistic rapist and murderer. Does your sense of his well-being change? I argue yes, which to the fourth and final domain. Well-being is an inherently evaluative construct. We cannot use the term “well-being” without our own values impacting what we see and how we rate someone’s well-being. Although this is a particularly dramatic example, the values element will rear its head in subtler examples. A born-again Christian would have to evaluate my overall well-being lower than a secular American psychologist would because they have different versions of what is real and good. The former would see me living a relatively false life, distant from my true potential and, perhaps, in grave danger of eternal suffering. The latter would not. We need thus to consider the fourth domain, which is values and ideology of the knower (which, BTW, could be the individual reflecting on her own life).

So next time you wonder about the concept of well-being, remember that you are actually aligning four different domains in your head: 1) the subjective experience of pleasure and sense of life satisfaction; 2) the health and functioning of the individual; 3) the environmental context; and 4) your ideology and view of morality. It is when these four layers are in harmony in the positive direction then we have true, authentic well-being.