Is It Worth Trying To Improve Our Wellbeing?

From governments to workplaces and schools there is a growing interest in measuring and improving people’s wellbeing.  After all helping people to feel good and to function effectively has been found to be associated with effective learning, productivity and creativity, good relationships, pro-social behavior and good health and life expectancy.  But can the wellbeing of people and populations really be improved?

“Because we now have a reasonable theory of what wellbeing is and we know how to measure it and build it, I believe improving people’s wellbeing has become a plausible world goal,” explained Professor Martin Seligman, author of the ground-breaking international best-sellers Authentic Happiness and Flourish, when I interviewed him recently.

And it seems even economists agree.

Given the wellbeing of a population has been found to be akin to a bell curve, with most people sitting in ‘moderate mental health’ between the extremes of flourishing and mental disorder, researchers have suggested that successful efforts to improve people’s wellbeing will draw more of us towards flourishing.  However, despite growing efforts to improve people’s wellbeing in a range of settings, researchers admit that to date we lack the data to indicate if this bell curve has moved at all over the past three decades.

In fact, some researchers believe the wellbeing bell curve will never really move, as we each have a genetically determined, set-point range for wellbeing that for most of us is naturally stable and positive (between 70 and 90 points on a standard 0 – 100 point range, with a potential ten per cent swing either side).  Leading them to suggest that in a world of finite resources this makes the efforts of governments, workplaces and schools to improve most people’s wellbeing unjustified.

So is trying to improve people’s wellbeing a worthy endeavor or an unnecessary expenditure?

“Of course there is much we still need to learn, and to date, just like the data on suffering and ill-being, our efforts have largely been confined to small numbers of people in limited settings,” Marty explained.  “But I believe we can feel confident that there are five routes to improving our every day experiences of life satisfaction and wellbeing, and I use the acronym PERMA to talk about them.  Which stands for positive emotion, engagement, good relationships, meaning and purpose, and achievement. I think these are all plausible goals that are increasable.”

Of course this is no different from how we’ve come to understand optimizing our body’s natural weight range.  When we consistently eat well and move regularly we maintain our optimal weight, but when we’re inconsistent in our efforts or we’re challenged by illness or injury we slip away from our body’s ideal weight range and struggle to find our usual strength and energy.

Personally – and I recognize that I’m a sample size of one in this observation – I find there is a significant difference when I’m living towards the bottom of my naturally high wellbeing set-point range – say at my low of 70, rather than at my top of 90.  I function, but I certainly don’t feel like I’m flourishing.

This is why I’ve found regularly measuring my PERMA levels, and not just my overall wellbeing score, a helpful way to inform the choices I’m making – especially during the periods when I’m struggling.  However, just as the data from my bathroom scales only really became helpful now that I have the knowledge, skills and support to navigate it in healthy ways (goodbye emergency fad diets and exercise binges!), the same is true for my wellbeing.

But might measuring PERMA only be part of the equation when it comes to improving people’s wellbeing?

“Fifty years ago, Steve Mair and I argued that when animals and people learn that they’re helpless and nothing they do matters, then the deficits of depression follow from this.  And this gave rise to my theory of learned helplessness,” explained Marty.  “But Steve has turned this on its head recently by discovering that the default mammalian reaction to bad events is helplessness due to the firing of a structure deep in the limbic system called the dorsal raphe nucleus.”

“It turns out the only way to manage this default reaction to bad events is to learn mastery and control because this activates a circuit that goes from the ventromedial prefrontal cortex down to the dorsal raphe nucleus and turns it off,” he said. “So the building of subjective wellbeing makes even more sense once you realize that helplessness is not learned, but a default response to bad events, and the only way around it is to buffer it with mastery, control, confidence, and PERMA.”

After much trial and error at trying to improve wellbeing in my own life, this has been my big a-ha. For me, the key to flourishing more consistently has been in building the confidence and mastery to intelligently navigate the different PERMA domains depending on what is happening in my life and the outcomes I’m hoping to achieve.

Could it be that our measures of success for governments, workplaces and schools when it comes to improving people’s wellbeing shouldn’t rely on an advancing an overall wellbeing number, but on the mastery of people’s ability to navigate the different domains of wellbeing and consistently maintain a healthy balance?

This interview was produced with the support of the International Positive Psychology Association’s 5th World Congress on Positive Psychology.

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