How to Thrive: Specifying the Universal Elements of Wellbeing

Although wellbeing can be subjective—the specifics of what makes a good life for one person surely differ from another’s—it seems safe to say that there are universally necessary elements.

On a broad level, we must attend to all six dimensions of wellbeing: an individual’s mental/physical, material, social, and existential wellbeing, as well as that of our communities and our environment. If we want a clearer picture of what distinguishes a person who is barely surviving (or not) from one who is struggling but has some security, and from another who is thriving, then we need further specification of these dimensions of wellbeing.

This work follows that of Amartya Sen, who conceives of development as freedom, focuses on what an individual is capable of doing and being, and maintains that these capabilities are context-specific and must be debated within particular communities. But it also leans toward the position of others, such as philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who maintain that a list of universal capabilities is necessary to protect human rights. While keeping in mind that wellbeing is context-specific, the following list aims to start a discussion on what the universally necessary elements might be.

The first dimension, physical and mental wellbeing, may contain the following vital elements:

  1. Freedom from preventable diseases and death
  2. Freedom from excessive physical stress (e.g., from harsh working conditions)
  3. Ability to consume food and water in quantities sufficient for survival and in quality that enhances wellbeing (e.g., fresh, chemical-free, plant-based)
  4. Ability to engage in moderate amounts of physical activity
  5. Freedom from preventable and excessive mental distress
  6. Ability to bounce back emotionally from stress and shock
  7. Ability to reason
  8. Access to goods and services that heighten freedoms and abilities in this domain (e.g., healthcare and education)

The second dimension, material wellbeing, might be broken down this way:

  1. Ability to secure basic needs (food/water, shelter, medicine, clothing)
  2. Ability to generate income sufficient for household needs
  3. Freedom from unmanageable debt
  4. Ability to save for emergencies, reinvestment, and future needs
  5. Ability to produce a surplus for personal use and giving

Social wellbeing is less concrete than the first two dimensions, but its elements are also necessary to wellbeing:

  1. Freedom from discrimination and threat of violence from others
  2. Ability to interact positively with others (e.g., in ways that produce positive emotion and good influence)
  3. Ability to network for tangible and intangible support, both giving and receiving
  4. Ability to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion

Existential wellbeing, or life satisfaction based on how we spend our time, is perhaps further up in the hierarchy of needs, yet to really thrive, we should consider these elements:

  1. Ability to engage in work that uses strengths and is engaging and meaningful
  2. Ability to engage in leisure that is active and is engaging and meaningful
  3. Ability to balance all life activities

Community wellbeing is quite complex; it’s a goal to work toward in its own right and it also contributes to individual wellbeing. The following elements should be factored into efforts to create community wellbeing:

  1. Ability to provide basic infrastructure (e.g., utilities, transportation)
  2. Ability to provide a social safety net
  3. Ability to provide security for person and property
  4. Ability to engage in economic production, distribution, and exchange
  5. Ability to facilitate social inclusion
  6. Ability to engage in participatory decision making
  7. Ability to provide opportunities to engage in communal activities (e.g. for social or material purposes)
  8. Ability to sustain community life (socially, economically, environmentally)
  9. Ability to create an aesthetic environment

Environmental wellbeing is also quite complex as an end in itself as well as a factor in individual wellbeing.  The basic essential elements might be as follows:

  1. Ability to maintain healthy biodiversity
  2. Freedom from harmful pollution, including excessive waste
  3. Freedom from excessive human acceleration of climate change
  4. Ability to maintain resource sustainability
  5. Ability to balance resource use, preservation, and public access

This list was developed based on the empirical and theoretical work of academics and practitioners in fields relating to wellbeing such as development, economics, positive psychology, anthropology, among others.  That support can and should be added as we further develop this list. For now, however, the purpose is to provide a starting point for further debate about what elements are universally necessary to wellbeing as well as what elements should be emphasized within a given community or context. This process will serve us well as we strive to work out how best to thrive.

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