Is it time to rethink wellbeing? Part II11 min read

Introducing the Wellbeing Calculus

Depression and anxiety are rampant, despite decades of positive thinking and the active promotion of happiness. That’s a fact. And here’s another – we’re more miserable and anxious now than we’ve ever been before. But if mainstream approaches to wellbeing aren’t helping, what are we to do? It’s simple. We need to reconsider how we think about wellbeing.

In my previous article, I argued that happiness and positivity don’t offer a deep enough grounding for our wellbeing. In this concluding article, I’m going to introduce an alternative account of wellbeing – the Wellbeing Calculus [1]. And I hope this will spark a conversation about what we mean when we talk about wellbeing.

The Wellbeing Calculus doesn’t prioritise happiness or positivity – as important as these are. Instead, it highlights personal agency – our ability to reflect, make decisions, and actively choose how we want to live. And our experience of wellbeing? It’s nothing less than our lived experience of freedom. As we exercise our agency, we enhance our everyday experience of freedom, and this is experienced as wellbeing. The Wellbeing Calculus can help us identify the things that impede us in our everyday lives. And it can also help us cultivate our agency and live with greater freedom and self-determination in everyday life [2]. So where do we begin?

A flourish of wellbeing
Without committing to any grand claims, let’s start with a thought experiment about what wellbeing might actually be. As a starting point, we could adopt ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s concept Eudaemonia, which translates roughly as ‘flourishing’.

Eudaemonia is the experience we have when we’re living life to the full, actively engaged in the world around us. It includes the experience athletes talk of when they describe being ‘in the zone’. We find something of it in the idea of the ‘fully-functioning person’. She isn’t continually happy, but lives at the fullest extent of her capabilities. There’s also a sense of self-determination and authenticity, of being true to yourself and living the life you want to live. And we might also throw the idea of optimality into the mix. Thus, if we function optimally, we’ll flourish, be self-determining, and live true to ourselves. This will maximise our experience of freedom in our everyday lives and, hey presto!, there’s a subjective sense of wellbeing.

This gives us a basic – and a provisional – concept of wellbeing, and one that isn’t dependent on happiness or positivity. Now we need to unravel it.

Thinking about freedom
Some people say we’re born free – but it’s not as simple as that. Instead, our ability to live freely appears to be contingent upon seven key variables:

>  our agency
>  our bodies
>  our sense of self
>  our relationships
>  our abilities
>  the world we live in, and
>  the things we do that give our lives meaning and purpose

Our experience of freedom emerges from the interaction between these variables. Which is fine when all is well. But our experience of freedom – and thus wellbeing – is impaired when any or all of the variables aren’t in great shape. This forms the basis of the Wellbeing Calculus. And it gives us an indication of where to make changes if we want to improve our general wellbeing.

The Wellbeing Calculus
The Wellbeing Calculus (Figure 1, below) lists seven key variables – the Wellbeing Variables (WBVs). The WBVs indicate things like the health of your social connections, how balanced your brain and body are, and how well regulated your sense of self is. The higher these variables score, the greater your experience of wellbeing (your lived experience of freedom). The WBVs will also interact with each other.  For instance, the more integrated your sense of self, the better your social connections; the more capabilities at your disposal, the greater use of your agency.  Ultimately, the interactions between each of the Wellbeing Variables produce a level of lived freedom that is experienced as wellbeing.

Figure 1. The Wellbeing Calculus

WBf = (A x BBB x SA x Cn x Cp x LW x PS)


>  WB = Wellbeing
>  A = Agency
>  B = Brain Body Balance
>  SA = Self-Alignment
>  Cn = Connectivity
>  Cp = Capabilities
>  LW = The Lifeworld
>  PS = Practices of the Self

The Wellbeing Variables – a closer look
So let’s take a closer look at what these variables represent.

  1.   Agency  Sometimes called Executive Function, agency represents our ability to determine our own choices and act on our own wishes. The greater our agency, the greater our freedom. When agency is impaired, we experience less freedom in our everyday lives.
  2.   Brain Body Balance  This is at the level of embodiment and includes emotional response, reflective function, endocrine regulation, stress reactions, and biophysical homeostasis. When our brains and bodies are in balance, then life can feel effortless. But when out of balance, we can feel stressed, overwhelmed, disconnected and worse.
  3.   Self-Alignment  This refers to how we experience ourselves and our everyday lives, and how well the component elements of the self are aligned.
  4.   Connectivity  Connectivity represents how well we connect with other people. It also relates to how connected we feel to both the physical and the social worlds around us.
  5.   Capabilities  These are the skills and abilities we need in order to live well, including social skills, reasoning, practical skills, and the ability to make meaning. This also includes the opportunities we have to enact these capabilities.
  6.   The Lifeworld  The Lifeworld encompasses both our immediate situation and the broader cultural and historical context in which we live. This variable addresses the degree to which we are included and accepted in the world around us. It also considers the opportunities we have to safely live the lives we want to live.
  7.   Practices of the Self  These are, simply, the things we choose to do that bring joy, on the one hand, and a sense of meaning and purpose on the other.

A new approach to wellbeing
If this account holds together, in order to experience wellbeing:

>  We’d need to be able to exercise our agency, and thus be self-determining.

>  Our brain-body would need to be well integrated and functioning optimally (we should perhaps include being in good physical health here). This would be reflected in an ability to regulate and modulate emotional response and experience a sense of physiological balance (aka equanimity).

>  Our experience of our self and the lives we live would need to be well regulated, while the component elements of the self would need to be aligned. This would be reflected in positive self-esteem and an ability to self-validate.

>  We’d need a secure attachment style, allowing us to trust and connect with other people, enjoy satisfying relationships, and experience both autonomy and interdependency. We’d also need to feel at home in the world, in the broadest sense possible.

>  We’d need to have a broad enough set of capabilities and have the opportunity to use them.

>  We’d need to experience a sense of inclusion and acceptance out in the world, and have the opportunity to participate and live without prejudice and without fear.

>  We’d need to cultivate and enact practices of the self – the things that bring a sense of meaning and joy to our lives.  This might include activities aligned to our values and a sense of purpose, but could equally – and additionally – include activities of a more hedonistic nature.

>  Somehow, all of these variables would need to interact in order to foster a sense of freedom and wellbeing.

I want to be clear that the concept of wellbeing in this model isn’t an end state to be attained, but an emergent process that comes alive or is activated in periods of optimal experiencing.   A further important point is that this is not a zero sum model, in which all variables have to be optimal for wellbeing to be a ‘switched on’. If so, countless people living with health conditions or disabilities would be unable to attain a sense of wellbeing given the detrimental impacts of a wide range of symptoms and impairments. This is clearly ludicrous. Instead, a lower level of one variable could realistically be offset by a higher level in another.

If the wellbeing calculus says something about the conditions we need in order to experience wellbeing [4], perhaps it can do more.  Perhaps it can also highlight the source of difficulties that we currently give psychiatric labels, like ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’.

A new way of understanding distress?
Could depression be a perfectly normal response to a lack of freedom or exposure to something toxic in the environment, like bullying or prejudice? Could a lack of meaningful work, enduring poverty, or insufficient opportunities to live meaningful lives lead to frustrated anger or enduring sadness? Could anxiety result from a diminished sense of agency that leaves you feeling helpless and unable to influence events as they unfold around you? Or perhaps the problem is too much freedom, when you don’t feel capable of doing anything without help. There’s plenty of evidence that supports these conclusions [5], and no amount of positive thinking or ‘thinking yourself happy’ will make a genuinely bad situation better [6].

Putting the Wellbeing Calculus to work
If we can identify the factors that impede wellbeing in our personal lives – whether it’s a lack of trust in our own judgment that makes us hesitate and thus limits our agency, or a problematic stress response that drives our anxiety – we can take action and make changes. And we can do so in a way that’s truly focused on our individual uniqueness.

This account of wellbeing doesn’t capture the complexity of our lives. That’s no surprise, because no model can. But it does offer a framework to identify what we might cultivate to experience greater freedom in our everyday lives. There’s certainly a demand for a new approach beyond vacuous positivity and happiness. Perhaps the Wellbeing Calculus can help us change the conditions of our existence. And if we can do that, we can renew ourselves and the lives that we’re living.

My question for you is: where would you begin?



[1] This is a preliminary and provisional account, a starting point not the finished article.

[2] First things first, I want to make something crystal clear. The Wellbeing Calculus isn’t – and doesn’t pretend to be – a scientific model. It hasn’t been subjected to statistical analysis or tested in randomised control trials. It hasn’t been verified by colleagues either. It’s not that I’m anti-science (I love science!). But I’m not developing a scientific model. Instead, I’m developing a philosophical account. And this means using different tools to those used by scientists. The Wellbeing Calculus has been built on observations gathered during my ten years working as a psychotherapeutic counsellor. I’ve asked “What makes a difference when people leave therapy in a better place than when they arrived” and checked my conclusions with fellow therapists. To satisfy some criteria for rigour, we can say I’ve completed some preliminary grounded theory (a qualitative research method) and engaged in some informal peer review. And for now, that’s it.

[3] Now, I can predict all sorts of objections. How are these variables to be defined and measured? Are they universal or do they differ across time and cultures? Do they implicitly privilege some attributes over others (say extroversion over introversion)? Are there any hidden or unseen cultural biases? How do they interact? Does this set include both independent and dependent variables, and which are which? Are they all mutually inter-affecting, or only some of them, and to what degree? What happens if the level of this one increases and the level of that one decreases? Are the interactional relationships between the variables positive, negative, or either, and under what conditions? And crucially, how do these seven variables and the interactions between them affect wellbeing? I’m honest enough to say: I don’t know. But then that’s okay, because maybe you do. And in any case, this is a starting point: a sketch of a model that’s open to development, revision or rejection.

[4] Models are static and unchanging; happily, human beings are far more dynamic. This means nobody can sustain fully-functioning optimality all the time. To be less than optimal at any given time is not a failure; it’s called being human.

[5] See Claire Shaw and Gillian Proctor (2005), ‘Women at the Margins: A Critique of the Diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder’ in Feminism & Psychology (Journal); John Cromby (2004), “Depression: Embodying Social Inequality”in Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy; T Vaillancourt, et al. (2008), ‘Variation in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity among bullied and non-bullied children’ in Aggressive Behavior (Journal); T Vaillancourt , et al. (2013), ‘The biological underpinnings of peer victimization: Understanding why and how the effects of bullying can last a lifetime’ in Theory into Practice (Journal).

[6] In fact, positive thinking can potentially normalise and habituate us to intolerable conditions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *