Most of us want a sense of well-being. But this term ‘well-being’ seems hard to pin down. What exactly is it? And how does it come about?
Clearly it is to do with an absence of bodily discomfort and emotional distress. Perhaps it comes from finding pleasure in one’s activities and possessions. Is it also about feeling good about oneself, contented with one’s lot, satisfied with what has been achieved?
It is inconceivable that anyone could have a sense of well-being if they lack energy to do things, seeing life as boring, pointless and empty of meaning.
Well-being and meaning
Well-being is a central concept in positive psychology. Most noteworthy, those doing research in this area agree that central to this state of mind is being engaged in a meaningful way with life.
Having something important that we value provides us with a sense of purpose. It could be to do with seeking prestige, power, or money. Or it could be about creativity, attaining knowledge, or contributing to a social cause. Consequently, we want to associate with others who share what we find meaningful.
Bridget Grenville-Cleave of the University of East London reported on a study of hospital cleaners. Some thought their job was mundane and boring. They just did what they had to do according to the job description and minimised their interactions with patients. They didn’t enjoy their work and felt it was pretty meaningless. Others, however, saw their work differently. They took on additional tasks and had more frequent interaction with patients. They enjoyed their job and felt it contributed to patient comfort and hygiene and the smooth running of the hospital.
Well-being and higher meaning
Sensing meaning in something is how we think about it. Hence, what we understand and how we interpret it. Perhaps you see employment as just a way of earning money. Or you may think of it as a part of a career and are looking towards promotion for status, self-esteem and higher pay. On the other hand, you may be like those cleaners who found meaning in the social context of what they were supposed to do.
Some people don’t primarily go to work for money or advancement (although external rewards are not without some importance for them). Instead, they are mainly concerned to contribute to making the world a better place even if this is just in a tiny way. So, we might say work for them is more of a ‘calling’. What is done is loved. They would experience less well-being if they couldn’t do the job anymore.
Spiritual angle on meaning
From a spiritual angle, I would say that finding meaning in life seems to be about learning that there is something greater than oneself. In other words when any activity has no intrinsic goodness or rightness then sooner or later it will fail the individual.
“Examples abound in which those in pursuit of meaning through social position, prestige, material acquisitions, or power are suddenly are forced to question the value of these goals as life pursuits.” (Irving Yallom, existential psychiatrist)
The excitement, pride, and pleasure they derive from them is short-term happiness. Consequently, it doesn’t endure.
In studies of spirituality, a higher level of purpose in life is associated with positive psychological adjustment and well-being including positive emotions, life satisfaction, good self-image, and better health.
A search for meaning may lead to increased anxiety at least in the short term. However, I would suggest that inner well-being slowly increases. Research in the psychology of religion and spirituality finds that acknowledging transcendence beyond oneself through prayer places the whole of life into a wider context. A sense of religious meaning can foster acceptance of suffering alongside benign perception of the future.
Well-being and three-sided harmony
So why might we have a sense of well-being just because we pursue a meaningful goal that is important? Why should committing our time to what we value make us any happier? The answer I think is to do with a three-sided harmony that is central to the human soul.
“The principal powers of the soul are three – to live, to feel and to reason” (Dante, The Banquet, iii, 2)
How we live is what we do – our actions. How we reason about things is our sense of what they mean.
This is a harmony between what the heart feels, what the head thinks and what the hands do. In other words, love of what is good, understanding of what form it might take, and activity towards usefully bringing it about. This three-sided harmony could be our desire for, understanding of and engagement in any sort of thing – good parenting, crime reduction, environmental protection, community welfare, employment opportunity, political stability etc.
However, if there is incongruity between heart, head and hands, I would say there can be no deeper satisfaction. Psychologist Leon Festinger observed in some people an absence of well-being due to what he called cognitive dissonance. He found this when there is dissonance or disharmony between what we think, how we feel and what we do e.g. incongruity between striving of the heart, know-how in the head and achievement of the hands.
This lack of harmony occurs for example if whilst wanting one’s child to be well educated, one lacks knowledge about how this might be achieved, and so going about it the wrong way. Or when wanting one’s neighbourhood to be tidy, and knowing we have the time to help clear up litter, yet, doing nothing about it.
Conclusion about well-being
If we want a sense of inner well-being, I suggest we examine to what extent our desires are good, our thoughts are meaningful and our actions effective and whether these three are in harmony. There could be harmony between having self-centred feelings, egoistic thoughts and greedy behaviour. However, I reckon negativity such as this cannot result in any deeper form of well-being that lasts. It lacks inspiration from our spiritual Source.
“Divine love, Divine wisdom, and Divine application to useful purpose. These three emanate as one from the Lord, and they flow as one from Him into people’s souls” (Emanuel Swedenborg, spiritual philosopher)
Copyright 2018 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems