Health, happiness and wellbeing


By Dr. Seema Das

Health is a fundamental human right. The attainment of the highest possible level of health is the most important worldwide social goal. The World Health Organization (WHO) changed its definition of ‘Health’ from: “A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and an absence of disease or infirmity” in 1946 to “A dynamic state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and an absence of disease or infirmity”.

The term ‘Wellbeing’ was first introduced by the WHO in 1948 and defined as: “A state of mind in which an individual is:

  • able to realize his or her own abilities,
  • cope with the normal stresses of life,
  • can work productively and fruitfully, and
  • is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

In the past, happiness denoted a concept comparable to the term ‘objective wellbeing’ used today. In ancient literature, happiness signified a life worth living and the truly happy person pursued virtue over the course of a lifespan. Thus, happiness was a holistic concept being called as sublime beatitudo (the Godly life) in the medieval times, eudaimonia (a virtuous and flourishing life) by the Greeks and summum bonum (the highest good) by the Romans.

Traditional perceptions of happiness began to change on two fronts during the Age of Enlightenment in the 1st century. First, the emphasis on virtue was diminished in favor of a focus on pleasure and the absence of pain, and more importantly, the pursuit of this new form of happiness was elevated as the principal purpose of human life. As a consequence of these ideas, happiness came to be defined more narrowly – not as wellbeing in a broad and inclusive sense but rather as a good feeling.

Happiness is being increasingly used these days to describe momentary pleasant emotions, while wellbeing is used to refer to the long-term cognitive evaluation of life as a whole, a sort of deeper and consistent state of happiness. Sociologist Ruut Veenhoven, considered by some to be the father of happiness studies, argues that wellbeing should be used to denote a quality of life overall. This relatively new concept of happiness has given rise to a growing body of popular and academic literature seeking to discover how happiness, life satisfaction, and well-being can be achieved.

Happiness research is becoming increasingly important in most of the social sciences.

Attempts are being made by governments to use this research in policy-making, with the aim of increasing overall societal wellbeing. From Bhutan to the UK, governments are getting serious about measuring “happiness”, “subjective wellbeing” and “flourishing societies”. The term Gross National Happiness was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s King, Jigme Singye Wangchuk and is a measurement of the collective happiness in a nation. Bhutan has adopted GNP instead of GDP as their main development indicator.

The British Government commissioned the New Economics Foundation (NEF) in 1986 to research the drivers of well-being. In 2010, then Prime Minister David Cameron launched the National Wellbeing Programme to “start measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life”.

Twice a year this foundation reports progress against a set of headline indicators covering different areas of lives including health, natural environment, personal finances, and crime. The measures include both objective and subjective data to provide a more complete view of the nation’s progress than economic measures such as GDP can do alone. The first annual ‘Life in the UK’ report was published in November 2012 alongside an interactive wellbeing wheel of measures. The latest update in 2017 provides a broadly positive picture of life in the UK, with the majority of the 43 national well-being indicators either improving or staying the same over a 1 year period.

Amartya Sen, the Noble laureate, expresses his views on wellbeing in his book “Commodities and capabilities” thus: ‘Well-being’ is concerned with a person’s achievement: how ‘well’ is his or her ‘being’? It is possible to argue that the well-being of a person is best seen as an index of the person’s functionings”

Wellbeing is made up of two key elements: feeling good and functioning well. There is a whole range of ways that can improve wellbeing. NEF has set out five things to improve wellbeing in a document released on 22 Oct 2008:

  • Connect with the people around you
  • Do something active
  • Take notice of the world
  • Learn something new
  • Give to others

Individuals with high levels of well-being have been observed to be more productive at work. In general, men and women have similar levels of well-being, but this pattern changes with age and has changed over time. There is a U-shaped distribution of well-being by age –  younger and older adults tend to have more well-being compared to middle-aged adults.

The World Happiness Report is a landmark survey of the state of global happiness. The first such report was published in 2012, and the fifth one, which ranks 155 countries by their happiness levels, was released at the United Nations on the UN World Happiness Day, 20th March 2017. With the help of leading experts across fields – economics, psychology, survey analysis, national statistics, health, public policy and more – the report describes how measurements of well-being can be used effectively to assess the progress of nations. This reflects a new worldwide demand for more attention to happiness as criteria for government policy.

The rankings are based on answers to the main life evaluation questions asked in a poll. This is called the Cantril ladder: with the best possible life being a 10, and the worst possible life a 0. People are asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale. These answers are weighted based on six other factors: levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption. All countries are then compared against Dystopia, a benchmark (an imaginary country that has the world’s least happy people) in terms of each of the six key variables.

The 2017 report shows that Norway has jumped from 4th place in 2016 to the 1st this year, followed by Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland in a tightly packed bunch. The UK has climbed to the 19th position – four places higher than last year, despite claims of the economic uncertainty created by Brexit.

Thus, wellbeing, which includes the presence of positive emotions and moods (e.g., contentment, happiness), the absence of negative emotions (e.g., depression, anxiety), satisfaction with life, fulfillment and positive functioning is the new mantra and it seems healthier to view a glass as being half full rather than as half empty.

World Happiness Report 2017 score shown on a map of the world. Darker shades of green color show a higher score, with darker shades of red color showing a lower one.

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