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"Wellbeing is a state of
being with others, where human needs are met, where one can
act meaningfully to
pursue one's goals, and where one enjoys a satisfactory quality
This is the definition of wellbeing that the ESRC Research Group
on Wellbeing in Developing Countries (WeD) has arrived at through
its work over the last five years. Research into wellbeing involves
exploring the extent to which people can achieve this state of
being, and the social conditions that either enable or block
this possibility. In particular we have been concerned to use
this notion of wellbeing to help us understand the persistence
of poverty in developing countries.
This is a hybrid definition that differs
from many of the ways the term wellbeing is currently used
in academic and policy discourse.
It combines both objective and subjective conceptions and transcends
them by recognizing the way each is socially constructed. This
definition means that any attempt to assess wellbeing or to understand
the processes that affect it must take account of three dimensions:
the material, the relational and the affective/cognitive. In
emphasising the basic challenge of defining what is meant by
doing ‘well’, the definition highlights the permeability
of boundaries between normative and positive approaches in the
In defining wellbeing, a large degree of modesty is required.
All elements of the definition have been debated at least since
the Buddha 24 centuries ago and Aristotle 23 centuries ago. But
there is clear evidence in Aristotle, for example, that all three
dimensions are present when he discusses eudaimonia in the Nicomachean
We discuss needs, goals, and subjective experiences in turn:
Needs: Following recent writings from different disciplines
we can identify universal human needs, the denial of which generates
harm in all circumstances. These needs include health, autonomy,
security, competence and relatedness, the satisfaction of which
at a basic level enhances objective wellbeing everywhere. These
needs go beyond the usual material components to include psychological
and relational needs. Many in turn require a set of intermediate
need satisfiers, such as food, health care, secure livelihoods
etc, which have material foundations or are located in, or pursued
through social relationships. Significantly the WeD definition
recognises the need for meaning since it is this that makes social
Socially Meaningful Goals: People’s
goals inform the actions they pursue to achieve them. But the
goals and the actions will
in large part be shaped by the material, social and cultural
contexts in which people are embedded, from their family through
community, nation state to the increasingly interconnected global
society. Thus we cannot study the wellbeing of persons divorced
from their social contexts.
In taking account of social structures and social order we recognise
that people are differentially enabled or constrained. Social
human beings differ from each other - they are old-young, male-female,
hold one system of beliefs or another and have different histories.
These differences matter in terms of what people perceive themselves
as needing and wanting, what they can aspire to and how they
are able to act within society.
This recognises that wellbeing has not only
an objective and a subjective dimension but a social or relational
Though actions usually take place within local frames of meaning,
this does not mean that people cannot act outside these frames.
The different forms of relationship within which people are embedded
offer opportunities for choice (however constrained) between
different goals and of different identities. Thus the pursuit
of meaningful action – action consistent with one’s
values and goals - is ever-present.
Satisfaction with Life: Turning to the third
dimension, happiness or good feeling (positive affect) is in
general a good thing,
and hedonic psychology tells us much about its causes and its
effects. It also shows that happiness is more than the absence
of misery. However, we know that hedonic happiness is affected
by aspirations and adaptive preferences, so is not always a reliable
guide to the broader idea of subjective wellbeing. In addition
WeD recognise a cognitive aspect of subjective wellbeing, interpreted
as satisfaction with the achievement of personally important
goals in one’s life.
Some Implications of this Notion of Wellbeing
Wellbeing is both a state and a process, and it is multi-dimensional.
It cannot be simply equated with wealth, happiness or goal satisfaction.
Similarly, ill-being cannot be simplistically equated with material
poverty, misery or frustrated goal achievement. Two consequences
follow from this.
First, the WeD approach allows for a tension between a universalising
and a concretising/ local perspective in evaluating wellbeing.
On the one hand, wellbeing is functioning meaningfully and feeling
well within a specific context. On the other hand it is having
resources, capabilities and opportunities to achieve goals which
go beyond those that present themselves in local contexts. If
this seems messy, it is the price that has to be paid for a dynamic
and open view of wellbeing.
Second, it follows that there are trade-offs between these
different components in the real world, especially for poor
people in impoverished contexts. Poor people may have to sacrifice
education or food to obtain health care, sacrifice longer-term
autonomy to alleviate short-term insecurity, sacrifice peace
of mind to survive and thrive in unpredictable modernity, sacrifice
short-term happiness to secure longer-term satisfaction. We
cannot in the present state of knowledge (and perhaps ever)
know enough to sum and compare different people’s wellbeing
taking account of these trade-offs, and their different valence
in different contexts.
Both these consequences bring politics and power back into the
idea and the real pursuit of wellbeing.
The adoption of this hybrid notion of wellbeing has implications
for research methodology: it means developing and using a suite
of different measures of wellbeing, and rejecting all single
measures. This underpins the disaggregated six-component methodology
adopted in the WeD research programme (McGregor 2007). The
six methods can be grouped into three pairs dealing with outcomes,
structures and processes.
1. Outcomes have been studied objectively and subjectively.
a) The Resources and Needs Questionnaire (RANQ) was designed
to map the distribution of resources and needs satisfactions
between households within the 26 research communities. Both needs
and resources were interpreted widely: for example, resources
included social and cultural resources.
b) To assess subjective outcomes, WeD studied quality of life
(QoL), defined as the satisfaction of people with the achievement
of the goals which they regard as important. This entailed researching
local values and personal goals; people’s perceived resources
(of all kinds) to pursue these goals; and finally people’s
satisfaction with the achievement of these personal goals in
an instrument called the WeDQoL.
2. Social human beings exist in collectivities at different
levels, from households and communities, through regions and
nation states to the global community. To understand the way
these frame ideas of and the pursuit of wellbeing, the WeD programme
concentrated on the community and the nation state, and the collectivities
these labels obscure.
a) Community profiles compiled information on the research communities
using secondary data, key informant interviews and participatory
b) Structures research used the welfare regimes framework (ref)
to identify key features of the national economic, political
and cultural systems of the four research countries: Bangladesh,
Ethiopia, Peru and Thailand.
3. Finally, the research framework emphasises that wellbeing
outcomes cannot be understood without reference to time and the
processes that generate them. Two forms of process research were
a) Income and expenditure studies showed how stocks of resources
translated into incomes and expenditures over a period of one
year, using seasonal sample household surveys or monthly household
b) More general process research studied, using qualitative techniques,
the key forms of action that individuals and households engage
in as they seek to achieve their desired state of wellbeing.
Reflecting the multi-dimensional definition of wellbeing with
we began, these six research tools are intended to be used together
as a suite. Because all of the instruments derive from the same
conceptual framework, they can be analysed in relation to each
other, and are now all linked via an integrated database.