In a world where we are surrounded by - bombarded by, even! - words, it is important from time to time to reflect on what these words actually mean. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that a lack of a common understanding of language raises the likelihood of some fairly major miscommunications at some point; failing to interrogate and articulate the meaning of words can easily risk creating a situation where words develop meanings in our minds that can vary vastly from person to person. So … let us take a moment to reflect on a very important and punchy word that – quite rightly – has become ubiquitous in schools in recent years: the word ‘wellbeing’.
The World Health Organisation* defines wellbeing as “a positive state experienced by individuals and societies”, and goes on to compare it to, but also differentiate it from, the concept of health: “Similar to health, [wellbeing] is a resource for daily life and is determined by social, economic and environmental conditions. Well-being encompasses quality of life and the ability of people and societies to contribute to the world with a sense of meaning and purpose.”
Pause and think for a moment about this definition … What might strike you about it is that while it refers to individuals, describing wellbeing as ‘a positive state experienced by individuals’, a ‘resource for daily life’ and ‘quality of life’, this definition of wellbeing actually places a very much heavier focus on the concept of wellbeing as a collective experience. Wellbeing, it suggests, is ultimately a state that is owned and exhibited by groups of people rather than individuals. Wellbeing, it explains, is also a positive state experienced by societies, and in fact is determined by the conditions of those societies.
The WHO goes on to explain the positive impact that a focus on wellbeing can have, and it is again noticeable that this impact is overwhelmingly a collective one: “Focusing on well-being supports the tracking of the equitable distribution of resources, overall thriving and sustainability ... Well-being is a major underlying driver of policy coherence across sectors and encourages galvanized action. Advancing societal well-being helps create active, resilient and sustainable communities at local, national and global levels, enabling them to respond to current and emerging health threats such as COVID-19 and environmental disasters.” To hammer the point home further, the WHO emphasises this focus on the collective nature of wellbeing when it clarifies what wellbeing actually translates into for a social group: “A society’s well-being can be determined by the extent to which it is resilient, builds capacity for action, and is prepared to transcend challenges.”
This should give us pause for thought in schools. We use the word wellbeing so frequently, and it trips so readily off our tongues, without pause for explanation or clarification, operating on the assumption that everyone knows (and approves of) what we mean when we use it … is it perhaps conceivable that the term ‘wellbeing’ has mutated in our minds? Reflect for a moment … is there perhaps an imbalance in our appreciation of the collective versus the individual understanding of what wellbeing is? (How often, if we think about it, do we encounter the phrase ‘my/their wellbeing’, as compared to the WHO-inspired ‘our wellbeing’?) And how often do we make a connection between the word ‘wellbeing’ and the act of lowering the demands we make on individuals, as compared to making the connection between wellbeing and making the demands on people that lead to greater resilience and heightened activity?
Have we, perhaps, turned the word ‘wellbeing’ into a shadow of what it could be …?
There are plenty of ways, of course, in which focusing on supporting individuals can lead to greater communal resilience and a deeper, shared wellbeing … is it worth, however, perhaps interrogating this in schools, in our wellbeing strategies, to see whether we are really, really supporting what wellbeing can and should be?
Yoga classes and the like may not actually be the answer to developing wellbeing, after all … building a culture in which we work together in a trusting and empowering environment, though, just might ...
Let’s at least have the discussion.
Dr Helen Wright will be speaking at GESS Dubai on community wellbeing and how to build a culture of trust and empowerment in schools.
Written by Dr. Helen Wright, Dr Helen Wright Director Global Thought Leadership
Dr Helen Wright is a highly regarded global leader with an energetic career spanning 3 decades in UK and international education. She led schools and held national and international roles in education in the UK and Australia for over 13 years until 2014, before embarking on an independent portfolio career in leadership recruitment, executive coaching and governance advisory