Researching wellbeing

Authored by Sarah Bell

In April, I had a great opportunity to be part of the ‘Researching Wellbeing’ event, held at the Royal Geographical Society and jointly sponsored by the Geographies of Health and Wellbeing Research Group and the Development Studies Association.

We had lots of interesting discussions during the event and perhaps one of the most important issues we considered was how to measure wellbeing.

There are huge variations in how people across cultures define, prioritise and experience wellbeing. Sarah Atkinson from Durham University discussed how policies linked to wellbeing in the UK tend to prioritise individual values, and often break down wellbeing into the components that are thought to contribute to it.

These include, for example, social relationships, health issues, income status, safety and security. Measures are taken of these components at the individual level, with these individual scores then added up to gain a sense of population-level wellbeing. 

Although these so-called ‘big data’ sets are important for detecting health and wellbeing inequalities across populations, there are some important limitations to this approach.

First, it fails to recognise a community or group as more than the sum of its parts; that social life is bigger than the individuals within it and that one’s wellbeing is often intimately tied up with that of another – be it a person, a place, wildlife, or more intangible entities such as histories, shared meanings or values.

Secondly, it places responsibility for wellbeing upon individuals, thereby shifting the focus away from the social, cultural, physical, economic, political and historical contexts in which people live and may be constrained by.

This shift is reflected in the growth of interventions targeting ‘behaviour change’, encouraging individuals to proactively ‘work’ on their own wellbeing. Such narrowly prescribed interventions can be quite intrusive, often failing to work with individuals and communities to identify wellbeing practices that work with their everyday routines, priorities and circumstances.

Thirdly, it assumes a somewhat universal understanding of wellbeing, thereby failing to engage with deeper philosophical debates about what ‘a good life’ looks like, and how this varies across different cultures, generations and places.

It is for these reasons that the Sensing Nature project is adopting a more open exploratory research approach that encourages participants to define what matters in terms of their own wellbeing, how this is shaped by their everyday lives, and how or why diverse forms of nature might have come to contribute to this.