Where Does Well-Being Originate From?

Any attempt to determine the origin of well-being is bound to take the discerning seeker on a multilayered journey, one which must examine both the intricacy of the human mind as well as the labyrinth of social interaction. Well-being can be dissected into five constituent elements, including positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement; (PERMA; Seligman, 2011). Within these realms, there are perhaps as many experiences of well-being as there are individuals. I argue that there is no fully exhaustive answer as to whether well-being is more pronounced in solitude, in dyads, or in groups; but it emanates from knowing one’s inner self, and building on this foundation.

Throughout our human history, there have been various factors that necessitated social interaction purely for survival reasons. Early humans persevered against predators by discovering safety in numbers, and adopted tribalism to protect their resources against neighboring threats; both of these factors undoubtedly contributed to our ascendancy over other species (Wilson & Wilson, 2007). Being alone was simply not an option for the Paleo-mammalian human. Thousands of years, later this social creature finds itself in an entirely new type of environment, populated mainly by other humans who do not pose an eminent survival threat. Along the way, she has gained a newfound independence, and vast surplus of options for the type of social interaction in which to engage, or not as the case may be. In today´s world, one does not necessarily have to interact with other people for the sake of finding safety, and reproduction is not a necessity but a choice. We are largely in charge of the parameters of our communication, and enjoy the possibility of selecting the potential relationships (and actions) that we feel would add value and meaning to our lives.

Fowler and Christakis´ (2008) study found that positive emotions can be transferred through social networks, and that happy people tend to be more connected to other people (see also Cohen & Wills 1985). Additionally, numerous other studies have shown that close relationships contribute to better health and well-being, and serve as protective buffers in times of stress (Cohen & Wills 1985). William James (1914) wrote about ideas as the stimuli for unlocking untapped reservoirs of individual power. I would add that this function reaches its zenith when thoughts are shared in an inspiring environment, and become multiplied through the dynamics of group interaction. According to these sources, human potential for emotion, health and ideas is therefore maximized in a group context. Baumeister & Leary (1995) reason, that the wholeness of being human cannot be fully grasped without scrutinizing our social characteristics. Systems intelligence theorists go even further as to proclaim that “Whatever is being studied should be considered in terms of relationships, and with respect to something other than itself.” (Hämäläinen & Saarinen, 2011, p. 19).

Seminal work done by Wilson and Wilson (2007) also emphasizes that in order for a group to function well, its members must do things for each other. However, the same study concludes that this action does not maximize the individual´s relative fitness (and thus well-being) within the group. Based on this premise, an individual´s well-being might not always be best served by a close connection to all others, and poor quality relationships can substantially undermine our well-being. The oft-quoted “No man is an island” narrative of our culture, reinforced by social media´s agenda to connect everyone together, is a disposition that creates a certain pressure to incessantly be social. Quantity rarely equates with quality, and the pressure of constantly trying to fulfill role expectations can become stressful. Instead of reinforcing expectations of how one ‘should’ behave, I believe we should instead nurture a culture of embracing individual differences and allow for multiple ways of flourishing.

Being alone does not necessarily mean being lonely, as much as being in a crowd does not guarantee emotional satisfaction and social connection. I suggest that in addition to striving to define the domains of well-being (as per the PERMA model), we should also place an emphasis on the quality of any selected action and relationship (either interpersonal or intrapersonal). Attaining increased control of our mental faculties, and being more selective of the actions and relationships we engage in could be the keys to transform our daily activities into perpetual states of flow.

I would argue that the myriad domains of well-being are highly interrelated, but place a strong emphasis on intrapersonal regulation. Over the past few years, meditation and other activities that enhance self-awareness have become more prevalent in the media, and have also attracted a fair deal of academic research interest. I have found that sitting for ten days in the complete silence of a meditation camp can be as fulfilling as intellectually challenging conversations with my fiancé. Group support, sharing and intimate relationships are an unquestionable pillar of the good life, but they draw their useful energy from a deep understanding of the inner self. Given the multi-faceted nature of well-being and the diversity of human experience, perhaps we should not limit ourselves to narrow determinations of a singular source; rather, we should raise awareness of the power we all have to create our own inner sanctuaries.

One´s intrapersonal well-being is crucial to functioning relationships, and relationships, in turn, have been shown to build well-being. Other people do matter, but the full potential of this beautiful reciprocal dance can only be achieved if the individuals have learned to be comfortable in their dance shoes. Or perhaps as the late Carl Sagan once said: “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” In our search for well-being, the most important factor might be to know one’s inner self, and to build well-being based on this foundation.

Solitude shows us what should be; society shows us what we are. -Robert Cecil-

Solitude shows us what should be; society shows us what we are.
-Robert Cecil-


Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments is as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117 497-529. doi: 2110/10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497

Cohen, S., & Wills, T, A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychology Bulletin, 98:310-57. doi: 2110/10.1037/0033-2909.98.2.310

Fowler, J. H., & Christakis, N. A. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large  social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart  Study.   British Medical Journal, 337,a2338. doi:10.1136/bmj.a2338

Gable, S. G. & Gosnell, C. L. (2011) The positive side of close relationships. In K. M. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan and M. F. Steger (Eds.) Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward (pp. 265 -279). New York: Oxford University Press.

Hämäläinen, R. P., Saarinen E. (2010). The originality of systems intelligence in Raimo P. Hämäläinen, R. P., Saarinen, E. (Eds.) Essays on systems intelligence (pp. 9-26). Systems Analysis Laboratory, Aalto University. Retrieved on October 15th, 2012 from http://systemsintelligence.tkk.fi/SI2010.html

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being.New York: Free Press.

Wilson, D.S. & Wilson, E.O. (2007). Rethinking the theoretical foundation of sociobiology. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 82, 327-348. doi: 10.3410/f.1097706.553817

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